Eye of the Needle 

Utah Opera’s veteran costume designer turns her attention again to La Traviata.

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In the fanciful world of opera'which is as visual as it is auditory'the wrong costumes can eclipse even the most magnificent musical score.


By all accounts, the original 1853 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata'which was based on the Alexandre Dumas play Lady of the Camellias'was a dismal failure. The audience was disenchanted when the characters appeared onstage in contemporary wardrobe'circa 1853, mind you. They simply could not accept a grand theatrical production that featured performers who were essentially dressed in street clothes.


Utah Opera Company’s resident costume designer Susan Memmott Allred is well aware of La Traviata’s dismal premiere, and she says that it solidifies her belief that it is impossible to fully engage an audience without the proper costumes. This season’s production of La Traviata'Italian for “the fallen woman”'marks Allred’s return to an opera she has already costumed multiple times and a piece that was her first large-scale success in 1980. This version will feature clothes inspired by 19th-century American painter John Singer Sargent'which means plunging necklines, fitted waistlines, bustles and long skirts for the women, and mid-length jackets, slacks and high-collared shirts for the men.


A tragic love story like La Traviata'Violetta, the opera’s main character, dies of consumption in the final scene'must be costumed with the utmost care and attention to detail. Color communicates emotion and intention as effectively as the songs the performers sing. Violetta'a woman of ill repute with whom young Alfredo Germont falls hopelessly in love'wears red in Act I, black in Act II, and white in Act III.


In every scene, there is a sharp contrast between Violetta and the members of the chorus. Violetta first appears on stage in a striking scarlet dress. She is flanked by performers in soft colors. Her red dress is a bold visual statement'it accentuates the fact that she is a lusty outsider in a prim Victorian world. The audience and Alfredo become immediately fixated with her because she is wearing such a salacious color.


“Costumes make the characters come alive. They tie together the story and bring out the humanity that exists on stage,” explains Allred. She delights in using textured fabrics and designing pieces that make performers feel comfortable in their own skins. “I love the human form. Even the most attractive people are insecure about something. I try to put everyone at ease with their bodies.nn

Allred'a native of Scipio, Utah'grew up on a farm and attended Southern Utah University, where she studied acting and secondary education. She never formally studied costume design but gradually became more skilled at assembling clothes. “In school productions, I made my costume and everybody else’s because I could sew,” she says with a smile.


Allred has designed costumes for the world aerial ski-jumping champion, the Osmonds and the BBC among other illustrious clients, but she maintains that her work at the Utah Opera is her crowning achievement. When she arrived in the late 1970s, the costume department was a small operation that consisted of 10 costumes and a sewing machine. Now, Utah Opera’s costume department is one of the largest and most successful in the country with more than $3 million in costumes, virtually all of which were personally designed'and much of the older stock sketched, cut, stitched and single-handedly assembled'by Allred.


The Utah Opera Production Studio, a deceptively small-looking building barely north of downtown Salt Lake City proper, houses a costume shop staffed by a dedicated team of tailors and seamstresses where all of Utah Opera’s costumes are made. Managed by Rose Brown, the shop is a lively place, replete with mannequins draped in opulent material, seamstresses and tailors carefully ironing delicate pieces of cloth, and dozens of sewing machines and invertebrate coils of measuring tape.


Most impressive is the back room'a gigantic space with rack upon rack of robes, dresses, blazers and slacks of every color, make and texture imaginable. Cloth animal heads and feathered wings spill from the rafters. The stock is so expansive that Verona Green oversees a nationwide rental program with costume sets for large productions shipped out to opera companies across the country. Utah Opera is extraordinarily lucky to have the resources to produce costumes, because rented pieces cannot be altered'creative wardrobe assistants simply have to make do with whatever comes their way.


Allred stands on the top floor of the costume warehouse and looks down at the racks. “It is so exhilarating to build something from the ground up. So much of my heart and soul are in these costumes,” she comments. Allred says that she is pleased that she has helped create a costume department that will endure after she leaves the company and that the dynamic performers and directors that she’s worked with over the years have contributed to her success.


The opera that initially tarnished Verdi’s reputation due largely to bad costuming now serves as Allred’s ticket to success. That’s the fanciful world of opera for you.


Utah Opera
Capitol Theatre
50 W. 200 South
Oct. 14–22

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About The Author

Jenny Poplar

Jenny Poplar is both a dancer and a frequent City Weekly contributor.

More by Jenny Poplar

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