A trompe-l’oeil woodland backdrop transforms to allow the goddess Diana to “disappear.” Two-hundred-fifty yards of gold fabric become a swirling, shimmering concoction that fills the Willson Theater stage. Diaphanous shifts are made sturdy enough for their nymphs to wrestle in. Juilliard Opera’s February production of Cavalli’s La Calisto got great reviews for director Zack Winokur (BFA ’12, dance), scenic designer Adam Charlap Hyman, the singers and orchestra (Juilliard415), and costume designer Austin Scarlett, a Project Runway alum who’s moved into haute couture, particularly wedding gowns. Over the past few months, we checked in with Scarlett and the Costume Department several times to find out how the costumes were evolving.
Costume development began a year ago, when Scarlett, Hyman, and Winokur met to discuss how to conjure Calisto’s world, a playground for scheming, libidinous gods and the mortals they fall in love with. “It was my first time as a costume designer getting to work with a set designer to create a whole universe,” Scarlett said.
His own work began with extensive research, finding inspiration in “the whole arc of history that’s reflected in the piece, from Greco-Roman mythology through Venetian Baroque [Calisto premiered in 1621] and up until modernity with Zack’s contemporary interpretation of the story’s meaning.”
Five or six months later, he presented sketches to the design team and then tweaked and experimented. Once all the designs were settled, the Costume Shop drapers began to interpret the sketches and figure out how to make them a reality, measuring the singers, putting patterns on paper, transferring the designs to muslin, and then cutting and sewing to troubleshoot potential problems before starting to cut more expensive fabric.
The color palette for the scenery and costumes came from the mystical woodland scene Hyman painted to serve as the backdrop. At one point Diana (sung by Samantha Hankey) needs to “disappear,” so her cloak has to exactly match the scenery behind it. “Figuring out where the pattern of the set print would fall within the shape and pattern of the cloak took a lot of engineering to get just right,” Scarlett said.
One of the main plot elements is that the god Giove (Xiaomeng Zhang) has been flirting (unsuccessfully) with the mortal Calisto (Angela Vallone), a follower of Diana. His wife, Giunone (Julia Wolcott), finds out and is furious, and much of Act II of the opera takes place on the skirt of her spectacular gold gown (a “tour-de-force” and “almost a scenic element in itself,” according to The New York Times).
The dynamic process of design and adjustment continues into the last phase of rehearsal. The ease with which a costume moves is always important, but Winokur, who was trained as a dancer and has a background as a choreographer, incorporated even more movement into Calisto’s staging than is typical for opera. Even after dress rehearsal, Scarlett said, notes like “nymph wig is getting tangled in bow and arrow” and “goddess needs to wrestle” were coming back from the stage crew.
In the end, the stage magic worked and the production was a rousing success, with Opera News extolling the “witty, adroit stagecraft” and noting that the “design team achieved miracles of economy and imagination.” And the Costume Shop packed up the wardrobe boxes, put them in storage, and dove in to the next production.
Austin Scarlett's costumes were supported by a gift from Helen Little.