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Costumes Make the Mezzo
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Everyone in the theater business knows that costumes have a major effect on how a show looks; but in the opera world, costumes can also change the way the singing actor performs. No one is more aware of this than the singer. How, then, does one approach the tricky business of costuming singers, and how can singers help make the costuming process as stress-free as possible? On February 26, Daniel James Cole, designer; Marsha LeBoeuf, costume director at Washington National Opera; Jay Lesenger, general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera; and Jodi L. Zanetti, wardrobe supervisor at Glimmerglass Opera discussed this topic as part of OPERA America's ongoing Making Connections series in New York.

Lesenger, the panel's moderator, began the discussion by asking how singers' needs are different from those of an actor or other performer.

"A singer's body is different from an actor's body," LeBoeuf remarked. "Obviously, they have a singing apparatus, but it goes beyond that. In building costumes, I will make concessions for singers about being able to breathe, and will also take into account things like big trains when there are 75 choristers on stage."

Cole agreed: "Dancer and singer costumes both need to consider fit and movement, but in very different ways. Some singers love a loose fit, some women love corsets. It's important to have conversations with your singers early on in the process." Conversely, it is imperative for singers to voice these preferences early on.

Other factors, such as the size of a production, can weigh heavily in how costumes are designed and built. "Operas are generally on a much larger scale than theater or dance, so the costumes are adjusted accordingly," Cole said. "More frequently than not, the audience is looking at the stage from fairly far away. Also, in opera you've got an enormous amount of suspension of disbelief, more than in straight drama."

Lesenger agreed: "In singing, people are not cast by how they look as much as in straight theater. First, you find someone that sings well, and it can be the designers' job to make the singer look the part."

"Exactly," remarked Cole. "Very rarely will you actually have a 19-year-old tuberculosis victim singing Mimì. More often you'll have a 45-year-old Caucasian woman playing a teenage Geisha."

Furthermore, the process of actually dressing a singer has different requirements than dressing an actor or dancer. "Opera singers tend to need more time when dressing and changing," said Zanetti. "They need a lot more attention than a dancer. A dancer might only prefer a dresser for a 30-second quick change, but a singer pretty much always needs one."

In costuming for opera, it's also important to keep the type of production in mind. The costuming processes can be vastly different between a new production and a revival or rental of an existing one.

"Basically," said LeBoeuf, "the differences between these different kinds of productions are money and time. Plain and simple. The reality is that most opera companies cannot afford to do new productions all the time. Because of this, it's best to create costumes with a great deal of alterability. If you are preparing a show as a co-production, Company A probably has very different-bodied singers than Company B."

The same issue even pops up in big-budget Broadway productions. "Mary Poppins, where I work," said Zanetti, "tries to cast bodies that are similar, but a lot of times the bodies just end up being different. We've had so many replacements that the costuming can get quite interesting at times. Finding acceptable replacements for fabrics that don't exist any more can be difficult when building new costumes for old productions. It can get quite dicey!"

Another obstacle to overcome at smaller opera companies can be mixing and matching stock costumes. "Your principal costumes may be new," said Cole, "but the chorus costumes are rented from hither, thither and yon. The trick is getting them to look like one new production. I think it's a fun challenge, but it's tricky!"

"You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you put a costume on someone," added LeBoeuf. "It's a necessary skill when you're working with a small budget to be able to pull things from various stocks and designers."

Keeping all of these issues in mind, it's important for the singer to be as proactive about costuming concerns as the costumers themselves. Make sure that the company or companies for which you work have your most up-to-date measurements on file. OPERA America has a standardized measurement form to help with this task.

Additionally, if you have a fit, mobility or comfort issue with a costume, let the costumer know in a straightforward, undemanding manner. Opera is a collaborative art form, so it's in everyone's best interest to communicate effectively. "No matter what," Cole added, "be willing to explore a lot and be prepared with some well-researched ideas." Arguably, the same ethic can be applied to singers, costumers and everyone involved in the opera field!

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