It’s another summer RING at Seattle Opera (you can read all about that if you click here), and as this is the third one I’ve worked since 2005, lots of my favorite singers are back in town, including several who own my sock monkeys! You can click on the following to see my creations for performers Greer Grimsley, Gordon Hawkins and Rosetta Greek. But I’ve never posted pictures of the monkey I made for the super talented Luretta Bybee.
Luretta is a southern lady. She’s beautiful, charming, gracious, is a Chair of Vocal Arts at the New England Conservatory, has a wonderful sense of humor and she’s a mezzo-soprano opera star with a heavenly voice. A couple years back, Seattle Opera produced a new work, Amelia, and Luretta was cast as Amanda, a 1960s homemaker who was the mother of the show’s namesake, Amelia. I’d worked with her on several shows before this, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for her to get her own monkey.
Now you could put Luretta in a tin can and she’d look gorgeous, but she literally stepped out of a guest starring role on the Donna Reed show in her striped shirtwaist dress, pearls, and flip hairstyle – she looked amazing. The dress was pretty easy to do, but the collar was a little tricky on the smaller scale. I decided to cut it from felt and top stitch it to the dress rather than trying to do it “for real” – the notched collar was more work than I wanted to do and the felt gave it the same look as the costume. The apron was easy, but I added a hanky because my grandmother always had one in her apron or smock pocket and I think Amanda would have used one too. The character wore a locket, and I found the tiniest one I could for her. I put a little picture of her real husband – opera superstar Greer Grimsley – as well as her stage husband – the phenomenal tenor, Bill Burden – into the locket so she’d have them both close to her little monkey heart. Then I stitched on some “pearls” for earrings and got my friend Anne McGowan in the hair and makeup department to create the perfect little ’60s flip hairstyle for her. She’s awesome!
When I got ready to do the photo of her, I envisioned her standing at a stove with a pot holder in hand. Since sock monkeys don’t really have fingers to hold anything, I created an oven mitt for her, and posed her in front of my mom’s childhood toy stove from the 1940s. Let me tell you, this is no cheap Easy Bake oven, but an electric stove with a HOT hot plate and an oven with a working thermostat – my brothers and I used to make burgers in a tiny frying pan on it when we were kids. It was exactly what Amanda needed and the photo is perfect!
Luretta was so happy to get her little Amanda, and Greer told me later that it ended up costing him a lot of money because Luretta wanted to redecorate their music room to display his Wotan monkey with her. Now seriously, am I really responsible for that?
As I’ve been creating my opera sock monkeys over the last couple of years, I’ve always thought of them as a complete item – meaning it’s a one-of-a-kind creation, when it’s finished I’m done with it and then I move on to the next project. So I was really surprised a couple weeks ago when a reader in Australia contacted me about Wotan. The Wotan sock monkey was the first I ever made, as a gift for Greer Grimsley during the 2009 Ring cycle I worked with him on at Seattle Opera. Since that Wotan wasn’t available, could I make another? Ummm….sure…yes!
I used an actual vintage sock for my first creation, but knew I could easily create a monkey from the newer red heel socks I now use. However, I couldn’t use the same fabrics because I’d pieced together a few scraps from the costume shop from the original costumes, but thought I could easily find something similar. Wrong! This proved to be a bigger challenge than I planned for, and over a week I visited every fabric store in Seattle as well as half a dozen thrift stores trying to find a good match. The closest I got was with a couple of upholstery weight fabrics, which don’t drape well on a sock monkey-sized scale, but figured I’d make it work. As for the trim on the coat, there just wasn’t anything available that was close to it, and ended up with ribbon I folded in half, then hand-colored to get something similar to the original. Even with those challenges, I was really pleased with the result, especially his hair which I like better than the original – I had a skein of vintage wool yarn with a nice mottled gray color that worked out perfectly, and was easier to work with than the wig fiber I used on Wotan #1.
So here he is! And this time he’s not off to Valhalla, but Tasmania. As I packed him up to ship off, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What would Richard Wagner think?”
I make sock monkeys. Some people tell me I’m making art, but I think I’m just having fun and learning how to sew better.
For the last several years, I’ve worked as a dresser in theatre venues around Seattle, but my main gig has been at Seattle Opera in the wardrobe department where I’m the dresser for the principal male artist. In the summer or 2009, we were doing another production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, or to non-opera goers, the dreaded “Ring Cycle”. The cycle is made up of four separate operas that tell the “Ring” story, and each one of them is riduclously long – I mean really long – the whole cycle is spread over four nights and is 18+ hours long, so it’s not exactly what you call an “intro to loving opera” thing. You’ve gotta be hard core to want to sit through this. One of the operas in the cycle, Siegfired, is so long, that other operas we produced are over and done with in less time than it takes to sit through just Act I of it. This means there is lots of time where my artist is on stage singing and I am waiting for hours before he comes back for a change. How does one fill that time? Sock monkeys.
So I’m getting long-winded about this, but during this particular production I was dressing an amazing singer named Greer Grimsley (check him out here). I’m not an opera lover, but really appreciate the gifted artists I work with who are at the top of their field, and Greer is an opera superstar. I’d been his dresser on several other operas, and wanted to give him something to commemorate the shows we’d done together. About the same time, I came across pair of vintage red heel socks in a thrift store, so I thought of doing a sock monkey dressed in a smaller version of the role Greer was singing – Wotan, King of the Norse gods.
The costume shop usually has scraps left over from making the costumes, and we keep them in wardrobe for costume repairs, so I rummaged around and found what I needed to replicate Wotan’s costume. A very cool thing about this production, is the costumes were designed by Martin Paklidenaz, who has won a bunch of TONY awards and designs a lot for opera and Broadway, and these costumes were gorgeous. At this point in time, I wasn’t much of a sewer, so my really talented boss Ron helped me make a pattern and assemble it for the sock monkey. Some more help from hair and makeup department for the hairstyle, and props department for a “spear” and Wotan was complete and ready to give to Greer. He loved it, and that’s my long story of how I started making sock monkeys.
The green coat Wotan wears is what we referred to as his “God coat” (sometimes in the cycle he is “the Wanderer” and doesn’t wear the coat) – it is quilted and has hand-applied metal tags and applique. I pieced the coat together from several scraps, so had to reattach the metal tags and applique after it was done. you can’t see it in the picture, but I did give him one of those cartoon “X” eyes under his eye patch. I love the photo Barry did of this with Wotan’s home, Valhalla, up in the clouds.