SALT LAKE CITY — When she’s at work, Verona Green sits just feet away from a walk-in closet straight out of a dream.
It's got just about everything a person could want or need: vests, tuxedos, military uniforms, ball gowns, kimonos — even a special section called “pleasant peasants.”
Green, the costume director for Utah Opera who has been with the company for more than 30 years, oversees the huge warehouse located near West High School. As she thinks back to the evolution of costumes over the company’s 40-plus years, it’s stunning for her to think of how it all began. In some ways, she finds it laughable.
Initially, Utah Opera housed its costumes in Daynes Music, then located in downtown Salt Lake City, and Green recalls hearing live piano music floating up from the other side of the wall as she sat in a tight space crammed with sewing machines, working intently on costumes. As a pianist, Green welcomed the musical accompaniment. But those grand pianos provided another service to Utah Opera: makeshift wardrobes.
“We used old boxes that (the) pianos came in and put rods in them to hang clothes up,” Green recalled. “It was hilarious.”
Utah Opera purchased its current production facility, including the warehouse, in 1995. A recent visit found Green walking row after row of that impressive costume closet, concluding at a much marked up whiteboard on the far wall. A glance at it shows that Green and her costume team's handiwork doesn't simply collect dust on the racks — it revealed that in September alone, Utah Opera costumes went to both Opera Colorado and to Canada for Vancouver Opera’s production of “The Merry Widow.” The board also shows that early next year, costumes will make the journey to Louisville, Kentucky, for Kentucky Opera’s production of “Rigoletto.”
Renting out costumes is a fluctuating business and the whiteboard doesn’t keep track of it all, but it does illustrate one thing: Utah Opera’s costumes are in high demand.
“We’ll have a bunch of companies that will contact us starting in November for their spring (productions),” Green said. “We’ve got a group of at least 25 companies that we’ve rented to (over the years) that will call us.”
Costumes aren't the company's only commodity — Utah Opera also rents out many of its sets. The company's costumes and set for Charles Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette" — which has been rented out to other opera companies throughout the United States — will be on display when "Romeo et Juliette" takes the Capitol Theatre stage Oct. 13-21, complete with the iconic balcony.
‘A one-truck show’
The company’s in-house built set for "Romeo et Juliette" is just one of two sets for the show that opera companies have available for rent, according to Jared Porter, Utah Opera’s technical director for the past 17 years. Since it was built for Utah Opera's original production in 1998, the "Romeo et Juliette" set has been rented by half a dozen regional opera companies over the years: Cleveland Opera in 1999, Indianapolis Opera and Fort Worth Opera in 2003, Hawaii Opera in 2008, San Diego Opera in 2010 and, most recently, Vancouver Opera in 2011.
But "Romeo et Juliette" is just one of about 20 sets Utah Opera rents out to other opera companies.
Considering it takes anywhere from three to nine months to build a set, and the cheapest set Porter and his team of carpenters, steel workers and welders have worked on took $90,000 to build (more expensive sets have gone as high as $350,000), it’s rewarding — and cost effective — to see the sets travel the country to other opera companies.
This season alone, seven opera companies are renting Utah Opera’s sets. Compared to the bigger opera companies in cities like San Diego, Seattle and Houston that typically charge around $80,000 for set rentals, Porter said Utah Opera is significantly more affordable.
“It doesn’t make me any money sitting here in the warehouse,” he said. “So we’ll be flexible and we’ll work with companies.”
Although the rental prices vary, what Porter calls “one-truck shows” — productions with a set that can be loaded into one truck — go for $10,000-$12,000, while the more expensive sets cost $30,000-$35,000 to rent. Porter estimates that Utah Opera’s “Moby-Dick” set, the company’s big project last year, will become the most expensive rental, totaling around $40,000-$45,000. Although Dayton Opera and Austin Opera have already expressed interest in renting the elaborate set, the technical director said it won’t be available until 2020, after the set has its run with a co-producing opera company in Barcelona.
‘A 10-box show’
In addition to the 20 sets available for rent, the costumes Utah Opera creates also provide an important source of revenue — Green said purchasing a production’s full costume package can average $14,000-$18,000 — but the rental program originally began more than 30 years ago as a service to employees.
“It was to get our costumes known and it was also to make sure the people that were working in the costume department had more employment,” Green said. “At that point, we were only working full-time three or four weeks before a show, and then we would work bits and pieces in-between. (We wanted) to keep people that were really good at what they did working for the company because … people who go place to place to place are not invested in the company.”
Word of mouth and a website have gone a long way for Utah Opera. While the company used to rent out just a handful of costumes during its early days — partly due to limited space — shipping costumes to other opera companies today now requires multiple large boxes and a detailed packaging and loading system. Green has it “down to a science.”
“When we package (costumes) up, we do them in sets,” she said. “Everything is written up, and where the chorister’s name (is listed), if it’s for ‘La boheme’, in that bag it would have a bodice, a skirt, a petticoat, gloves, a muffler, a scarf and then the hat would be packaged separately so it doesn't get destroyed. It would have a piece of plastic over the whole thing so when they open the box they just pick up (the entire outfit) and hang it up.”
One of the trickier operas to package is the “The Merry Widow,” a production Green calls a “10-box show.” With 13 leads and all the women wearing gigantic hats that could rival Audrey Hepburn’s in “My Fair Lady,” hats fill up two of the 10 boxes — the full costume set costs a staggering $26,000 to rent. That doesn’t include the shipping cost, which Green estimated could be around $900 each way if it was being shipped more than 1,500 miles.
Sending those intricately designed costumes across the country is just one risk Utah Opera faces with this service — Green recalled an incident years ago when costumes developed a layer of mildew after sitting in a leaky truck. Fortunately, the company always requires a damage deposit for when such mishaps arise.
Preserving costumes — especially when they’re out of Utah Opera’s hands traveling the country — can be a feat more challenging than packaging up costumes for “Merry Widow.” Many of the “Romeo et Juliette” costumes in Utah Opera’s upcoming run are from the original 1998 production, but Green did have to create a few new items and adapt existing ones. But something else beyond the company’s control also contributes to the remarkable preservation: location, location location.
“We’re in a dry environment which makes it a lot better because the companies on the East Coast have to (work) to take the humidity out," Green said. "So it’s the luck of the draw. If we were paying for the massive systems to suck the air out, we couldn't afford to do that.”
A 40-year journey
As Green wanders among the costumes, she runs her fingers over the seams. This is where much of the magic happens.
“The costumes are designed to have the right look, but we build them in a way that we can alter them,” she said. “You can’t make a dress go from a size two to a size 26, but you can alter it so you can go from a 2 to a 12. You can’t make it go from somebody that’s 5 foot 2 inches to somebody that’s 6 foot 2 inches, but you can put seams in in a way to make it go from 5 foot 2 inches to 5 foot 8 inches.”
This combination of high quality and flexibility — not to mention the fact that Utah Opera takes care of the alterations — is why many opera companies throughout the world have their eyes on Utah Opera.
“There’s nothing that we’ve built that’s stayed on the racks. Not one thing,” Green said. “There’s (some) opera companies we’ve dealt with that said, ‘We’re not going to rent from you again because we’re going to start our own costumes.’ They had this idea that it would be cheap to start, but to start something now, it’s too expensive. If you had to start now, to build up (to what we have), it would be almost impossible. This is 40 years in the making.”
If you go …
What: Utah Opera's “Romeo et Juliette”
When: Oct. 13 and 19, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 15 and 17, 7 p.m.; Oct. 21, 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $15-$108