‘Fidelio’ Costume Designer Jessica Jahn

Costume Designer Jessica Jahn on Finding Her Way in Opera

Long before she ever considered costume design as a career, Jessica Jahn suspects she was subconsciously drawn to it. Just take the incident with her senior prom dress.

She had found a sheath dress — she guesses it was from the early 1960s — and she thought it looked lovely. But this was the 1990s. It wasn’t so long ago that the John Hughes movie Pretty in Pink had come out, with its heroine snipping together her own original prom dress.

“So I took it and cut,” Jahn says. First went the dress’s neckline, then its bottom half. In its place, she stitched a flared skirt, puffed with tulle.

“It was terrifying. Just terrifying,” Jahn laughs. The dress had transformed into a gold and pink Frankenstein, with a lime-green skirt. “And I wore lime-green shoes. Just be thankful you did not live through the ‘90s in that way.”

Now, as a costume designer for major American opera houses, Jahn puts that same sense of adventure into her characters’ clothes — only this time, she boasts decades of experience under her belt. Just this year, she received a Drama Desk Award for outstanding costume design, as well as honors from the Lucille Lortel Foundation.

Here in San Francisco, her costumes helped open the 2014 fall season in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. And she was scheduled to return with a modern spin on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio in 2020, a production canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jahn first entered the arts world as a dancer: In her hometown of Seattle, she went to Cornish College of the Arts for dance, later enrolling at Rutgers University to pursue performing arts as a career. But design was always on her mind. Growing up, one of her grandmothers was an avid quilt-maker. The other passed down to Jahn a passion for making clothes.

“She could draw out a pattern on a piece of newspaper, cut it out, and make clothes for her kids. She was a seamstress and pattern-maker in her own right, though it’s not what she did professionally,” Jahn says.

But Jahn considered herself a dancer first and foremost. All around her, artists were working: plays, music, hair styles, theater sets. Creativity was simply the status quo. It never occurred to her that the clothes she picked apart and designed would lead to an actual career.

That’s when a friend approached her about working on a small theater production he was directing off-Broadway in New York City. “The ideas that I kept putting forward to him were interestingly not about movement in the space but about the design on the body,” she recalls.

It would be her first gig as a costume designer. “I was overwhelmed and taken aback by how much I loved that part of the process,” Jahn says. “I was like, ‘This is amazing. Why haven't I been doing this forever?’”

That first opportunity led to other commissions in theater and film. Gradually, costume design was becoming more than a side gig. “I didn’t really think about making mistakes,” she says. “I was probably 24 or 25. I was just like, ‘Of course I can do this.’”

That fearlessness allowed her to take risks. “If you don’t know the ‘right answer,’ sometimes that creates innovation,” she explains. “You don’t have a sense that what you’re doing might be wrong.”

All the while, she surrounded herself with other artists trying to make their way in New York City. Through them, she soaked up contacts and inspiration. Eventually, that led her Glimmerglass, a non-profit opera company in Cooperstown, New York.

There, she would work on her first opera, under the guidance of Tony-nominated designer Constance Hoffman. Opera had never particularly attracted her. But one day, she attended a sitzprobe, a rehearsal focused on building coordination between singers and an orchestra. The voices she heard echoed through her body. She felt their power. It upended her perspective about what opera could be. 

“I was blown out of the water by like the resonance of that experience,” Jahn says. “Even as a dancer, I had performed in front of orchestras, but I had never had the real opportunity to hear voices that close in song.”

That experience reshaped her career. Jahn found herself working on more and more operas, falling into a community passionate about the power of the medium. The athleticism of opera, and the pressure opera singers face, forced her draw upon the two subjects she majored in at college: dance and psychology.

“In addition to understanding the body and movement, its important to understand your idea of who you are and what is comfortable and your self-image,” Jahn explains. “I never had to deal with the amount of people looking at me that an opera singer does. Its about empathy.”

Jahn draws a sharp distinction between fashion and costume design. In fashion, the designer’s vision comes first. But when designing costumes, Jahn often has to balance her ideas with the performers’ needs.

It’s a collaborative process. Costumes help build an actor’s understanding of the character. And then there’s the challenge of making clothes that feel comfortable to singers, so they can launch their voices across thousands of seats.

“The easiest example to use is that we’re always doing period operas, right?” Jahn says. “That usually means we’re putting women in corsets. But what does that mean? For somebody whose job it is to use their diaphragm, their lungs, and their abdomen to reach the back of the house, what does it mean to then have to deal with something that constricts the body?”

But designing for comfort goes beyond simply designing a roomier, more supportive corset. It also requires Jahn to understand the stereotypes that appear in opera — and how to dismantle them.

“It becomes doubly and triply important to look at those stories through that lens, to really take apart the inherent racism, sexism, and ableism that might be present in those works and figure out a way to counteract it,” she says. 

It’s an issue that crops up often. Though Jahn has worked on modern operas like 2019’s Blue — an opera about a Black teen killed by police — she admits that traditional operas are much more common on stage. They dominate perceptions of the art form.

“Opera is not this traditional canon,” Jahn says. “If you had to define it, you wouldn’t define it by saying, ‘Opera is Puccini, Verdi, Handel, Rossini or whatever.’ You would say that opera is a combination of movement, music and drama, something like that.”

Expanding what opera can be is part of Jahn’s mission. For too long, opera in the United States has been seen as a space for the wealthy few — something Jahn insists is not true to the roots of the art form. “The minute you decide to unlearn what you think opera is and redefine it, it changes everything. And so, for me, even though I am inherently frustrated at what opera has become, thankfully it is in the process of redefining itself.”

That redefinition starts with the basics. As with dance, Jahn sees opera as abstract, even absurd — a purely musical art form that can tell any number of stories. So she looks beyond traditional designs when creating her costumes, to construct images that reflect real-world inspiration.

For Fidelio, she drew on real-life politicians to outfit the fictional ones. For productions that depict oppression and violence, she referenced images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the civil war in Syria, and the immigration crisis on the Mexican-American border. 

Part of her work is to simply be a collector of images. She pieces together inspiration from pop culture, paintings, history — even portraiture from the immigration station on Ellis Island. Each character she dresses has to be individual, to feel like a real, flesh-and-blood human being.

“I always refuse to do traditional repertoire if I'm not allowed to do that because it's unfair, and it only perpetuates the stereotypes that we've seen over and over again,” Jahn says. 

It’s about subtlety. It’s about empathy. And that’s what opera is for Jahn: pure emotional storytelling. And through costume design, she hopes to make sure people’s stories are still being heard — with every cut, every fabric, every line.

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