September 2, 2012

Opera costumes: why I hate them with cold, passionate hatred

Pat Seyller at work. (Gosh, that outfit looks COMFY!)
One of the goals for any field of human endeavor is to achieve the illusion of effortlessness. Take golf: it looks so easy, right? Those PGA guys stroll along Augusta or St. Andrews' like a Sunday afternoon walk along the Champs-Elysées, and their perfect, fluid swings look like child's play. Then one attempts playing nine holes oneself and one realizes that one is clumsy, ungainly, inflexible, and incapable of making it past four holes without gasping for air, turning red in the face and losing an entire sleeve of balls in the woods. Yikes.

I'm here to tell you that it's no different with opera. Unless you've done it yourself, you have NO IDEA what opera singers go through during the course of a three-hour performance. In a sense, all performing musicians are basically athletes in training. We use our bodies not to hit baseballs or pole-vault, but to play instruments or sing or pretend to be some character in a drama. Think that's not athletic? I assure you that any artist giving a performance as Salome, Hans Sachs, Wotan or Figaro has achieved a feat of strength and endurance roughly the equivalent of a shortstop or catcher playing a nine-inning major league baseball game.

How do I know this? Granted, I'm not an opera singer by profession; however, I've managed to stumble my way into being cast in a number of operatic productions - (yes, generally because there was absolutely no one else in the Western hemisphere even remotely qualified or available to take the role in question) - and you can trust me: it's a physically demanding experience. Those stage lights are H.O.T. to a degree the average audience member cannot appreciate. We're talkin' glaring, sweaty, blinded-by-perspiration-in-the-eyes, quick-I-need-an-ice-bath hot, y'all.

And then there are the costumes, those components of any full theatrical production which have, on many occasions, caused me (your humble blogger) to employ my rich, eloquent and varied vocabulary of curse words and vulgarisms. Oh, opera costumes, how I hate thee.

Does this surprise you? Do you, my non-performing readers, have trouble imagining what could possibly be unpleasant about dressing up in colorful, often beautiful costumes? YOU try it sometime.

Now understand; I am in no way impugning the artisans who design and build these costumes, least of all the brilliant and gracious Pat Seyller, who has managed the costume shop at Virginia Opera for years, including the whole of my employment there. Pat's really good at her job, and is a truly great person to boot, one of my faves on the staff. Actually, since my opera-singing activities have only rarely involved Pat and her staff, the issues I have with costumes all concern memories of productions from other venues. 

(Blog digression: did you note my use of the term "build" in the paragraph above? Some factual trivia for you; that's how costume designers refer to the production of Violetta's gown and Hoffmann's pantaloons. One does not "sew costumes", "make costumes" or, uh, "do the costumes", peeps: one "builds" the costumes. It's a term which by implication notes the difference between the costumes worn on a stage and, say, your daughter's prom dress. End of digression; we now return you to your regular blog.)

If you ever liked to play "dress-up" as a little girl or boy, the idea of being in shows in which you wear costumes might seem really appealing and, unless the duds are a full suit of armor or something of the kind, look comfortable. Here's the deal: if it looks that way to you, then that is just an element of that all-important "illusion of effortlessness".  Here are some of the reasons I hate, with a hatred of ice-cold passion, 85% of the opera costumes I have worn:

If the budget for costumes is small, or if the production must "make do" with a small wardrobe of available costumes, the outfits often don't fit as ideally as one would want. I've had to wear shirts or cloaks that were so tight around the neck that I could barely swallow, much less sing an aria! I've dealt with jackets which buttoned easily, but were so narrow in the shoulders that I felt like Houdini in a straight-jacket, able to lift my arms maybe twenty degrees. I've worn coats which were stylistically perfect for the historical period of the opera, but were made of such heavy material that wearing them under stage lights for a full-length show reduced me to a liquid puddle of rendered bacon fat. (I like bacon...)

