The Costumes of Dallas Opera's Everest

By Joe Kucharski - February 4, 2015

Everest at The Dallas Opera is a masterful new work produced to full breathtaking effect for its World Premiere. In an age of closing opera houses, Dallas Opera showcases the type of work that is injecting an exciting bolt of energy to a classical art form. Taking full advantage of what opera does best, Everest tells a gut-wrenching story through a soaring score by Joby Talbot (his opera debut), captivating libretto by Gene Scheer, incredibly talented cast, and powerfully moving design by the entire creative team.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Photo by: Karen Almond.

 

A wonderful example of the heights a production can reach with such a collaborative group of designers, and a lengthy gestation period. The impact of Everest lies in the seamless transition between visual stage elements. The abstract set by Robert Brill, a serious of cubes arranged in striking composition, serves as a powerful opening visual and dynamically speaks to the overwhelming terrain of the mountaintop and the mind. Projections designer Elaine McCarthy splashes jaw-dropping images across this rocky canvas, moving us through the landscape and story, building tension and punctuating each climactic moment. Costume designer David C. Woolard so beautifully bridges the gap between the mountain and the characters through brilliant costuming of both an ethereal chorus and realistic lead characters.

 

The opera is based on real people and the creative team knew they needed to respect that as they brought them to life on stage. “As for the chorus, we all knew they had to be visually tied to the mountain,” Woolard explains. “I wanted them to actually be part of the mountain. Since the scenery was going to be large cubes, I realized that if the chorus was the same color they would feel as part of the mountain.”

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Photo by: Karen Almond.

 

The challenge early on became determining a color for both the set and costumes that would work well to portray a snowy mountaintop, and showcase the abundance of projections. “When we were in Dallas last year for a workshop,” Woolard said, “Robert, Elaine, and I were able to spend time looking at color and agreeing what the color should be. At that time I had sketched ideas for the costumes and Robert had a model. Elaine was able to project on the model so we could all see where we had to go.” While it appears white from the audience, Woolard explains that the color utilized for both set and chorus costumes is actually a light grey. “We looked at a number of fabrics, as going through the scrap boxes in a costume shop is a pretty effective way to pick colors. Robert picked out Gray Shimmer, which was as close as possible to the fabric swatch that we all had agreed on. Gray Shimmer is a Behr color available at Home Depot, so anyone anywhere could see the actual color which is always better when matching than sharing online as we all live in different cities.”

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Costume research, costume designer David C. Woolard.

 

While the color of all of the chorus costumes is the same, each is incredibly complex and different from the others. With the 16 chorus members, Woolard wanted to represent the array of people who had climbed Everest throughout history.  “I did a lot of research on what clothing had been worn through the years for climbing. Once I had a sense of that I did not necessarily want to create the actual historical people. If someone in the audience says ‘oh that's Mallory’ that is fine, but I did not think it needed to be exact, more the feel of 1922-1996 climbing costumes, the old wool sack coats to modern Cordura zip coats,” he explained.  Woolard also used details in hats and accessories to create an array of silhouettes, individualizing each performer.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Chorus costume sketch, costume designer David C. Woolard.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Chorus costume sketch, costume designer David C. Woolard.

Limited by color, he made expert use of a wide range of textures to add depth and interest.  “I looked for as many differing textures in the color and white to dye for the costumes we made.” Color matching a variety of fabrics and fibers, from yardage for built costumes to purchased garments, became the main challenge for The Dallas Opera costume shop. “Of course every fiber takes the dye differently so getting them all the same was a lot of samples and testing. Most of the accessories were painted with Angelus shoe paint, which seemed to work well. Some of the more modern costumes we were able to find white clothing and then alter and dye them,” Woolard explains. “We of course scoured the internet to find what would look like period snow goggles and vintage hats.”

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Chorus costumes, costume designer David C. Woolard.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Chorus costume textures, costume designer David C. Woolard.

 

With the use of one color merging the world of the chorus and the set, Woolard was able to explore a range of colors to pop the main characters. This also served to help streamline the story, allowing the audience to easily identify characters trekking across the wilderness at every moment. Some of the choices were based on what the characters wore in real life. Beck Weathers, for instance, wore a red coat on that climb, and Woolard felt that was the right choice to cut through the landscape, drawing attention to him in every scene. He utilized other primary colors, including particular shades popular in the late 1990s for the performers portraying Rob Hall and Doug.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Photo by: Karen Almond.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Photo by: Karen Almond.

 

A wonderfully powerful use of costume design and color appeared in the portrayal of Jan Arnold, Rob Hall’s pregnant wife, and a key representation of the world outside of the mountaintop. An early scene, a flashback to before his current climb, portrays an optimistic Hall and Arnold. Jan is bathed in warm light, wearing a yellow sundress and clutching her small baby bump. Later, as she paces the floor, waiting for that fateful last phone call from Rob, she wears a long dress in a pattern that resembles ice fractals layered with a steely lavender cardigan. This subtly in color and layering of one of the few characters that changes costumes painted those touching last moments between the couple in breathtaking somber beauty.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Photo by: Karen Almond.

 

But it is the final costume change of the opera that was by far the most poetic of the night. After Rob and Doug succumb to the conditions of Everest, they reappear in a light grey, chorus version of their previous look, exposing the audience to the eerie beauty of having spent the evening with the ghosts of Everest’s past, as the names of all of those that have come before are lit across the stage.

Everest at The Dallas Opera. Photo by: Karen Almond. 

This powerful moment is topped only by witnessing Beck find the strength to come down from the mountain, encouraged by the image of his daughter. The warmth of candles fill the stage, as Beck descends from the cubes of the set, the only performer to be seen on the stage floor, and rescued as he is helped off stage.

 

An incredibly powerful new work and a phenomenal use of design come together to round out a moving opera. Don’t miss your chance to experience Everest at The Dallas Opera.