Costume designer for UK opera knows audiences expect sartorial splendor

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 1, 2013 


    'The Marriage of Figaro'

    What: UK Opera Theatre's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera.

    When: 7:30 p.m. March 1, 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 2, 7:30 p.m. March 3

    Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

    Tickets: $15.50-$45.50; available at Lexington Center ticket office, by calling (859) 233-3535, at or through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or

If you are putting on an opera, you don't tell everyone in the cast to bring something from home to wear. Most operas, particularly those presented by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, are set centuries ago, among wealthy elites who dressed to impress.

That puts some pressure on costume designer Susan Wigglesworth.

"One of the reasons our audience goes is they expect and enjoy the period costumes," Wigglesworth says while taking a rare break from working on outfits for the UK Opera's next production, The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Set in 18th-century Spain, it opens Friday.

The actors don't mind.

"It's like playing dress-up every time you are in a show," mezzo-soprano Holly Dodson says.

To Wigglesworth, who also is an accomplished actress, every outfit also tells a story. So here's a bit of the story behind some of the outfits that opera lovers will see onstage this weekend.

Bartolo and Marcellina, the doctor and his housekeeper

Wigglesworth usually does not try to match couples' outfits, but in Figaro, she did that to set up "pepper and salt shaker sets" in the final sextet of the show. Figaro is double cast, so one set is in blue and pink, the other is in peach and white.

Marcellina's dress is designed to be over the top, with lace and bows. When building costumes, Wigglesworth keeps in mind old sumptuary laws, which designated what people of various classes were allowed to wear. The added elements of Marcellina's dress represent a woman "trying to dress above her station."

Wigglesworth says singer William Clay Thompson, who plays Bartolo, "is always a challenge to costume because he is so tall."

Countess Rosina, the royal

The first-act outfit is boudoir wear for the countess. Wigglesworth chose a softer shade of pink because "it's kind of a wistful pink. Some people call this shade 'ashes of roses,' and she's very sad because she thinks the count has grown tired of her. It's feminine without being dowdy. But I wanted to show that she is still a beautiful woman, and there is no reason for the count to go philandering."

Singer Brittany Benningfield likes both the boudoir wear and her second-act golden gown, "which is really elaborate, with puffy sleeves and corseted at the waist."

Female singers say they sometimes have to get used to singing with corsets, but they can add support right where they need it to sing fully.

Cherubino, the boy page

"I have an hourglass figure," says singer Holly Dodson, who plays the "pants role" of lovestruck teenage boy Cherubino. "But the way she tailors the lines, I think, 'Oh, my goodness, I totally look like a boy right now."

Wigglesworth says a woman's costume usually would emphasize the performer's waist, but she went in the opposite direction for her Cherubino outfits, glossing over the waist and buttocks with long vests.

Figaro, the groom

The golden vest represents that this is his wedding day, and it contrasts with a brown vest in Act I.

"Figaro is a servant, but he's not quiet," Wigglesworth says.

Big actors like Phillip Bullock present Wigglesworth with challenges, because "the bigger the person, the better the clothes have to fit in order for them to look their best. That's the challenge with big men, because they can very easily look sloppy, particularly with trousers."

Basilio, the teacher

"This particularly lovely shade of puke green, along with the pastel flowers, literally makes it feel like this character is a little slimy, and this shade of green just brings that out," says singer Philip Eschweiler, who plays the scheming musician. "You cannot help but feel a little creepy wearing these colors," he says, pinching his velvety trousers.

He also shows a lipstick stain on his shirt that says, "maybe I'm not just teaching music, if you know what I mean," Eschweiler says. The singer says he really enjoys the costumes, because "this was an era in fashion where men were celebrated the most."

Wigglesworth says Eschweiler and the other actor playing Basilio, Zachary David Morris, "know how to wear a costume, so it is a lot of fun designing for them."

Susanna, the bride

As the maid, Susanna is from the lower class, but Wigglesworth wanted to convey that it's her wedding day.

"Even though she doesn't get to wear the beautiful clothes, I wanted to emphasize that by putting her in the pale yellow, the paler version of the gold," Wigglesworth says, referring to the color her boss, Countess Rosina, wears in the second act. "So clearly her dress is more plain, but I guessed the countess may have given her some extra lace, since it is her wedding day."

For singer Wanessa Campelo, the dress helps emphasize that Susanna is "young and cute and sassy."

Antonio, the gardener

Unlike other characters whose costumes took hours to make, Wigglesworth says the gardener's outfit was almost a thrift-store grab.

"That's a shirt I made for Reggie as Falstaff," she said, referring to Reginald Smith Jr., who played the title character in the UK Opera production last year of the Verdi work. "We've had those trousers forever. Usually some chorus member wears them in every production. And that vest gets used over and over, usually by rustic chorus people.

"We have a brown leather vest that has ended up in almost every show; it was a joke. But we can't seem to find it."


'The Marriage of Figaro'

What: UK Opera Theatre's production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera.

When: 7:30 p.m. March 1, 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 2, 7:30 p.m. March 3

Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

Tickets: $15.50-$45.50; available at Lexington Center ticket office, (859) 233-3535, at or through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog:

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