When any of this happens, it's not really the fault of the costume designer involved; these folks are knowledgeable, artisanal craftsmen with a scholar's grasp of five centuries of fashions. They also weild a mean needle and are geniuses at working miracles with limited resources, as well as making  rapid off-stage repairs for costumes damaged during a performance. No, my issue is with the unalterable nature of costumes themselves: they are unforgiving objects, cruel and merciless on the hapless bodies which inhabit them.  A few more issues that really fry my liver:

  • Costumes that, for whatever reason, don't perform as designed. Hats or crowns that refuse to stay on and WILL slowly creep backwards on one's head, inch by tortured inch, while one is delivering a dignified musical number;
  • Button-holes that are so small that the large wooden buttons in them must be forced out with the strength of Samson (long-haired version). This is the theatrical version of the red-faced straining we've all endured trying to open the lid on a jar of salsa, except that you're unlikely to miss a cue and be late for a line if you don't get the salsa jar opened in the space of two bars of music.
  • Tights. Don't like 'em. Hard to put on, make my knees look knobby. 
  • A great many costumes I've worn had no pockets. Somehow, especially when I was new to opera and less accustomed to this phenomenon, I always found the lack of pockets unnerving. It's not that I ever want to put stuff in my pockets; clearly, if one is onstage in an opera, one probably has little use for car keys or spare change. It just takes getting used to. I mean, clothes are supposed to have pockets, dammit!
  • Wigs. (Okay, they're not technically "costumes", but to me it's all the same big annoyance) Wigs tend to slide around your head a lot. Wanna know how they solve that problem? With bobby pins; bobby pins they say they'll pin to your own hair, but which actually end up being dug into your scalp like a tent-peg. YOW!! ("It only hurts when I sing...")
  • And the worst part about costumes: quick offstage costume changes. Man, oh man, these can give you a heart attack. Why  -- WHY -- do librettists do this to the poor schmucks who perform their material? You finish a scene, wearing an elaborate costume with a million buttons and hooks, and you have maybe ninety seconds to get it off and put on an entirely new costume. What generally happens is that when staging rehearsals prove that it can't be done, the buttons are yanked off and replaced with Velcro. How these quick changes were accomplished before the age of Velcro technology I have no idea...
I'll close with a true anecdote from my inglorious past. I was once cast in the role of Fredrik Egerman, the restless male lead in Stephen Sondheim's A LIttle Night Music. Fredrik, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, has married a girl somewhere around twenty-five years younger than he. Early in Act I, he sings "Now", a virtuosic patter song describing his efforts to help his bride overcome her nervous refusal to consummate their union with a little headboard-bumping. (I warned you I had a vulgar side...) 

This song contains 63,819 syllables, all sung as rapidly as possible. (I know that figure is accurate because I just made it up.) What makes the number truly challenging is that Fredrik is undressing while he sings, getting ready for his afternoon nap. The stage director for this production gave me an elaborate series of positions revolving around a big queen-sized bed: climbing on the bed, sitting on one side and then rolling to the other side, and so on, all while untieing ties, unbuttoning a vest, a shirt, trousers, suspenders - everything you'd expect a successful attorney to wear to the office. While still singing and cavorting around the bed, I then had to fold the suit-clothes neatly on a chair and put on an old-fashioned men's night-dress before, at last, climbing into the bed for the end of the song.

Now, we never had the actual bed available for rehearsals. Obtaining a suitable piece of furniture turned out to be complicated, with many delays. In the end, I had to accept the fact that there would be no bed until opening night. Was I worried? Not me - I had rehearsed this number so many times that I was sure I could apply my blocking to the real thing with grace and elan.

Opening night arrived at last.  Make-up applied, costume donned, vocal warm-up completed, crowd, overture finished, all in readiness for MY scene. And there it was - a big, beautiful heavy wooden bed. All-RIGHTY, then!  The gently pulsating introduction to "Now" began; I started to sing, and I touched the bed.

It moved.

It began to roll towards the stage-right wings.

No one had remembered to lock the wheels on the stupid, stupid, bed.  If you touched it -TOUCHED IT - it would roll. I had to process this development and re-calibrate my brain in an instant because, as every human knows, "the show must go on". The carefully-planned blocking - all that choreographed leaping on the bed and rolling across the bed and what-not - was now in the toilet; I would have to improvise something. By now, I wanted to RIP EVERY STITCH OF CLOTHING OFF ME AND HURL IT INTO THE ORCHESTRA PIT. But no, that would re-define Fredrik in a way more suited to The Incredible Hulk than the librettist intended. 

You may be wondering how the number went. Did I succeed? Did this problem cause me to mess up the words or lose my place? Did the bed roll off the stage into the percussion section of the orchestra? Did I get my trousers off and neatly folded?

I'm really not sure... it's all kind of a blur in my mind... it was a long time ago...  Here's my guess: on this one occasion, I may have fallen short of creating the illusion of effortlessness.

Did I mention that I hate costumes? Oh - and beds.

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.

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