“What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage.”
Today, LA Opera’s two-story costume shop in Downtown LA is filled with racks of costumes for the upcoming season. There are rows of colorful pieces for Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci right next to Grecian-inspired items for Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and 19th-century sailors’ clothing for Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. It’s a striking clash of styles and time periods. I’m at first overwhelmed by the sheer volume of costumes for these productions and how they do not even begin to encompass the company’s extensive inventory. Yet, as a first time visitor, it’s also thrilling to be surrounded by creations that are a crucial part of creating the operatic characters seen on stage.
Associate Costume Director Missy West finds me amongst the costumes. She tours me around the second floor production and fitting room space, where her staff is hard at work resizing and refurbishing costumes for Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci. While most people see the designer as the forefront of any costume creations, a large staff oversees and executes the details of a designer’s vision. Missy explains this to me as we walk through the space. There are costume directors, wardrobe managers, cutters, craftsmen, drapers, tailors, seamsters, and sometimes multiple assistants working on a single production (or more). The costume process begins months in advance of a revival or rented production being staged and years in advance of a production conceived and built from scratch.
Like fashion designers who play with a canvas of a model muse and an overall thematic vision, costume designers and their staff work to reflect a singer’s individual essence within the framework of a specific production’s aesthetic.
How is Ana María Martínez’s unique spin on the role of Nedda reflected in her costumes? I speak with Costume Production Supervisor Jeannique Prospere, who oversees Pagliacci and works directly with Costume Designer Raimonda Gaetani. She tells me that Nedda’s day dress is being reworked to reflect singer Martínez’s personality and take on the role.
After chatting with Jeannique, it occurs to me that working on the delicate balance between physicality and personal charisma might be the costume department’s greatest and most underappreciated talent. It’s truly inspiring to witness how they can so define a character and singer.
After being lost in the costume shop for hours, I say my goodbyes to Missy West and spend a few more moments wandering through the racks of costumes not currently in use. There are miles and miles of shoes and boots, vintage hats, and yet to be used rolls of fabric. I feel as if I have entered an antique clothing store, in the hopes of leaving the store as someone entirely new. Costumes have a particularly transformative magic unlike any other aspect of production, and it is spectacular to witness both behind-the-scenes and onstage.