My job at the opera is so much easier and lots more fun when a favorite singer is part of the production, and at the top of my favorites list is tenor Bill Burden. Bill has one of those voices that is incredibly expressive and beautiful, and so recognizable it’s in a class of its own – “The 3 a.m. Voice” – if you woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning and heard his voice on the radio, you’d know instantly who it is. I first worked with him on the 2006 production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, with the amazing mezzo soprano, Stephanie Blythe – talk about operatic musical heaven! – and this production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (with the gorgeous soprano, Davinia Rodriguez) would be our 6th show working together. Bill is so easy to work with, treats everyone like a million bucks and he has the distinction of owning two of my opera sock monkeys: Dodge, from Amelia, and Edgardo from Lucia di Lamermoor. For several weeks I’d been wondering what to do as a momento of the show for him, figuring a 3rd sock monkey would take it from cool to lame/overkill real fast. I mean how many sock monkeys does an opera star really need, even if I did make them?
You probably remember from reading my bio (you have read it, haven’t you?), that I have a background in collecting vintage Barbie doll stuff and used to write for magazines about it. One of the things that still floats my boat about vintage Barbie, are the amazing clothing ensembles from the 1960s still in their original packaging. Mattel was on the cutting edge of marketing toys to kids in the ’50s and ’60s, and when you look at the way this stuff was packaged, no wonder kids had to have it! I remember walking down the Barbie aisle of the Giant T Drugstore or Valu-Mart and being overwhelmed by the dazzling display of Barbie clothes in those striped boxes hanging from the wall and how they were just waiting to be ripped open! It got me thinking, why not just give Bill a “fashion” for one of his existing monkeys? His costume as Orpheus was really basic – white jeans and a white tunic – so the magic of what I wanted to do was going to be in the accessories. Anyone who collects vintage dolls or action figures knows that assembling the accessories to an outfit is the fun/frustrating part and what can really make the cost skyrocket. Focusing on the accessories also let me get crafty, which I love too. I decided Orpheus would need his tunic (he had white pants for “Dodge”), medallion, lyre, golden apple and blindfold. And, I wanted the tunic, medallion and blindfold to be correctly scaled so the monkey could actually wear them if they ever came out of the package – yeah, I know, a bit too obsessive, but look at the stuff I make!
- Medallion: easy – my buddy Marc in the Props Dept. had a drilled gold coin for me to use and I picked up the chain in a thrift store.
- Golden Apple: easy too – an apple from a faux centerpiece at the thrift store painted gold.
- Lyre: kind of tricky. Everything I found was way too big or way too small. I finally settled on the lyre you’d use on a clarinet or trumpet to hold your music in marching band. Back to buddy Marc who took all the welded stuff off of it for me so I’d just have the lyre itself, then I glued straight pins on the back for the “strings.”
- Blindfold: easy, but with a bit of work. I ended up using a black sheer nylon because the original black jersey piece I’d made looked too dark and thick when packaged. The sheer reads as “lighter” in the package, and it’s a bit more theatrical and is something we would actually use on stage so a performer could see through it.
- Tunic: pretty easy because I had leftover scraps from Bill’s actual costume, I just had to sew it together. The most difficult part of the construction was to have it open in back so it could go over a monkey’s head if it needed to. For those of you who sew, I’d like to point out that the opening has a continuous lap placket – something I’ve learned to do recently and am damn proud of having actually done it! I’m using it a lot now because it gives a much more finished look to sock monkey garments (particularly the tail opening in skirts and pants), and it worked out great here.
The most fun I had with this was putting it all together. I used blue poster board so the items would stand out more, and blue was used as a predominant costume color in the show. I made a header card with some information about the “product”, and added the stock #0312 – March 2012 – to commemorate the production date, and as an homage to the old doll packaging. The finished piece measures about 11″ x 16″ and is complete with a hole in the header card to hang it for “sale” at the store. I gave it to Bill on closing night of the show and it was nearly as a big a hit as he was. And yes, working on this project made me start hunting for those NRFB (Never Removed From Box) vintage Barbie doll clothes I never had when I was a kid. If only I’d had a checking account when I was five years old…..
