Summer In Every Season: Meet Our Costume Designer, Summer Lee Jack

Summer Lee Jack is a Brooklyn-based freelance costume designer who has been designing costumes for over 15 years and has worked on over 125 productions from opera and new plays to musicals, TV series and short film. We loved the chance to chat with Summer about her approach to our unique production of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt.

OSO: This is such a unique show since we don’t have a conventional theater or set. The costumes play a huge role in telling the story. How are you using clothes to help establish the characters? 

SLJ: This show is unique for me to design because as the director (Eric Einhorn) and I were discussing our approach for the design of this opera, we didn’t want it to feel rooted in a specific period. So trying to find a non-specific time for this piece was a challenge. For ‘Rhoda’, while it is set in the past, it does not identify a specific time period. It couldn’t feel too modern or contemporary, but instead I am finding a happy medium of combining details from many periods. This opera is really told through the eyes of a child, so looking for the details a child would remember is something I was thinking about a lot when I was designing this piece. These characters are all based on real people, so I had to do research into what they wore in real life. Seeing pictures of the real people (Charles Knight and Henry Osborn) from the American Museum Natural History research library – and even talking with Rhoda herself- helped me find some of the clothing details I needed to make them feel like real people wearing real clothes.  I still played with color and texture (with the help of a little child-like imagination) so they stand out from the crowd of the audience in the Dinosaur Hall.

OSO: Is opera different from other kinds of shows in terms of your process for designing the costume plots?

SLJ: Yes, it’s very different. The thing I love about designing for opera is that the music gives you such a heightened world sometimes; you really can do a lot of really fun and creative designs that you can’t do in a lot of serious plays. You can take things to a dramatic place because of the emotion of the music and the story itself often calls for it. It’s such a thrill to interpret this in every piece because it means something totally different for each person. It’s very exciting!

OSO: Soprano Jennifer Zetlan is an adult playing a child (the character of Rhoda). How do you approach this challenge? How literal does one need to be with age, etc in an opera like this?

SLJ: I think it’s less about the actual age of the character we are portraying (which is 8 years old) and more about showing the spirit of childhood with the character of Rhoda. She learns a lot about herself as she leads us on this journey around the Dinosaur Hall of the American Natural History Museum, and I wanted to focus on that “child-like sense of wonder” she has. I wanted her to be very colorful in her clothes because she is just full of energy (and I think a little bit of a tomboy). I think her spirit is a little bit in everyone.

OSO: How is your work on this opera different from a standard rep or period piece?

SLJ: There is something really different about this piece as opposed to a standard rep piece, because it’s about the wonder of science. It’s about using scientific process to think about things differently and challenge ourselves. I think that is something that all of us can learn from.

OSO: What is something you wish more people knew about costume designers in the theater/opera world?

SLJ: I don’t think that people really know how much labor goes into making costumes. I think that we as a society don’t value clothes as much as we have in the past. I think a lot of the fashion industry is full of “disposable clothing” that is made as cheaply as possible. We wear them once and then throw them away. I think there is such a lack of understanding in how much work goes into making clothes from scratch! Skills like sewing are getting rarer and rarer. The cost of costume labor is the largest overlooked expense in creating costumes. We are lucky enough to have a very skilled draper who is patterning several custom-made garments for this show to fit our vision and our singers perfectly. We are so lucky that we get to do this for Rhoda. The people that make costumes deserve so much respect as do the garments they make. I hope that the time and skill that went into them will be seen and appreciated in this production.

OSO: What is your favorite dinosaur and why?

SLJ: The Tyrannosaurus Rex because it is the scariest of them all but has the funniest little arms.

OSO: Which flavor of ice cream do you most hope we’ll be serving at the ice cream social on September 23rd?

SLJ: Chocolate Peanut Butter!

OSO: Do you have any other upcoming projects we should be looking for in the near future?

SLJ:  I am designing On Site’s next production in Spring 2018.

OSO: Are there any other general thoughts about Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt or On Site Opera you’d like to share?

SLJ: I have always wanted to design for opera in unusual spaces. I saw a version of Il Tabarro on a barge in Red Hook about 10 years ago, and I just found it so thrilling. It was always my dream to get to do opera outside of the theater space like this. Opera that is different. I think that this makes it real and tangible and exciting for the audience. I am thrilled to be a part of this team!

For more information on Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, click here.

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