Thursday, September 6, 2012

“As Ye Rip, So Shall Ye Sew”

A Chat with Terese Wadden, Costume Designer for The Scarlet Letter

Mimì, Puccini’s immortal Bohemienne, and Hester Prynne, the defiant heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cornerstone of American literature, The Scarlet Letter, share at least one similarity: both are seamstresses and make their living embroidering garments for others to wear. Mimì spends her time embroidering flowers, which remind her of spring. Hester embroiders gloves for Governor Bellingham, later embellishes her own mark of shame-- the scarlet letter—and eventually lives out her life using her needle to fulfill an active and necessary role in the community which otherwise shuns her.

And so, it is entirely ‘fitting’—pun intended—that we meet the costume designer who will clothe Hester and the other inhabitants of her Puritan community , who will populate composer Lori Laitman’s version of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Like many of us who follow a course of study, and end up in a completely different career, Terese Wadden grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, and moved to New York, to study English Literature. While in college, she began working as a shop assistant for various designers in the New York fashion industry. She soon realized that she was less interested in the business of glamour and high fashion, than in the psychology of the characters she had studied as an English Lit. major, and what the clothes those people might have worn could say about them. She found she loved the notion of ‘interpreting’ what she found in the literature, and soon embarked on a plan to meld her interests through clothes. What was important to her was to give a character a perspective and a point of view via their costumes. The mantra, ‘Why would somebody wear this,’ informs her work.

She interned for a semester at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was given odd jobs such as sorting beads or buttons, or shopping for fabric and notions so the costume shop could build costumes or make needed repairs to their stock. The demands of keeping a full Met season of rotating casts costumed in a repertoire performance schedule makes the Met shops a bee-hive of frenetic activity. Stepping into the frenzy, her first assignment was one such shopping trip. She was handed $400 and given a list, with no idea how or where to fulfill this all-day ‘scavenger hunt’ in New York City. She returned, mission accomplished, slightly later than the Union 4:45pm costume shop closing time, only to find the crew waiting for her. No one had informed her of ‘quitting time’ and in the days before ‘a-cell-phone-in-every-pocket,’ they had had no way to reach her as she made her rounds!

These days, Terese designs for both theater and opera, and this season, in addition to The Scarlet Letter for Opera Colorado, she will design a new touring production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It with the Acting Company and a new play based on a Jonathan Franzen short story for The Transport Group in New York City. When asked to compare designing for ‘legitimate’ theater and opera, she offers, “In opera, sometimes subtlety is lost, and romantic lead characters, especially, could have more depth and character in their costumes, which I try to give them. I also find a little more artistic freedom in opera because audiences are more willing to accept big ideas expressed through the clothes.” Contrary to popular belief that ‘divas are difficult’ Terese thoroughly enjoys working with singers to get their costumes just right. “ They, so far, have been lovely to work with, and I particularly like to work with young artists, who are always so interested in the process.”

She does not have a favorite historical period to design, but, "for a while I was stuck designing from 1910-1930, and got a little pigeon-holed!" She is enjoying designing the costumes for Hester Prynne and her neighbors, and the challenge of depicting a strict, closed society, its values, and its one outsider. “The work itself makes a big statement about morals and society, and my job is to make the costumes support that vision.”

We’re on pins and needles, Terese!

By Brad Trexell, Director of Artistic Operations

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