For Edmonton Opera‘s production of Hansel and Gretel in February 2019, resident costume designer head of wardrobe Deanna Finnman wanted to create a really unique look for the familiar character of the Sandman. Instead of the typical “whimsical human” look, Finnman and the artistic team created a giant tree that integrated projections, lighting, makeup, costume, set pieces and an actor. It’s one of her favourite — and, because it was a tree, most challenging — costumes that she’s done in her 18 years with Edmonton Opera.
“It was quite magical when it came together, but it took months of planning and thinking through, and many, many people to get it to work,” Finnman says. “It was also the first time I’d ever used fibre optics (for the children’s costumes) and LED lights in a costume (Sandman), and that was really fun.”
This sort of collaboration is typical at Edmonton Opera, where Finnman works behind the scenes to create the elaborate costumes that help bring every story to life and lend new interpretations to often centuries-old works.
Finnman trained in (now defunct) fibre art and fashion design programs in Alberta, with her sights set on becoming a clothing designer. Not too far off course, she ended up as a freelance costume designer in Edmonton, creating pieces for a number of local theatre companies including St. Albert Children’s Theatre, Phoenix Theatre and Workshop West and, since 2001, Edmonton Opera. In 2011, she joined the Edmonton Opera team full-time.
Before Finnman starts a sketch or threads a needle, about a year in advance of each show she talks with the entire artistic team about the direction in which they want to take the production.
“Opera is kind of like Shakespeare — it can be reinterpreted a hundred times over,” Finnman says. “[The director and I] talk about what the psychological journey is of each of the characters. I spend a lot of time with the libretto (spoken words) and music, reading the words and trying to figure out how they resonate and what the character arc is.” Finnman and the team consider things like time period and geography and mood, all of which inform the final look and feel of the costumes.
“It’s a shared experience, and every show is different because every director and artistic team works a little bit differently. In this business it’s really about trust and coming together to create that vision of what the piece is about.”
For the production of Rigoletto (October 19-25), Finnman says she spent two months with the rest of the artistic team talking about the show and researching before even starting to delve into what the costumes would look like. When she does get started, Finnman puts pencil to paper to sketch out initial designs that are discussed back and forth and altered in conversation with the director. Once final designs are approved, Finnman works on sourcing and sewing pieces with a team of about 10 seamstresses, cutters, milliners and tailors, then coordinates final looks with the hair and makeup departments.
For Rigoletto, Finnman describes the final look as “tech-noir and cyberpunk.”
“Rigoletto is a really challenging piece, particularly because it’s in the post-#MeToo movement, and it deals with some heavy issues about the treatment of women. It has a relevance to today’s world, so we’ve set it in the not-too-distant future as a sort of cautionary tale. It’s usually done in a Renaissance style, so it’s really interesting how it all comes together.”
While it might be evident that the elaborate Edmonton Opera productions are the result of hundreds of hours of skilled labour, it might not be as obvious that each individual part of the show — every set piece, every stitch of thread in a costume — is similarly the result of hundreds of hours of skilled labour.
“A lot of what we do is something that’s quite special. It takes many highly skilled people and many hands will touch a costume,” Finnman says. “The opera is an incredibly collaborative process. Often one show encompasses over 200 people on stage and off making it happen.”