This past summer working on the RING cycle at Seattle Opera went beyond just another show to work – it was the 3rd time I’d done the production and that meant LOTS of favorite performers and friends returning – kind of like a family reunion, but with people you like! There was Greer Grimsley, Luretta Bybee, Margaret Jane Wray, Richard Paul Fink, Rosetta Greek and Stephanie Blythe.
Ms. Blythe is super talented, and even more fun to hang out with. My first chance to work with her was on the RING production in 2005. I’ve been on several operas with her since, but I’d never made her a sock monkey. I decided that THIS would be her year. If you’re not familiar with the RING, there are four separate operas in the “cycle”, and Stephanie sang more than one role/character, but her most iconic and gorgeous was Fricka, the wife of Wotan, King of the Gods. I decided Fricka was the right monkey for her.
Stephanie’s real Fricka costume* was a grey, wool jersey dress with a quilted silk coat appliquéd with metal tags in an abstract tribal pattern. But I had to figure out how to do it in sock monkey size! I started with the dress and figured the easiest thing to do would be to create it in wool felt so I’d have less finishing work on the seams. It didn’t drape as well as jersey, but I got it done in about an hour, including some decorative silver braid I used on the sleeves to replicate the actual embroidery. I found a small piece of the dress trim in our costume patch kit, cut it down to monkey size and fused it to the front closure. It looked great and Fricka was well underway.
The coat proved more difficult as it was an asymmetrical pattern that was part kimono/part coat with pieces turned back on themselves. I found a turquoise/teal silk similar to the real version and figured I’d save time just quilting the outer turquoise to the grey silk lining and trim the whole thing with bias tape rather than make two separate pieces and sew them together like in standard construction. Quilting all the straight lines was easy (and the kind of sewing I like), but it took almost two hours to do!
After the quilting was all done, my boss Ron stepped in to assist me with the pattern. I have to say once again how much knowledge and help he is. Professor of Costume and Design at Cornish College of the Arts, he can just “see” how all the parts fit together when I’m standing there thinking “Is this the front or the back?” So Ron mapped out my pattern pieces, we got it cut out, and I started making yards of bias tape.
I also had to make the little metal “God tags” to appliqué on the coat. I hit on the idea of using pin backs – I cut the pin part off, then put some antiquing/patina on them with a marking pen. After stitching them to the coat, I finished assembling it. It was so heavy on the monkey it kept sliding off, so I added some snaps to the coat and dress to make sure it stayed on. I mean, even for a sock monkey, it’s all about looking good, right?
The last step was the wig. Stephaine/Fricka had this beautiful, long hair in several shades of blonde/brown with braids, twists and ribbons worked into it. I knew mine would be less intricate, but thought I could give her a close approximation by using a couple different colors of yarn to start. I machine sewed the yarn onto a piece of bias tape so I only had the tape to sew to the monkey’s head, not individual yarn strands. I worked in some silk ribbons I made from my leftover coat fabric and I had a pretty good version going. But I didn’t like the white monkey head showing under the hair, so I took a large tapestry needle threaded with one of the yarns I was using and sewed it vertically across the back of her head to cover the white – perfect!
The finishing touch was the face. I used a couple of different buttons to make the blue eyes more interesting, and I gave her big, thick black lashes like Stephanie wears – so cute – and she was ready for her debut.
Stephanie was thrilled to receive her, and couldn’t believe she was being presented with one of my “famous” monkeys. I told her she was joining my inner circle of favorite opera singers and she rewarded me with a big hug and kiss, and a few tears of joy and gratitude. I thought she might squeeze the stuffing out of her little monkey as she paraded her around the foyer of the dressing suite showing her off…..
…..and THAT’S why I love making my monkeys!
You’re going to want to know more about Stephanie Blythe – check out this youtube video of her show “Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate Smith”. She’s got a fantastic new album out too – As Long As There Are Songs (you’ll find it on iTunes). She nails one of my all time favorites, “How Deep is the Ocean?” – trust me, you’re going to love it!
*The costumes for Seattle Opera’s production of THE RING, were designed by the super-talented, Tony-award winning costume designer Marty Paklidenaz. He passed away in 2012 from brain cancer, and his absence was sorely missed on this production. He was loved by all of us in the wardrobe department for his amazing work and wonderful humor…
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?
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 –
It always amazes me at what a small town Seattle seems like at times. There I was shopping at the Pike Place Market a couple weeks ago, and who should I run into but the awesome tenor, Alex Mansoori. Now in NYC, Alex originally grew up just east of here in Issaquah, and he and his girlfriend Laura were in town to see the parents. It was great timing too, because I had yet to get his sock monkey in the mail to him and his visit gave me the opportunity to deliver it in person.
Alex is one of those people I liked from the moment I met him. He was in the Young Artists Program at Seattle Opera, and one of the first things to stand out about him was his voice – gorgeous! When I sing in my head, I wish I sounded like Alex does. The fact that he’s got a great sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. I worked with him on two YAP productions, then was his dresser on his mainstage debut at Seattle Opera in “Amelia”, where he played a Viet Cong killer. Sorry Alex, but I had a hard time buying that one, but you looked great on stage! Last winter he had a larger role in the production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” as Juan, and that’s where the sock monkey comes in.
As I’ve mentioned before, I like to do monkeys for people I’ve worked with and have an established relationship with, so creating a monkey for Alex was a no-brainer. First of all, he had an awesome period costume – all in red with doublet, breeches, a big, swirling cape and these cool, cuffed boots. I found my own fabric for the costume, creating the breeches from a silk/linen fabric, the doublet from a beautiful silk dupioni, and as always, I found the perfect buttons for eyes and even a vintage belt buckle in my Aunt Fofo’s button box. Fate stepped in to guide me to a terrific old 1950s sword-shaped hors d’oeuvres pick in the shape of a sword – perfect! I wasn’t able to recreate the wavy locks of his wig in my yarn version (which I don’t have a picture of), but it’s not bad. As so often happens with my creations, it takes me a lot longer than the run of a given show to finish, so Alex was united with Juan a few months late. But Alex loved the monkey, so that’s all that really mattered.
Seems as if Quichotte/Quixote are popping into my life again soon – Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting the ballet “Don Quixote” next month and I’m working on it. Yes, there’s already a sock monkey in the works…stay tuned!