Tuesday, May 04, 2010

I wrote this (with Susan Graham's support) for Houston Grand Opera because they responded positively to my offer to write about being a dresser for their production to stage blog. For whatever reason they are not using it, so I will revive this old blog of mine, and start posting what I wrote. Here goes - we are starting with the first night of rehearsal.

Various back stage trades bring an opera to life. One of those is what is called a dresser. At Houston Grand Opera, dressers are members of IATSE Theatrical Wardrobe Union #896. These are the people who get the performers into their costumes while throwing clothes everywhere when a singer runs off stage in one costume and hops back on 45 seconds later in an entirely different costume. And all of this is done in tandem with the wig and make-up team who have their changes at the same time, in the same place, on the same person. As part of Houston Grand Opera’s blog giving patrons a view into backstage operations, Susan Graham’s dresser, Larissa, will talk about its current production of Xerxes, and what it is like to be dressing this outstanding singer.

Torturing the Mezzo.
I am very fortunate to be dressing Susan Graham. Yeah, yeah, I get to hear her sing, and I have the pleasure of seeing her on stage every night, but it is more than that. Her attention to detail flows from onstage to backstage. I have dressed her (this is my 20th season as a dresser with HGO), wearing armor in Ariodante (with a clunky quick change), ball gowns in The Merry Widow (with LOTS of corset lacing), glorious robes in Coronation of Poppea, and assorted other costumes. What people don’t know is she is routinely tortured to create the right look. Susan realizes the fine details of a character’s look are sometimes only created by binding her body in corsets or brassieres, yet amazingly, she is still able to sing. In the majority of these roles, including Xerxes, my first task is binding “the girls.” The female body parts that needs to be, uh, suppressed flat to give her that boyish look. Houston Grand Opera has an incredible costume shop, with extremely talented stitchers who make every costume part you could image. This binding that mezzos have the pleasure of wearing are custom made in the HGO shop to make them as comfortable as possible. They stretch, they Velcro, they wrap, they pull, and they work. Yes, this is torturing the mezzo, but it is something a singer coordinates with wardrobe and their dresser to have the basic core of their character’s costume. Virtually all mezzos sing pants roles, and they have to deal with, and embrace this need in a weird way - so I thought it was a good place to start out there in the public domain.

Susan doesn’t have any major quick changes in this opera, but there are costume pieces to “track” – something I will talk about next time.

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