From Sketch to Stage

A behind-the-seams look at HGO's costume department

By Sydney Boyd September 24, 2015

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Maria Bjørnson designed the costumes for HGO's upcoming The Little Prince

Image: Lynn Lane

Crinoline, lace and bright satin line the basement of Wortham Theater Center, the home of Houston Grand Opera, which is all set for a brand new season. The many selections of costumes designed and stored over the years have gone from inspiration to idea to outline to reality, finishing as whirling, wrenching and breathtaking visions on stage.

Norma Cortez, head of costumes for Houston Grand Opera, heads down into the costume shop for a new adventure every day—possibly a hunt for an elusive fabric, a scheduled fitting, or a last-minute alteration if the production’s opening night is around the corner. When I spoke to Cortez, she was putting the last-minute touches on the two-night special O Columbia’s wardrobe after a change in direction from a 1990s theme to having almost everyone in black.

“There are challenges in experiencing a new production,” Cortez says. “If they want to change it a bit, we have to come in and make it happen.”

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Fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi designed the costumes for HGO's A Little Night Music

Image: Lynn Lane

While mounting a world premiere for the first time is hard, re-creating costumes from past productions presents its own set of challenges. In her first full season with HGO, costume coordinator Clair Hummel is remounting The Little Prince, a fantastical operetta HGO premiered in 2003 that runs this December.

“It takes a lot of work,” notes Hummel. “I have to check if there’s anything to replace, to rebuild, and if I can find that in-house.”

Cortez, who has been creating costumes with HGO for 16 years, agrees with Hummel. When Cortez remounts a show, first she checks the state of the costumes, looks over the sizes, and compares everything to the current cast. Sometimes that means rebuilding costumes and scrounging around for new fabric. “If it’s a show we did 10 years ago, we try to find the exact same fabric as soon as possible,” Cortez says.

A big part of the costume shop is realizing a designer’s vision. “We have to show him or her mock-ups and fabrics, collect all the fabrics, and start to build,” Cortez says. When celebrated fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi designed the costumes for A Little Night Music in 2014, Cortez worked closely with his sketches and had several meetings to make sure HGO could deliver.

For HGO’s costume gurus, meeting deadlines is the only part of the job that’s not fun. “Sometimes the show isn’t finished, but there’s always an opening night,” Hummel says.

But after months of hard work, there’s always a rich reward that reminds Cortez she’s lucky she gets to be creative for a career. “Once I see it on stage for the first time, it makes you feel really proud of where you’re at and where you work,” Cortez says.