How do you decide who wears what in an opera?
SAM FLEMING: I have some instincts, I would say, about what I think the production will need to make the story line very clear. I do think that this one is going to be almost like doing a Shakespeare history, where you need to really keep the groups defined. Who are these people? Who are those people? Whether that's going to be a textural way or a color way or solid versus patterns or whatever. But I do have this very strong sense that we do need to do that to really help tell the story because it really moves. So many people already know what the story is. They even know, eventually, the man is going to die. It's just a process of how we get there. I think the other thing that's going to be important for me is to get down to some real basic essence of what a lot of these characters are, and emotionally. There's a thing you always do with costumes when you want to define for the audience what the economic status of the person is, whether they're rich or whether they're poor. Or you know how they feel about themselves. If they're a really confident person or if they're a person who has no self-esteem whatsoever. All those things are really important to do with the costumes and you want to give the audience, not all of it - because then there's nothing left for the performer to do, what's the point? - you want to just give them a tiny, little shell and then let the performer flesh it out. That's what I mean by getting to an essence of it. Just the part that the costume needs to do and nothing else.
Tell us how characters influence costume design and vice versa.
There you are in the fitting room with the performer and they're saying, "Why do I have to wear this pink blouse?" And you have to know the answer. You absolutely have to know. Whether it's just something from an emotional point of view or something based on the real person that you met. You have to know. And so, at least for me a lot of times, if I'm going to come at something from any kind of reference point, I like to be honest with them and just say, "I just think in this scene she needs to be feminine and pretty. And when I met you I just thought that pink would be the great color for your skin and so that's why I chose it for you." And then you let them respond. Because even if you force them to wear it, it's gonna get to tech rehearsal and there's just gonna be this awful thing that happens sometimes in dress rehearsal when you have an actor who's not really wearing their costume but standing inside of it. And it's just a dreadful, awful thing. I think, especially in a modern piece, with any performer you want to absolutely make sure that you guys are in synch up here. It really has to be a two-way street, a give-and-take thing.
Opera is a collaborative medium. Who's integral to your work as a costume designer?
I think visually, Mike Yeargan and I are going to have to work closely together just in terms of color, but then again if you think back through this, there just aren't a lot of opportunities for things like fabulous print couches and things. This is just not that kind of a piece. Movement-wise, it seems like it's going to be very deliberate. It's not like things are going to sneak on and sneak off or that one scene morphs into another. That probably when somebody's meant to come on stage, they come on. There's going to be a lot of working with the lighting designer to make sure that when people come out of shadow, they come out of shadow. I think that's going to be a much tighter collaboration and a much closer working together in terms of the final piece. The other nice thing about the collaboration is that the development of the characters is really going to involve the performers and the librettist and the director and the composer. And everybody is really going to be a part of it. So that when we really get down to doing fittings, many hands will be in the pot but it's all coming out of one heart, which will be great.
What was your first reaction to hearing the score?
The wonderful thing about being able to hear the music is it's so incredibly expressive of the inner spirit of these characters that are singing it. It's so directly related to the emotions of the characters involved and what's going on between those two people right at that minute. It moves from conflict to reconciliation to soothing back into a narrative and then on into reminiscing. Literally, the way the music sounds is exactly what's happening and it's wonderful that way and because it helps strengthen the characters, what they're actually doing at that moment. That's the most impressive thing to me about it. There's no sorting out to be done. It's very clear all the time what's going on and what everybody's thinking. If you just close your eyes and listen to the music, it always has that great rhythm and the whole emotional tenor of what's going on.