Even if you don’t know who George and Ira Gershwin are, or have never seen a production of Porgy and Bess, you know their music. So much of the work, which was actually conceived as an opera by George Gershwin, is so ingrained in the American popular songbook that once you hear a few notes of any of the great songs like Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So, you can hum along. The work itself presents a lot of difficulties – not just from the sheer size of the cast, the different sets and the overall complexity of it, but also the political and racial questions that come from a work that’s about African Americans living in a tenement that’s written by two New York Jews and a Southern white man, DuBose Heyward.
Thankfully, our society has changed a lot since the opera’s debut in 1935, and I was excited to spend my summer working on the Seattle Opera production with a favorite baritone, Gordon Hawkins. Gordon is an amazing artist. He won the Luciano Pavarotti International Vocal Competition in 1992. He has a powerful voice with a rare ability to make it emotionally heartbreaking and tender. I actually cried backstage a couple times listening to him and the pain and longing he conveyed as the disabled beggar, Porgy – just too beautiful!
Of course, I wanted to do a sock monkey for him, but I was a bit gun shy after preparing my show for the “New Visions” exhibit at McCaw Hall (see my post about “Verboten”). I thought the best way to proceed was to tell Gordon I wanted to make a Porgy for him, and let him decide if it was OK. He was all for it!
I pushed myself to add a lot of details to this character. I found a crutch from a ski set for the American Girls doll line that was the perfect size for him. I wrapped it with cloth strips from a favorite old shirt of mine, added some bits of leather and distressed it. The result came really close to the actual stage version he used, and with the club foot I gave him, he needed that crutch. My boss, Ron, helped me distress the pants and the wool I used to make the cardigan. I added a removable hankie to his cardigan
pocket, and leather tabs to his suspenders, trying to bring it as close as possible to the costume worn on stage. The most fun I had was making a felt fedora for him. I made my own pattern and kept cutting it down until it fit just right, added a hat band and distressed it.
The production was terrific – for the most part, it was an entirely new group of performers who’d never sung at Seattle Opera before, and they brought a refreshing energy and enthusiasm to the show every night. The first costume change I had backstage with Gordon was primarily an instrumental point in the show with little singing. I went a bit early to the change each night – I felt completely immersed in and surrounded by this lush, gorgeous Gershwin sound. I could hear bits of other Gershwin pop songs throughout the orchestration, and a little Rhapsody in Blue every now and then – absolute heaven!
Porgy and Bess is one of the most beautiful and fun productions I’ve worked since my first show at SO in 2002. I wish they were all like that –
If people aren’t familiar with lesser-known Broadway musicals, they usually think you’re talking about something risque if you mention the show Once Upon a Mattress. That’s too bad, because it’s a funny, family-friendly show that earned a young Carol Burnett a TONY award nomination for best actress when it premiered in 1959. An adaptation of the classic fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the musical has attracted a large amount of star power over its 50+ years for various Broadway, national tour and television versions, including Buster Keaton, Ken Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elliot Gould, Imogene Coca, Bernadette Peters, Wally Cox, Jack Gilford, Dody Goodman, Matthew Morrison, Jane Krakowski, Zooey Deschanel and Tracey Ullman.
Of course, this is an ideal show for high school theatre productions as you can put as many kids in the chorus as you like, the set isn’t too complicated, the dance numbers are comical and the music isn’t too difficult to sing. So this fall when my step-daughter Jessica was cast in her high school’s version of the show, we were proud and excited for her. And you can imagine one of the first places my brain went – sock monkey!
