As you enter the Dallas Opera's costume shop, there is a magnificent dress from a production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro on a dress form. One glance tells you that it had to be designed for the Countess and the up-close detail is just amazing. A real countess in the era could have worn it to a court function and received gasps of admiration.
The fabric is another wonder, a lovely silk. Apparently, legendary costume designer Peter J. Hall and property designer and design consultant Tommy Bourgeois had been out shopping for just the right fabric for this dress and, sadly, had returned empty handed. As they walked into the facility, Hall took a fresh look at the lovely silk curtains on the window and reportedly said, "hmmm." He immediately took them down and a dress was born.
This story, right out of Gone with the Wind as well as Carol Burnett's hysterical send up, was typical of Hall's approach. Design was only the starting point for him. The fabric and the color had to be exactly right and he needed that heavy silk much more than the window. "Actually, we get a lot of donated draperies and they make great costumes," says costume shop manager Janet Powell.
(Anyone looking to update window treatments needs to remember this.)
I was there to find out about the process by which the glorious costumes that bedeck the stage in the Dallas Opera's current production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, were designed and built. They were, of course, designed by Peter John Hall, costume designer extraordinaire, who died on May 27, 2010.
The Guardian's obituary read: "Hall, who was witty, courtly and quietly malicious, made his home in Dallas, where he first worked with Zeffirelli in 1960. He quickly established himself as resident costume designer at Dallas Opera, where he designed more than 70 productions."
He also designed for all of the major opera houses in the world, from the Met to Covent Garden, as well as for theater and ballet. According to the Guardian, he even worked for David Bowie ("serious, intellectual, wonderful to work with") and Mick Jagger ("exactly the opposite").
The reviews of Lucia, including mine, have deservedly praised the costumes (and the great singers that wear them). The stage picture created by Hall looks like a Rembrandt painting.
"Rembrandt actually makes an appearance in Lucia," says Bourgeois. "In the tower scene, which is a confrontation between warring families, there is a Ravenwood family portrait that is elaborately framed sitting on the floor. As he exits, Enrico [played menacingly by baritone Luca Grassi] slams it to the floor right in front of Edgardo [played by Bryan Hymel]. Well, if you look closely, that is a portrait of Rembrandt."
Hall always started out with research, and not just in paintings by the old masters. There is an extensive library of books on historical fashions and dress. If you look at the engravings that Hall started with and then follow them to his actual drawings, it is amazing how close he comes. From the drawings, which are works of art in themselves, the costume shop is able to create the final products. Of course, Hall finds the fabrics.
"We go to every fabric shop in town," says Bourgeois. "Many times, we will find the right fabric at a shop, but there won't be enough of it so we have to scour all of their other locations for some more. We use a lot of upholstery fabrics as well."
The Lucia costumes have traveled a lot since they were last used in Dallas in 2001. They were in Chicago in 2003 and Fort Worth Opera used them in 2008.
"It takes us about two weeks to get them ready to ship out," says Powell. "We do a complete inventory and go over them individually. When they come back, we check them back in, right down to the last belt and ribbon. Of course, they have all been altered to fit the cast of where ever they go. When we pulled them for this production, we had to do the same thing - completely resize them for the current cast. The seams of an opera costume are let out or taken in all the time. We live with darts, gussets and extensions in this shop."
"Sometimes, when the costumes come back, we look at them and say 'Good Lord'," adds Bourgeois. "We sometimes try to guess who wore this or that costume by the alterations."
Lucia's nightgown for her famous mad scene, as well as the blood on her hands, can sometimes create problems. "The nightgown's blood is really paint, so that is dried, but the stage blood on her hands is still wet. Occasionally, she will touch one of the other cast members and we have to get those spots off," says Powell.
The costume shop's job hardly ends once the show opens. The costumes need constant attention while the show is running. In fact, while I was there, Lucia's first-act gown was under repair by one of the staff members, Nancy Steward.
All of these efforts, months of careful planning and skillful work by the costume staff, are on display at the Winspear Opera House in this stunning production of Lucia di Lammermoor. When the curtain opens on the big party scene, the full impact of Hall's costumes are a wonder to behold.
It is indeed like a living Rembrandt painting, and it required as much artistry to create.
◊ Use the promo code THEATERJONES and receive 20 percent off any ticket to Lucia di Lammermoor for the remaining performances. Purchase online here.