Behind the curtain at the Atlanta Opera’s costume department

Master tailor Joanna Schmink has been the Opera’s costume designer and coordinator for 25 years
Atlanta Opera costumes
Photograph by John. E. McDonald

“My first question is, ‘Can you sing in this?’” says Joanna Schmink, the costume designer and coordinator for the Atlanta Opera. For 25 years Schmink, a master tailor with a graduate degree in costume design, and her team have been responsible for fitting, preserving, and, in some cases, building from scratch the costumes for the opera’s performers. Currently they’re preparing for this month’s production of Romeo and Juliet, for which about 40 percent of the costumes are original creations. (The other 60 percent are rented from other opera companies or fashioned from existing garments in the opera’s temperature-controlled warehouse, which houses 2,500 costumes.)

It’s a process that begins up to a year or more in advance, when Schmink meets with the director, maestro, and others to discuss the creative concept. “Is it a traditional production, or is the director imagining a more modern take?” she says. “For Romeo and Juliet, for example, the opera was written 200 years after the play, so it takes place in an early Victorian or Romantic period, rather than the traditional Renaissance period that people might imagine.” That means lowered waists and fuller skirts for the women and high, stiff collars for the men.

Ultimately, though, she says stage presence is just as important as absolute historical accuracy. She tends to favor rich textures, vibrant colors, and fabrics that change in the light for their theatricality.

Atlanta Opera costumes
Photograph by John. E. McDonald

Costumes are tweaked up through dress rehearsals. “The director might ask, ‘Can we add a hat here or a jacket to make them look more upper class?’” Schmink says. Once the final rehearsals begin, though, adjustments are kept to a minimum. “It can mentally affect the singers if you keep making changes, even just adding an accessory or changing a color,” she says. “At a certain point you just have to let it go and step back and enjoy what you’ve created.”

See the costumes come to life in Romeo and Juliet, May 7, 10, 13, and 15 at Cobb Energy Centre.

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.