Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Costuming Carmen

A toreador costume from Carmen. Trevor Giove photo
Seattle Opera sat down with Costume Director Susan Davis to learn more about the costumes for Carmen, which were envisioned by Gary McCann, Production Designer. Every Seattle Opera production takes approximately six weeks to costume from start to finish. This includes making garments from scratch, modifying or refurbishing existing costumes, and making any modifications that come up before opening night. This is the 10th time Seattle Opera has presented Carmen, and each time it looks a little different, Davis says. Bizet set his opera in the 1840s, and the fashions of this time period have an almost comical flair to modern sensibilities, Davis says. "But when you see an opera in a time period you recognize, it can offer audiences a closer connection to the story."

What’s your favorite thing about the costumes for this show?
It’s interesting to be doing this Carmen—it’s definitely new and different from what you saw on our stage last time, in 2011. Stage Director Paul Curran and his collaborator Gary McCann have set the work in the late 1950s. So onstage, you’ll see real clothes; vintage pieces (things you may recognize from your own closet if you were alive in the 1950s), and costumes used in Opera Philadelphia's production. As director of this work, Paul is thinking a lot about the haves, and the have-nots—from the factory workers struggling to make ends meet, to the upper-class in this story without a care in the world.

What’s the benefit of costuming an opera set in a real time period versus a more abstract opera?
With costuming a show that takes place in the 20th century, we can look at photographs from the time period to see styles or the types of overcoats that were worn, for example.

Talk to me about your process for getting these Carmen costumes ready for the stage.
Our Carmen is a co-production with Opera Philadelphia. So with a co-production, we start with an existing set of costumes, then we look to add to it as needed, both from our own stock, and then purchase additional garments and accessories that work with the flavor of the show if needed.

For the major roles like Carmen, many companies have one cast. We have two. Sometimes singers who alternate in a role will share an item such as a piece of jewelry or a less-fitted garment like a cloak. But often, we have to provide two separate wardrobes for each cast. In our upcoming show, Zanda Švēde will wear the Carmen costumes that came from Opera Philadelphia. And then for our other Carmen, Ginger Costa-Jackson, we will be making costumes from scratch.

"Probably the most complicated costume in this production is Carmen's Act IV, Flamenco-inspired dress" Davis says. Design by Gary McCann. Photos by Erica Norris and Steven Pisano. 
Talk to me about the significance of color in Carmen.
If you’ve seen Carmen before, you may have noticed that Micaëla wears a blue dress. I believe this is in fact, mentioned in the libretto. Blue is a color associated with innocence, as well as the Madonna. Micaëla is a person you might see when you go to church, whereas Carmen is someone you might meet at the tavern.

Carmen performs the entire opera in red. We remember when we’ve seen this color on the opera stage. Sometimes, it’s because that character traditionally is dressed in red (Carmen or Tosca) and it's what we expect. Other times the costume designer chooses red because it's a bold, effective color. Red, in all its forms, packs a powerful punch. If you look across the room and squint, the brightest colors show up the most, and often those are red. Red evokes energy, vitality, and passion. We associate it with love, with passion/power, and also with violence. We attach strong emotions to the color red, so when the designer needs to focus our eye and attention on a particular character, red is often the right choice to put us right where we need to be in the story.

Talk to me about how the costumes in this piece tell a story.
The journey of our two leads, Carmen and Don José is completely reflected in what they’re wearing. Carmen starts out in a simple dress, a work smock. When you see her in ACT II, she’s dressed up in her best cocktail dress. And then, when we see her in Act 4 with Escamillo, the bullfighter, she’s wearing a beautiful flamenco-style dress, clearly suited to being with a man of his status and profession.

Don José takes an opposite journey of sorts. He begins in a military uniform. And as time progresses, we see him in street clothes because he’s a deserter. By the end, and it looks like he’s really been living in his clothes and hasn’t taken care of himself. In the costume shop, we do lots of physical distressing to make the clothes have this rough look.

Snapshots from Don Jose's journey in Carmen. Design by Gary McCann. Photos by Steven Pisano and Trevor Giove.

What’s the best part of your job? 
I am fortunate to work with all sorts of wonderful people, from the artistic team, to the skilled technicians in the workroom, to my costume support staff, and our wonderful performers. The focus of the work is constantly changing, so there is no time to become bored with any repetition—one week we are sourcing accessories, another week we are looking at mock-ups (samples) for new build costumes; another week we are fitting the singers, and so on.

How has Seattle Opera's new home, the Opera Center (completed in December 2018), changed things for the Costume Shop? 

One of the main changes is being next to McCaw Hall, our performance hall. This saves so much time during dress rehearsal days—we can easily move costumes between the dressing rooms and the costume shop workroom to take care of notes in preparation for the next rehearsal. We no longer have to truck costumes across the city, saving valuable work time during a very busy several days leading up to opening night. Also, rather than being in a converted warehouse, we are in a building designed for exactly the work we are doing, whether it’s the dye room, rehearsal rooms, or the hair/makeup studio.

Susan Davis photo by Alan Alabastro 

Carmen plays May 4-19, 2019 at McCaw Hall.
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