Jessica was to play Lady Mabelle, one of Lady Larken’s maids in waiting. She’s French and pretty much only ever says “yes”, but I think that any time a character you play has a name and you’re not just listed as “ensemble”, it’s a big deal. Jessica’s drama department doesn’t have much of a budget, so the kids had to supply their own costumes, which they ordered online. I only had a black and white photo to work with, so I found out from her mom that the dress was made of deep blue and black velvet with gold trim. I had never sewn with velvet before and it sucked! Later on my costume shop friends were all saying “Oh, you should have basted it together before sewing it,” but of course, they didn’t give me that tip until I had fought and cursed my way through the project.
Jessica has tons of beautiful, wavy brunette hair, and she looked quite beautiful in her costume. Although it’s difficult to capture beauty in a sock monkey, I tried my best with giving her big brown eyes (vintage buttons from Aunt Fofo’s button box) and some flirty eyelashes. As she is a lady, she wears satin petti-pants trimmed in lace, and I did my best to make her yarn wig look something like the style she wore her hair in for the show. The sock monkey version is really sweet, and I loved sending off and surprising her with it. I have hopes that Jessica will continue her interest in theatre and maybe even pursue a career in it. I just hope she doesn’t have to sew much with velvet.
Have you ever had a situation where you do/say/create something with a certain intent (or no intent), then somebody else comes along and puts their own spin on it and completely changes your original idea into something you never intended or never actually even imagined somebody would think of when you originated that thought or idea? Such is the case with VERBOTEN – the sock monkey that dare not show her face.
During a production of Lucia di Lamermoor at Seattle Opera last season, it was our good fortune to have among the supernumaries Miss Rosetta Greek. Rosetta is one of the coolest, most creative people I know – she is the kick-ass proprietress of Heavens To Betsie, and a very talented actress. She also inspired me to start my own sock monkeys after she created the beautiful Mermonkey, Atlantis, a few years ago. So it wasn’t difficult to decide I wanted to make a sock monkey for Rosetta based on her character, The Love-Cursed Bride, in the opera.
I wanted to do something different for this monkey – a different look and I wanted it to be special for Rosetta. I found a pair of gray, vintage socks I thought would be perfect for a ghost, I had some lovely silk for the wedding gown and matching gloves (trimmed with real vintage mother-of-pearl buttons from Aunt Fofo’s button box), I made her a real boned corset, some lace-trimmed bloomers and I hand beaded the veil similar to what was on her original costume. She is beautiful! But that’s not quite the end of the story.
As you’ve seen from my other posts, I had a show at McCaw Hall during the opera’s production of Porgy and Bess over the summer. I submitted photos of my work and I got the green light that I was chosen to exhibit. Then the problems began. When you assemble a sock monkey, the heel becomes the head, face and mouth of it. My ghostly gray sock had a black heel, so the monkey had a black head, face and mouth. I received an email a couple weeks before the show that the Ghost Bride would not be allowed in the show because it would “potentially offend patrons.” Huh? This was followed by another email a few days later telling me I could not refer to my work as “sock monkeys” because the term “monkey” was used to negatively refer to African Americans. Wow. And this is 2011?
I found it rather difficult to believe that anyone was going to look at my work and read it as offensive (so not what this project/endeavor has ever been about), but I offered to call them “sock puppets” (even thought they’re not) and be done with it. I did find it interesting that the Seattle Opera’s blog showed photos of the Ghost Bride and referred to my work as sock monkeys, but then I wasn’t in charge of that, was I?
Anyway, the show got a lot of positive feedback, Rosetta was thrilled with her monkey, my friend Rozarii did an amazing photo of her, and I think she’s still my favorite. After all the “trouble” she caused, Rosetta decided to name her Verboten, which I think is absolutely perfect. And just in case you’re wondering, they were called sock monkeys when they were invented 70+ years ago and they have tails like real monkeys do. What do you think?
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?”
Earlier this summer when I was the featured “New Visions” artist at McCaw Hall, the Seattle Opera blog featured some photos of my sock monkeys and a story about me. I was pretty chatty when they interviewed me, and there’s a couple of pretty good quotes – check it out here. You may notice they’re called sock puppets – I wasn’t allowed to call them sock “monkeys” because the term “monkey” could potentially offend opera patrons. Go figure…..
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.