The costume makes the man, or woman, at Michigan Opera Theatre

Have you ever wondered why some films, like The Great Gatsby, Braveheart, or The Grand Budapest Hotel make you fall in love with them? Yes, these movies have great scripts and wonderful lead actors, but they also enlist excellent wardrobe design and costume directors who help depict the characters and transport you to another place.

Costume design in opera is no less important. In the past decades, the Michigan Opera Theatre has produced Carmina Burana, Cyrano, and Frida. The grand scale of these productions turn the costume department into a small factory, where MOT Costume Director Suzanne Hanna and her team work furiously to design, cut, sew, and assemble costumes for dozens of singers who need to command the stage. “The costume helps develop the character,” explains Hanna.

In 1998, two years after the Detroit Opera House held its grand opening, opera lover and patron Lee Barthel saw that the design studio was ill-equipped to do world-class productions and gifted the MOT with financing for the construction of a new space.

“Many things were needed, and at the time when MOT was developing the broadway side [of the Opera House], there was nothing but empty, old space,” Barthel says. “Costumes are a significant part of opera productions, it had to be done.”

Walk into the current facility and you will see a top-notch modern facility — a finished space equipped with a dye room to custom dye fabric, an in-house laundry facility, and proper built-in storage — commandeered by outstanding designers.

Past the mannequins and racks of clothes, way in the back of the studio, are large cutting tables full of luxurious silk-embroidered fabrics and upholstery-weight brocade. The fabric is leftover from the opera, Cyrano, which was created in 2008 by MOT founder David DiChiera, and was performed again a few months ago as part of a year-long celebration to commemorate DiChiera’s retirement.

Asked the cost of such sumptuous fabric, Hanna mouths, “A LOT.” She continues, “Some of the fabric cost over a $150 a yard and a dress could take up to ten yards to make.”

Cyrano is set in the 1640’s early modern France, so the 162 costumes were a significant part of the opera’s production budget. Some of the dress cost upward of $1,500 in fabric alone, and only a handful of stores in the U.S. carry the kind of textile needed to create such courtly attire. Lucky for MOT, Haberman Fabrics in Royal Oak is one such shop.

The production of Cyrano happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Haberman Fabrics, and owner Toby Haberman wanted to do something special. Born and raised in Detroit, Haberman is committed to the arts. She spent part of her college years at the University of Michigan designing for campus productions, so contributing to the making of Cyrano seemed like a perfect way to celebrate. “I told David, ‘Listen, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered in your fabric,’” Haberman says.

To the Habermans, donation of the fabric was not only a way to celebrate their silver anniversary and support the production, it was also a way to set an artistic standard. Haberman wanted audiences to discover the glamour and artistry of operatic design and to bask in the allure of the rich fabrics and brocade. “I want to make the stage presence at MOT comparable to what audiences would have going to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York,” Haberman says. “I want Detroit to be known as one of the leading art centers of our country.”

After the financial crisis of the 2009 season, the Michigan Opera Theatre lost General Motors and Chrysler as corporate sponsors, and money from the state came to a halt. Gifts like those of the Habermans and the Barthels allow the shows to go on.

“They have become invaluable partners — we couldn’t imagine a more satisfying relationship in the role that they play,” says MOT President, Wayne Brown. “We look at the region as a great resource. It’s this community that has allowed David DiChiera to realize his dream.”

In 2014, the MOT set out to create a production based on the life of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo is a global icon who is known as much for the clothes that she wore as for her talent as a painter. She donned indigenous clothing from the Tehuana women of Oaxaca and wore colorful flowers and ribbons in her hair. And while it might seem easy to interpret her style, “It was actually quite a challenge,” says designer Monika Essen. “The undertaking was enormous.”Award-winning designer Essen was invited by DiChiera to recreate the look of the painter. Essen idolizes Kahlo and dove into the research. She spent months intimately studying her history, art, self-portraits, and photographs so she could translate Kahlo’s iconic look to the stage. Authenticity was a must, so a trip to Mexico was planned. Once there, Essen was able to purchase one-of-a-kind, hand-embroidered clothing pieces and jewelry. “We had to make sure that we got all the details right, this [Kahlo] is such a beloved human being,” Essen says. “We are creating an opera based on one particular character that people know so very much about.”

Essen’s main objective in designing costumes for Frida was to portray her personality as an artist and as a woman. “She was a very theatrical character; she was outrageous, she had a huge personality, and mixed and matched things together to get her unique look,” Essen elaborates. “We also had to depict some of the suffering she went through and how she disguised her physical abnormality.” Kahlo contracted polio as a child, which left her right leg thinner than the left, which Kahlo disguised by wearing long skirts.

Essen designed the costumes, then she and Hanna worked together to bring the designs to life. The production was hailed by critics and all six performances sold out. For her work on Frida, Essen was honored with The Wilde Award — named in honor of 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde — which honors the best productions and performances presented by professional theaters across Michigan.

Next season, MOT is producing another biographical opera, The Summer King, based on the life of Josh Gibson, a legendary Negro League baseball player who is now considered one of the greatest of all time. The opera covers fame, love, family trouble and systemic racism. To help heighten the drama and capture the incredible style of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Hanna and her team will be working hard.

“We want the visuals at MOT to be the most stimulating and arresting,” says CEO Wayne Brown. “It’s the totality of the production that makes a great opera, and the costume shop is integral to that.”