It takes a village to build a village. And a fantastically talented village to clothe one. From Costume Designer Merrily Murray-Walsh to Virginia Opera Costume Shop Director Pat Seyller and her team, the “village” behind the exquisite Pearl Fishers costumes worked tirelessly for months to craft the community of Ceylon. When the curtain was ready to rise, there were over 48 costumes created for our production. To make the costumes extraordinary, Merrily enlisted the help of Marliss Jensen, who is here with us today to discuss her unique dye-painting process that helped bring the people of Ceylon to life in such a beautiful way.
Before we get to the interview, check out our own Project Pearl Fishers: a fun video highlighting the costumes with production images and a hilarious behind-the-scenes fashion show. Watch our Cast, Chorus and Dancers strike a pose and don't miss Chad Johnson's "Blue Steel" face.
Describe your partnership with Merrily. Is this your first time working with Virginia Opera?
Yes, this is my first collaboration with Virginia Opera. Two years ago I worked with Merrily dyeing and printing costumes for the Khmer Art Ensemble’s Production of Lives of the Giants, but I did not meet her until this summer when we met to go over her sketches for The Pearl Fishers. Ours was a long distance relationship: Merrily was in Los Angeles, the Opera costume shop is in Norfolk and I’m in Minneapolis. We collaborated mostly via email and FedEx. Merrily did come to my studio for three days in August, after most of the dye-painting was completed so she could determine the placement of the silk screen motifs. The best part was the complete faith and trust that Merrily had in me. It made my job very pleasant even though it was a tremendous amount of work.
Merrily visiting Marliss at Iris Color Studio in Minneapolis
What was the inspiration for Merrily’s design?
The rare magic of Theater as Art came about with this production of The Pearl Fishers. As the painter/dyer, I was Merrily’s tool. Most costume designs are preconceived, but Merrily had a vision of how she wanted it to look without being tied to exactly-rendered sketches. This allowed our creative processes to evolve. Merrily wanted a mottled-color look on all the fabrics, so I painted a combination of warm and cool colors on each costume. This created the look of an impressionist painting on stage, which made the chorus come alive. The interaction of the warm and cool colors against each other and the luminescent quality of fiber-reactive dyes under the expert stage lighting resulted in the vision that Merrily had dreamed of seeing.
Merrily’s Costume Design Sketches for the Virginia Opera Chorus
Can you explain the dye process?
The process is called Direct Application using the Soda Soak Method and Procion MX Fiber-reactive dye. Fiber reactive dye creates a very strong bond with natural fibers and its colors are extremely luminescent under light. This particular dye-painting process was chosen as the best way to transform an assorted collage of printed fabrics into a collection of costumes that were individualized, yet cohesive as a chorus of poor fishing villagers. The principals needed to be of the same world, but stand out from the chorus.
The cotton and silk costumes were first stitched together at the Opera’s Costume Shop with the large seams left open so they could lie flat. They were then shipped to my studio in Minneapolis. After the costumes were soaked in a soda ash solution (one cup sodium carbonate per gallon of hot water) they were spun out and laid on a table covered with cotton/linen yardage so they could be painted. A solution of water, urea and sodium alginate was mixed in a blender and Procion MX fiber-reactive dye was added to the chemical water to make a paintable dye. Using a limited color palette based on Merrily’s sketches, I created color formulas that related to the fabrics and to the concept of each character. To achieve a mottled look, two or three colors of dye were painted on each costume using foam brushes. The costumes were then covered with plastic and left overnight so the dye could set. The next morning, the costumes were washed and rinsed several times and then dried in a dryer, while another batch of costumes was being painted. After the dye-painting was completed, we designed four large tribal motifs, which were then silk screened onto a number of the costumes.
What are the specific tools used to accomplish this look?
You’d need quite a few tools to accomplish this task: clothes racks, hangers, MX Fiber-reactive dyes, urea, soda ash, sodium alginate, long tables, plastic bags, cotton/linen yardage, gallon jugs, canning jars, blender, washer and dryer, foam brushes, sponges, iron, ironing board, computer, silk screens, squeegee and textile paints.
How long did this process take?
Two and a half months of 12-hour days. I looked at Merrily’s costume sketches in June and created fabric samples in July. In August I started painting the chorus and the eight dancers. At the end of August we started silk screening the motifs on the chorus.
Most of the costumes were then sent back to the costume shop for final stitching and fittings. In September I worked on the principals. For the week of dress rehearsals I flew to Norfolk and finished painting the costumes after seeing them all on stage.
You and your husband attended Opening Night of The Pearl Fishers. What did you think when you saw the costumes on stage?
Steve and I first saw all the costumes together on stage at the first dress rehearsal. We were very impressed. Then on Opening Night, as we experienced the performance with an audience, we were thrilled! We both felt that it was an extremely successful show and one of the best productions we had ever worked on. Every part was so well done; the sets, the lighting, the costumes, the orchestra, the voices of the chorus and the four principals, it all came together to enhance Bizet’s beautiful music and to clearly tell the story. You can’t get better than that.
Merrily with Steve and Marliss Jensen at Opening Night of The Pearl Fishers in Norfolk
Marliss Borenz Jensen received her BFA in painting and printmaking from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She has been dyeing professionally since beginning her career as Painter/Dyer at the Guthrie Theater in 1969. Since then she has worked on over 75 opera and theater productions including Grapes of Wrath, Margaret Garner, Silent Night and the original Broadway production of The Lion King. She has also painted costumes for a number of films, including Crossing The Bridge, The Cure, Grumpy Old Men, Tuck Everlasting, North Country and A Prairie Home Companion. Her many national and local clients have included The Minnesota Opera, Saint Louis Opera, Khmer Arts Ensemble, the rock star Prince, Jimmy Buffet and Celine Dion. Marliss also dyes custom-color archival case fabrics for museums, including The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, The National Gallery of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and The J. Paul Getty Museum. Her other commercial clients include ballroom dance designers, figure skaters and the general public. Her own dye-painted fiber art has been exhibited at the American Craft Museum, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and in many other local and national exhibitions. Marliss has taught courses in Surface Design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and at The College of Visual Arts and she has given many workshops on fabric dye-painting. She is the owner of Iris Color Studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she dyes and paints for a living.
Special thanks to the Virginia Opera Chorus and Dancers for strutting your stuff -- you look and sound amazing!
Fran Coleman, Symone Harcum, Shannon Jennings, Kathryn Kelly, Anna Maples, Kimberly Markam, Abigail Paschke, Nancy H. Pope, Bridget Cooper, Arna Majher, Suzanne Oberdorfer, Melinda Pino, Denielle Resnick, Emily Russell, Arnetta Sherrod, Tasha Nicole Thomas, Michael Baggett, Craig Campbell, Andri M. Gowens, Jeff Joyner, Ben Kwak, Steven Martinez, Stephen Mason, Brian K. Moody, Patrick O'Halloran, James R. Swindell, Samuel Cupper, Wesley T. Evans, Michael C. Hagey, Edward Hanlon, James Harris, Aaron Ingersoll, Jeremiah Johnson, Alonza Lawrence, Morry Reynolds, Michael Singleton, Nick Aviles, Taylor Barker, Lois Digges, Brandon Dyke, Nicole McLellan, Jade Pangilinan, Brad St. James and Cierra Wilson.