SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: Dressing through Time

Backstage with Matthew: Dressing through Time

We are currently in the midst of our highly acclaimed production of It’s a Wonderful Life, the new holiday opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, co-commissioned with Houston Grand Opera (where it premiered in 2016) and Indiana University. I have been thrilled by the heartfelt reaction from audiences and critics alike—it is a work for which a pack of Kleenex is pretty much a necessity as we follow the journeys of George Bailey and his guardian angel, Clara.

In my program book article for the opera, I write about the role that tradition has in connecting us together at the holidays, and tradition is a close cousin of nostalgia. It’s a Wonderful Life begins in 1916 and moves through the 1920s, 30s and 40s, pulling us back into an earlier era that reminds us of the universality of tradition in our culture. Jake’s music does a wonderful job of creating that evocative connection with dance rhythms, barbershop close-harmony, and optimistic lyricism taking us on a journey through time. But the other element that really works similarly in the opera is costuming. While the set creates a timeless space that can be transformed into many different locations through projection and lighting, the costuming, in the expert designs of David C. Woolard, brings us into a fabulous sense of time and place.

I thought it would be fun to take an exploration of styles, fabrics and designs through the costumes of Mary Hatch, a character who moves through time in seven different costumes (eight if you count the costume worn by the young Mary at the start of the opera). Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman is making an exquisite debut with us as Mary, and her rotation of costumes must be one of the busiest in all of opera!

I headed down to the basement where all the Mary costumes are stored together on one rack, stage to be steamed and cleaned between performances. Here I was in the extremely capable and creative hands of Jai Alltizer, our costume supervisor for It’s a Wonderful Life. In addition to cleaning, the clothes were also being treated for static electricity. With all of the smoke, and dryness in the air, static tends to build up on the costumes, so Linda Edwards on our wardrobe crew was de-charging the clothes with a trusty trick of two dryer sheets stitched together around a steamer!

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Linda Edwards de-static’ing one of Mary’s costumes.

Let’s take an exploration of Mary’s journey through the lens of her costumes.

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Andriana Chuchman’s costumes for Mary Hatch, arrayed on a rack in the basement of the Opera House.

First, we begin with Mary’s high-school-dance costume, which is pink just like the dress young Mary wears in the opening sledding scene. She’s 18 at this point and the costume is youthful, light, playful and infused with bright colors. This is the mid 1920s, where drop waists were in fashion, creating a relatively straight-sided dress. Scalloped edges to the collar and a slight flutter on the sleeves create detailing, but this is a simple, joyful dress, with a pink slip underneath for when they change after falling into the swimming pool.

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Mary Hatch’s high school dance costume. All production photos courtesy Cory Weaver.

We then move ahead to Mary’s time in college, with some quintessential knit-wear of the period in classic collegiate lines. The sweater is actually cotton for comfort and durability but is made to look like wool, and comes replete with a zipper on the back for one of the quick changes so necessary in the show! All of the costume changes must be expertly choreographed so that characters can morph from one look to another in a matter of seconds. This costume is only onstage briefly but helps contextualize Mary growing up as the four years of college whiz by.

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Mary’s college outfit.

Mary returns from college grown up and more sophisticated as we move into the early 1930s. This is the dress seen at the end of Act I during the big love duet with George Bailey, played by Bill Burden. We are still in the era where waist lines are not yet cinched, so there is still a fluidity about the style. But the fabric is becoming more textural and the patterning more mature and sophisticated. Costume changes for a developing character like Mary have to not only reflect changing fashions, but also changing ages, and these two key factors were thoughtfully considered by David Woolard as he created these various looks.

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Mary returns from college and concludes the first act in this outfit.

We begin Act II in 1929 with the wedding, which is a short prelude that leads into a number of scenes in which Mary never leaves the stage and is thus unable to change clothes. Jai shows me how David has designed an ensemble that pieces together as Mary is dressed for the wedding, a floral blouse under a wedding jacket that forms the basis of a light aquamarine suit. Jai tells me that colored suits were not uncommon for weddings in the 1920s and 1930s, and this allows Andriana to quickly lose the jacket and morph into a domestic outfit for her scene at home with the children. You can see in this suit design how the waistlines are beginning to get more fitted, and a silk 4-ply crepe gives the costume a wonderful sense of movement.

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Act 2 begins with this wedding suit and floral blouse, held here by Jai Alltizer.

As we move into the Granville House, the wedding outfit (sans jacket) is domesticized with a patterned apron, and Jai tells me that this was something we adjusted here in San Francisco, after its original run in Houston. The patterning on the original apron was reading far too grey and flat under the stage lights, and so our textile painter, Amy Van Every, added some red and magenta detailing to help make the apron better pop in the house.

