It makes Zack Brown nervous when he gets such rave reviews for his sets and costumes as he did for the Washington Opera production of "The Merry Widow." "Beware of reviews that are too good," said Brown. "Directors don't like it and it may appear that things are unbalanced."
No worry. Brown, who is the company's resident scenery and costume designer, figured it was simply "more sophisticated and stylish" to set this production of "Merry Widow" in 1914 rather than the usual 1890s. "It was the last gasp before the war, a quirky, decadent period when women first exposed their feet," says Brown. "And it was the period when Paul Poiret and Mariono Fortuny were revolutionizing fashion."
No one in the opera company objected to the time change, he said. "It's closer to our own time and our eyes are more trained to see clothes this way," said Brown. In fact, some women wanted to wear the costumes to recitals or parties.
He researched the period at the costume collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and through his own sources. He would sketch a group of costumes, then some sets, then more costumes. There are 150 costumes in all for the production; those for the chorus were executed in the Washington Opera workrooms. The average cost was $1,200.
Brown laughs about some of the liberties he took. Rather than unflattering peasant dresses for the second act, Brown took another tack. "I figured Hannah was eccentric and rich enough to go to Paul Poiret and have him run up a little beaded Balkan peasant outfit."
Men's costumes are often more difficult to make than the women's, Brown says. "Uniforms have a strict form with a documented number of coat flaps and specific closures for the pelice [cloak], for example."
Brown, who created the costumes for "On Your Toes" and won two Emmys for the television production of "La Gioconda," watches current fashion closely. "You can't just be looking at one period. You have to think about what looks good to the eye today."