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…
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…..