Opera in Conversation: 'The Costumes of The Abduction from the Seraglio' Takeaways

Jan 29, 2020

Mozart’s hilarious sit-com The Abduction from the Seraglio lights up the Orpheum Theater for two performances only, February 7 & 9! Tickets start at $19: operaomaha.org/abduction

Thank you to all who attended our second Opera in Conversation for Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. We had an enlightening conversation with costume designer Neil Fortin about his incredible work on this production. The conversation was moderated by Kurt Howard, Opera Omaha Producing Director. If you were not able to attend, this summary will help get you up to speed!

We started the evening by becoming acquainted with the setting and time period of this production of Abduction, which takes place in Weimar Germany in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. This is not the first iteration of this production, directed by Alison Moritz. She has previously directed it at New Orleans Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City. However, it has reincarnated each time; in Kansas City the setting was Hollywood, in Omaha it is interwar Germany.

As Fortin identified, the interwar period was the last time of history in which eveningwear was an important part of middle- and upper-class society. Through the 1950’s, fashion became much more casual – one would not see men wearing black tie for a night out on the town in postwar America. However, in the prewar period an appreciation of fine tailoring and custom-made clothes was commonplace, and there was still an “art of dressing well” as Fortin described it.

Of course, the costumes as we see them onstage are not quite historically accurate to the dress of the 1920's and 30's. This production takes inspiration from classic Hollywood, which in turn took artistic liberties with the period it portrayed. Fortin’s costumes are therefore twice-removed from the historically accurate clothing of the period. The result, however, is a fantasy interpretation of 40’s eveningwear fashion, composed of exaggerated silhouettes made from beautiful fabrics. Shoulder pads and narrow waists are plentiful, as are chunky heels and outrageously wide trousers.

The social hierarchy of this production is evidenced through the costume choices. The attendees of the club are upper- and middle-class, while the staff and workers represent the working-class. The upper-class characters are always dressed in the aforementioned evening attire, while the workers are dressed in Turkish-themed costumes, as “The Seraglio” is a Turkish-themed club. Such themed clubs and bars were very popular in Weimar Germany, and their staff did typically wear themed costumes, what Fortin called “costumes with a ‘K’”.

Some of our cast are asked to wear costumes inspired by cultures that are not their own. Osmin, played by bass Erik Anstine, is the bouncer of “The Seraglio” and hence his costume is an example of a ‘Kostume’. Like most of the costumes, it is also twice-removed from its original inspiration. Fortin identified the need he sees to be cognizant becoming too stereotypical in portraying cultures though costume. For example, part of Osmin’s Turkish ‘Kostume’ is a fez. He is never dressed in a turban, however, as this would overstep the line for Fortin, largely due to its complicated and varied usage as a religious garment.

Relatedly, Fortin’s goal is to ensure that the cast is comfortable in their costumes. This is important not only physically by making sure they fit properly, but in other ways, such as a costume not revealing more than the singer is happy with, and not amounting to cultural appropriation or stereotyping. As Fortin described it, singers are active participants in the creation of their costumes and in deciding what is comfortable for them.

The costumes for this production come from a wide variety of sources. There are both pre-made pieces that have been tailored for this production, as well as pieces made absolutely from scratch. For example, the club musicians wear Scottish piper jackets from a craftsman in Scotland, pants traditionally worn at Indian weddings, and finally sashes made from a fabric Fortin bought in London. While disparate in their origins, these pieces come together to create a Turkish-inspired costume for these characters. Other pieces were hand-crafted by stitchers in Racine, Wisconsin and right here in Omaha. Fortin himself has also created some pieces.

Our final point of discussion touched on the logistics of costuming a production such as this. Up to eight different wardrobers and dressers may be backstage at any point during the performance to assist with costume changes, of which there are multiple for some characters. This production also uses microphones to amplify spoken sections, which adds another level of complexity. Wig and makeup designers and artists also play an essential role both in designing the looks one sees onstage during the rehearsal process, and in changing wigs and makeup during the performance itself. The interaction of lighting, set, and costume in regard to color is also important. For example, the intricacies of lighting the beads which feature heavily in Fortin’s costumes must be considered by the lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia and his team.

The level of detail required of Fortin in a production like this is quite remarkable. From navigating period and cultural influences, to sourcing pieces and fabrics, and to considering how the costumes fit into the production as a whole, the role of a costume designer is varied and complex. Thank you again to Neil Fortin for making time in his packed schedule to guide us through his creative journey for the costumes in this production of The Abduction from the Seraglio!

Jack Hardwick
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Catch up on Opera in Conversation: Mozart and Comic Opera here.

Register for Opera in Conversation: Romantic Comedies with Alison Moritz, Director and Diana Martinez, Film Streams here.

Register for Midday Music: The Abduction from the Seraglio here.

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