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Bob Bernard's Corner: Frocks: Once for the Flock; Now for the French

Linda Cho: Costume Designer Extraordinaire

By Bob Bernard

Once, she costumed a fanciful avian kingdom; soon, she shall be adorning the afterlife Versailles Court of Louis XVI - supplemented with Beaumarchais’ favorite characters.

Once, she imparted Bird King Hoopoe’s personage with the evidence of substantial “premature molting”; soon, she shall be depicting Figaro in “drag”, as he flees the riotous scene as Act One ends.

She is Linda Cho, Costume Designer extraordinaire, having working with LAO for Der Zwerg [The Dwarf], Der Zerbrochene Krug [The Broken Jug], and – especially – the 2009 production of Braunfels’ Die Vögel [The Birds] and now returning for this season’s production of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. Ms. Cho recently won a Tony Award for her work on the Broadway show A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, a musical re-telling of the 1949 British comedy film “Kind Hearts and Coronets".

          

Left photo:  Linda in 2009 holding the head coverings for the Flamingo and Wryneck
Right photo: Linda in 2014 Holding her Tony Award while wearing her re-styled wedding dress

Back in 2009, Ms. Cho spoke about her day-to-day modus operandi, a look at how she ‘feathers her own nest’, so to speak. Doing several shows each year, she typically sketches several hundreds of costumes, accomplishing this by having her purse do double-duty as a workshop:

She begins a project by generating pencil sketches, using a mechanical pencil to obviate reliance on a pencil sharpener. These preliminary drawings are made on ordinary 8 ½ by 11” computer paper. Later, these are shrunk on a photocopier, fitting two to a page, and printed on card stock.

The copies are then water-colored. She explained, “Whenever I travel, I carry a small paint box (three brushes in it) which fits neatly into my purse. All I then need is a cup of water and some paper towels, and then I’m ‘good to go’.”

She then makes multiple copies, allowing herself the freedom to choose the best colors, while also, since she hasn’t painted over the original drawing, maintaining a clear line drawing for Costume Shop reference.

Skipping ahead to the final steps: For the most part, the printed fabrics are put on polyester, and the gowns are made of silk. The patterns are made on paper and then traced onto the fabrics.

Looking back at Ms. Cho’s work for Die Vögel, it is manifest that she is a classicist when it comes to relating colors to stage character: 

          

Left photo: Désirée Rancatore as the Nightingale
Right photo: Martin Gantner as Hoopoe, King of the Birds

In the photo of the Nightingale (above left), the blue of the Nightingale’s costume was reflective of her honest, gentle nature, as well, of course, being associated with the night sky.

In the photo of Hoopoe (above right), the yellowish, muddy colors were reflective of Hoopoe’s ambiguity, humbleness, and general dowdiness. Furthermore, as a sign that the mantle of authority carries with it considerable stress, Hoopoe’s marvelously intricate costume clearly evidences a substantial amount of premature molting.

Here was an image of the whole kingdom: 

Speaking regarding the inspiration for the claws, Linda recollected, “We were looking at Greco-Roman spears and found some that looked much like bird claws. Darko [Tresnjak, the Stage Director] thought we should push that idea. I think the final effect was wonderfully terrifying.”

Some thought the costume for Prometheus connoted a biblical reference (as opposed to Greek), even evoking an image of a medieval monk: 

Brian Mulligan as Prometheus

Ms. Cho recalled that she did look at Doré Bible Illustrations when doing research for this costume, hoping to achieve a Greek silhouette, but admitted that the hood definitely gives the costume a monkish look.

As a striking image of an authoritarian figure we had the scene at the end of Act 1 where Loyal Friend assumed the mantle of Lord and Master of The Birds:

        

Left photo: Kaiser Wilhelm #1
Center photo: James Johnson as Loyal Friend
Right photo: Kaiser Wilhelm #2

The red in Loyal Friend’s costume is certainly a strong, provocative color, giving a suitable aura to him as Lord and Master. As a matter of coincidence (but remarkably in accord with the historical context of this opera’s composition), one can see the similarity between the emblem on Kaiser Wilhelm’s helmet (#1), the eagle on his helmet (#2), and the collective insignia on the hat of Loyal Friend. Ms. Cho claimed no research into these particular icons, citing the fact that many countries throughout time have used some combination of birds and wings as their national image.

 

Overall, Linda cited Gustave Doré’s illustrations as inspiring her with their Assyrian (or Babylonian) look and recalled having used a color palette that came from a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Here is one of her colored drawings for Die Vögel:

Sad to say, this creature was a victim of collateral damage: Looking at the lower extremities, one can see that this stork had been intended to be a full-blown Stilt Walker, but the steep rake of the stage precluded the use of stilts, and so this bird was hatched both stillborn and extinct.

Looking ahead, we anticipate color coordination that will emphasize Figaro’s conspiratorial nature and the (ultimate) conciliatory outlook of both Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette.

Acknowledgements:

1.   The photo of Ms. Cho holding the head coverings was taken by Bob Bernard
2.   
All other color photos were taken by Robert Millard for LAO
3.   
The two B/W photo images of Kaiser Wilhelm came from the archives of Google
4.   
The photo image of the sketch of The Stork Stilt Walker was taken from LAO’s Press & Media website and is,
        as shown, copyrighted by Linda Cho
5.   
Ed Lieb provided the intellectual stimulus that jump-started this project

 

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Author: Judy Lieb
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