AVA’s 2018 production of Das Rheingold
Before an opera hits the stage, a lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes—and not only on the part of the singers. A successful opera is more than a purely acoustic experience: staging, props, lighting, choreography and costumes are all elements that are essential to rendering an operatic performance visually captivating and memorable. AVA’s costume designer and wardrobe coordinator, Val Starr, sat down to talk with us about the costuming aspect of opera—the work it entails, the challenges it presents and its importance to the art of opera.
Ms. Starr began embroidering at the age of seven under the guidance of her great-grandmother. She learned how to use a sewing machine shortly thereafter. “I always enjoyed sewing,” she says. “My mother used to let me help her make curtains and we always made our own Halloween costumes—I never had a store-bought one in my life. As a child I made clothes for my dolls, and as I got older I began making my own.”
Ms. Starr pursued her passion for sewing throughout high school and college, making costumes for dance and theatrical productions. She began her career in costuming in 1974, joining the wardrobe staff at the Curtis Institute of Music and assisting them with the dressing of The Tales of Hoffmann. Three years later, she moved to AVA’s wardrobe department.
The tasks Ms. Val’s title entails are many and varied. As costume designer, she figures out what the stage director would like each character in the production to look like. Based on that vision, she does research and then goes to a costume rental company in New York City to select costumes for each role. She spends three full days picking them out. “The Met Opera started the company I use, called TDF Costume Collection,” she says. “When the Met is finished with a production, they’ll donate their costumes—I like them because they’re usually high quality and sized for opera singers, rather than for tiny dancers and actors.”
As wardrobe coordinator, Ms. Starr is responsible for fitting and altering those costumes when they arrive and preparing them for the stage. “Sometimes costumes are made in such a complicated way that it’s next to impossible to take them apart,” she explains. “But most of them are set up so that each piece is a separate, finished unit that is easy to alter.”
Finding, fixing up and fitting the right costumes can be extremely challenging. TDF doesn’t have an ideal selection of costumes from the post-1915 era, as those tend to either be vintage or be made for actors, rather than for singers. Vintage fabric can be 30 to 50 years old and often doesn’t stand up to the punishment of half a dozen dress rehearsals and performances. And, of course, costumes designed for actors tend to be too small for opera singers.
Ms. Starr recalls some of the costuming quasi-disasters that have taken place over the years at AVA. “The first time we did Ariadne auf Naxos, for the 1979-1980 season, I had a vintage, black and white, diamond-patterned costume for Harlequin,” she says. “It was a very old Met piece I had to reline, and you heard it rip every time the actor moved! It looked absolutely fabulous on stage—it was black velvet and white satin—but it was so old that it was just dying.” Since then, there have (sadly) been other instances of costumes falling apart on stage. “In 2012 we did L’elisir d’amore,” Ms. Starr recounts. “Our production was set in the 1940s… Thank goodness girls wore sweaters over their dresses during that time, because all the dresses’ underarms disintegrated during the performance!”
Of course, these AVA costuming nightmares are outweighed by plenty of success stories. “My favorite production I did the costumes for was Jules Massenet’s Manon in 2014,” reflects Ms. Starr. “It’s set in the 18th century and those costumes were lovely. The director had the ball scene done in all black and white and it was truly stunning. Das Rienghold and Hansel and Gretel were also a lot of fun because I got to work with fantasy costumes.”
Scenes from AVA’s 2014 production of Manon
The art of costuming, and therefore of sewing, is intrinsically tied to the art of opera: well-chosen and well-fitted costumes are not only key to an aesthetically remarkable performance but are vital to enhancing the power of a story. Ms. Starr, who has been working in the costume department of opera for 41 years, knows this well, and while some may argue that sewing is a dying craft–“We used to learn to sew in high school home economics class, but they don’t have that anymore,” she notes–she makes it a point to sustain it.
Written by Tania Bagan