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The addition of a domestic apron, with detailing by Amy Van Every.

A major change comes with the outbreak of war and the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Here we see Mary in another pink dress, but this one very different from her young prom dress. I was intrigued to learn from Jai that hem lines rose during the war years, not for fashion reasons, but for cost reasons – material was rationed and a higher hem line could save considerably on a dress. You see that here in this dress, as well as the continued tightening of the waistline – this is a very typical dress shape for the 1940s. Although it might have traditionally been made in cotton, we use silk to help this dress stand out on stage amidst the chorus costumes, leading to a more lustrous feel.

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Moving into the 1940s.

We then approach Christmas in the opera, and Mary’s Christmas outfit is fascinating for a few reasons, most pointedly, that there are two versions of the same dress. The first one, that we see as George approaches breaking point, is fairly somber in color. It’s still a typical 1940s shape, with a diagonal shaping under the bust line. At San Francisco Opera we added some texturing with embroidered flowers to create more dimensionality on stage, as seen in the images below.

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Added texture to Mary’s Christmas dress.

But, as George emerges from his deep depression, Mary’s dress pops into a new dimension of color. It’s the same dress but in an electric green, reflective of the technicolor world that now surrounds George – a pebbled silk fabric that catches the light in a wonderful way and takes us through to the end of the opera.

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In the photo on the top are Mary’s two Christmas dresses, the first on the right in darker green and the more joyful one in electric green on the left. In the photo underneath, Andriana is in her dressing room, ready to end the show in the electric green dress. (Photo courtesy of Andriana Chuchman.)

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Mary’s Christmas coat.

Mary’s appearance is also shaped through shoes and wigs. She has four pairs of shoes in the opera (watch a video here). One for her prom dance, a pair of flats for college, a very stylish pair of wing-tipped heels that take us from the end of Act 1 through most of Act 2, and then the green shoes for Christmas, with a nod to both green dresses.


Mary’s four pairs of shoes in It’s a Wonderful Life.

And the same is true of the wigs – subtle but important changes that chart both changing hairstyles but also a young girl growing into a woman. Andriana has three wigs for this production. The first, a youthful short bob very much of the style of the 1920s. Then, a new wig, longer, more stylish and sophisticated, that she first wears at the end of Act 1 when she returns from college, and then a third wig that she wears from the onset of war onwards – a much more 1940s look.


Andriana’s three wigs, in chronological order.

Andriana tells me that it is “infinitely more fun” when you have this many costume changes. She’s had productions where it’s just one costume and then one where there were eleven (the Bard Music Festival’s production of Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui.). Every time she comes off stage she has to change something, sometimes with mere minutes to make the change. As she says, you need an incredible team of wardrobe, wig and make-up professionals, which we’re blessed with here!

Jai’s role as costume supervisor, he tells me, is very much about translating the designs and aspirations of the costume designer into reality, helping shape their vision into the story on stage. He deals with questions in the costume shop as the drapers and tailors work to make the clothes, addressing issues of fabric, color and designer intent. He is also responsible for all of the costume documentation that goes with the show, working closely with staging staff, wig and make-up crew, costume and wardrobe personnel, and the creative team to ensure that all of the paperwork around wardrobe, wigs, laundry, care, running order, etc. is accurately compiled to ensure a smooth running to the show.


Jai Alltizer with Bill Burden’s costume rack for It’s a Wonderful Life.

Jai’s mother, who was involved in theater revues and Follies shows, taught him how to sew when he was young, leading to a passion for costuming. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Music Theater, through which he ‘sewed his way through college’ and then worked for summer stock theater in Oklahoma and Florida. He moved here in 2001 after being hired for the job of production stock assistant at San Francisco Opera, and is now one of the members of the costume department who oversees the creation and running of our productions, doing beautiful work coordinating all of the aspects that go into opera costuming. He loves working on this production of It’s a Wonderful Life. It harkens back to his own background in musical theater, but with the depth of costuming that the large opera stage demands. And then to work with the talented singers we have, brings it all into wonderful focus.


Andriana in her dressing room enjoying a moment of tranquility amidst the very busy role of Mary. (Photo courtesy of Andriana Chuchman.)

It’s a Wonderful Life is a joyful expression not only of the holidays, but of a great period of fashion in American history. Through the design expertise of David Woolard, the leadership of Jai, and the artistry of Andriana, a character like Mary comes to life across three decades, just in the space of a couple of hours. If you’ve not yet seen it, I hope that you’ll come and see this beautiful and heartfelt production, and join us in a wonderful expression of holiday spirit.

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