Photograph by Alex Hawthorn
New york–based costume designer Amanda Seymour is no stranger to St. Louis. She created costumes for Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ The Barber of Seville last year, as well as The Elixir of Love in 2014. A Leo Lerman fellow at Yale, Seymour has worked in theater, opera, and dance—including a stint as associate costume designer for Madonna’s most recent tour. In June, her costumes will appear in OTSL’s Ariadne on Naxos.
This is not your first time designing for Opera Theatre. What was your introduction? I was introduced to OTSL when I was assisting Martin Pakledinaz, who was a wonderful designer and has made a huge history at OTSL. He recommended me to Jim Robinson. Jim and I worked on a show at Julliard, Don Pasquale. After that, Jim approached me to remount one of Martin’s shows, The Elixir of Love, which was my first show at OTSL. It was an absolute honor and a wonderful production. That was three seasons ago. I finally got to meet everyone I heard about for so long: Pat Seyller and Stacy Harris in the costume shop and all of the wonderful drapers. Subsequently, Jim also introduced me to another wonderful director, Michael Shell, and that’s how The Barber of Seville came about. It was a co-production with Opera Philadelphia and St. Louis, which I did last year. It was a slightly different production, but I felt like we stayed true to the text. It was very joyful—a lot of fun and a lot of color.
How did Ariadne come to fruition? We started talking about it last summer, and Jim introduced me to Sean Curran, who is directing this production. I had sort of worked with Sean before, either at Santa Fe or Yale for the Yale Rep, but we never worked as designer and director. It’s a lovely opportunity. He is a wonderful, exciting director.
How did you start the costume-design process? I rely heavily on speaking with the director first. Then I sit with the libretto and listen to the music. That’s where the dreaming evolves. We spoke a little about what he envisioned and wanted to bring to the project, with his background in dance as a choreographer, and then just left me to my own devices. This production premiered in 1916, but the first version was written in 1912, so we decided to play with those dates—but what if we push it a little earlier, to center around the 1880s? In doing that, it heightens how the piece plays with gender and class: the whole highbrow versus lowbrow, the classical world of opera versus the Opera Commedia world. By pushing it into the 1880s, it leaves it open to have our Commedia characters come out of the tradition of English Music Hall, without being too stereotypical. We were able to play with old theatrical costumes, as if these characters found pieces and added their own embellishments.
Yet they still feel fashionable. There’s the Grecian clothing of the Classic Opera group, which reflects Grecian statuary. That’s where the fashion influence comes from—you definitely see a Valentino influence. There’s something about that aesthetic that’s so wonderful and exciting. If you can pull from fashion and history, and make those two cohesive, then I’m very excited about that.
And such visual costumes make the opera more accessible. Ariadne showcases exquisite music. Hopefully, when we transition into the classical opera side of the story, I’ve given a backdrop of this wonderful, diaphanous fabric that shimmers and captures light. James Shute has done a wonderful job with the set. It gives that support for the music, so they can just sing their hearts out.
When do you begin producing the costumes for Ariadne? My residency begins in May, and I am there for a month for fittings. I leave the day after the opening, which is always bittersweet. I’m excited because I’m designing the third production; during past years, I was designing Nos. 1 and 2, so I never got the chance to see the other shows. I’m excited to see the other two this year!
OK, I have to ask about designing for Madonna’s latest tour. The designer was Arianne Phillips, and I was one of the assistant costume designers. I worked mostly with the dancers. There was an assistant for Madonna and then three of us to maintain the dancers’ clothes.
How was it different than your past work? It’s a lot like doing musical theater in that you have to deal with many costumes. The bottom line is you have to be able to move and be comfortable. Then, of course, Madonna has to be happy with the end product. What was amazing for me was dealing with the fashion side and getting to work with Prada and Gucci; that was a bit different than doing musical theater or opera… It’s not necessarily what I’ve done with Ariadne, where I sketch it and it’s done. As they were deciding on the set list and rehearsing, the ideas solidified. So when we finally got to the fourth act of the show, we had less time to produce it. We fit and made those clothes in two weeks.
Was it all put together in New York? Yes, we rehearsed in New York. There was a costume shop set up specifically for us, but we also bid out to other shops, dressmakers, and designer contributions. Prada sent clothes; Gucci sent clothes; plus we did the clothes that Arianne designed. She worked closely with Gucci and Prada to come up with the ideas, along with Madonna. It was a huge undertaking.
So was Madonna happy? I think so. Everyone told me, “You won’t believe when you first hear that crowd roar,” and it was insane. She was smiling the whole time, so I think she was pretty happy.
Which genre is closest to your heart? I lean toward opera. I love that it’s based on the music. We are there for the music, and that drives the story and narrative. It also lends itself to be creative, as long as you stay true to the story. It’s like Shakespeare, in a way: You can create a world, and it can be theatrical or farfetched, as long as it makes sense to the piece.