In almost any opera, University of Kentucky costumer Susan Dudley Wigglesworth will have to create looks for at least one iconic character. For this weekend’s production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, she’s creating a who’s who of opera icons.
“Often the party scene (in Die Fledermaus) is done as a costume party,” says director Richard Kagey. “So it just made sense to give it an opera theme.”
Wigglesworth, a multitalented theater artist on stage and behind the scenes, says, “I’ve learned a lot about opera doing it. I learned, for instance, that Brünnhilde doesn’t wear horns. She in fact wears wings. But, everyone thinks of her wearing horns, so … ”
Wigglesworth stepped across her shop in the basement of UK’s Memorial Hall and picked up a pointy helmet with horns on it to portray the heroine of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” operas.
Wigglesworth — who might be best known to area audiences for her on-stage performance of Lady Macbeth in the Lexington Shakespeare Festival’s 2001 production of Macbeth — has been settling into this shop over the past year as the UK Opera’s staff costumer.
It is a role she came to through parenthood.
She had been interested in costuming since she got her first costume performing in The Crucible at Washington’s Arena Stage when she was 10.
“Every time someone made me a costume, I loved it,” Wigglesworth said.
She learned to sew and do embroidery and, when she was studying in England, got a job as a stitcher at Berman’s and Nathan’s, a London costume shop famous for its historical wardrobes.
“Mostly, I took costumes apart, took trim off,” Wigglesworth says. “You can learn a lot about how a costume is made by taking it apart.”
She continued working in costuming at New York’s 14th Street Costume Shop between acting jobs but, as she got more into professional theater, particularly in Los Angeles, she found union rules restricted her costuming activity. After she stepped off the stage, she launched a design business, even designed a few Oscar dresses, before setting everything aside to move to Kentucky with her husband and have children.
Then, with her daughters at the Lexington Ballet, “I became a ballet mom,” Wigglesworth says.
She became the ballet mom who handled costumes.
That work eventually led to several costuming gigs in the region, including Transylvania University’s theater program and Indiana University’s opera program.
Her first job with UK was the 2007 production of Carmen, which led to a brief job with Indiana when she went up there to rent costumes for the show.
But she discovered that UK was a better fit, in large part because it offered her a chance to design.
“It’s very creative, and I get a lot of interface with students,” she says.
And her ideas are heard, such as dueling Lucias.
Among the opera icons who show up at the party will be two women both in the bloody wedding dress of the title character in Lucia di Lammermoor, which was UK’s fall 2008 production.
“We had these two great Lucia dresses,” Wigglesworth says, recalling the opera, which was double-cast. “So we have the two of them coming into the party wearing the exact same dress, and there’s a little standoff, so that’s fun.”
Other characters the audience will see include the title character in Pagliacci in his white clown outfit, Don Jose and Carmen from Carmen, Venus from Tannhäuser and Violetta from La Traviata.
In addition to the icons, Wigglesworth has been designing the looks for the lead characters in Fledermaus, including the glamorous Rosalinde. Because this opera is also double-cast, Wigglesworth relishes her chance to play with multiple ideas for the same character.
Stroking the lace on the shoulder of one of the dresses, Wigglesworth says, “Richard told me it wasn’t possible to make this dress ‘too much.’ I do wish I had the leisure to test him on that.”
For Wigglesworth, making opera costumes has been too much fun.