On the weekend of Feb. 18-19, Tufts Opera Ensemble will present Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera in Distler Music Hall at the Granoff Music Center. The show, which has been described as a “brutal, scandalous, perverted, humorous and hummable crowd pleaser,” will feature cameo appearances by President and Mrs. Bacow (on the 18th and 20th), as well as by Professor of Drama Barbara Wallace Grossman and her husband Steven Grossman, Massachusetts State Treasurer (on the 19th).
Mary-Elizabeth Murray, a staff assistant in the music department in the School of Arts and Sciences, contributed her theatrical background to the show in her role as costume designer. She recently spoke about the experience.
Can you tell us a little bit about how your job as staff assistant resulted in your role as costume designer of The Threepenny Opera?
Here at Tufts, I work closely with Carol Mastrodomenico, the head of the opera ensemble. In December, she was having trouble figuring out what to do with the costumes in the show and she came into my office and offered me involvement in the opera. It was really a serendipitous merging of hidden talent.
How did you first get interested in costume design?
I’ve actually been doing costume design since high school, and I had my college work-study job working in a costume shop. The first show I ever costumed was The Diary of Anne Frank.
Which costume in the show was most challenging to put together?
I would have to say that the biggest costume challenge in general has been making the costumes visually interesting without using much color. Carol was very specific about the show’s aesthetic as being primarily black, white and grey. She wanted a lot of the color to come from the lights. The show is mixed period, meaning that I’m pulling from influences from a couple of different historical contexts. The main two of these are Victorian and a 1920s cabaret style. A lot of the music is very reminiscent of old German cabarets, where the lights provided the majority of the color.
How do students usually react when given their costumes for the first time?
They’ve been really excited, and it has been really sort of piecemeal coming in and putting each of the costumes together. This job is different from a lot of costuming I’ve done because I’m not building any pieces myself; I am borrowing from what we have and purchasing. It’s been a big gathering mission. I fit almost everyone and when they get a look at it they say, “Yeah, this makes sense!” In many cases, seeing their costume helps students to get into contact with a different aspect of their character that they haven’t been thinking about yet.
What kind of role do you think costumes play in an operatic production like The Threepenny Opera?
For this show, they really set the tone for the atmospheric aesthetic of the play. The set is very sparse. It’s just moving platforms and some furniture pieces that move on and off. There are no sets that let you know where you are in time and space. The lights do bring color, but are more about highlighting the singing. The costumes really bring the characters to the audience, and are a way for the audience to relate to the characters in the setting of the play without needing a big set or explicit lights.
How do you think opera is received by the Tufts community?
I think that one thing that sort of piques everyone’s interest is the way that the opera program makes opera accessible in a way that it isn’t out in the bigger world. Opera in popular culture is seen as a way of showing off elite social status, and it’s always expensive to see. The kids who get involved in opera here usually come from musical theater or choral backgrounds. For a lot of them, involvement with opera awakens an appreciation for a new musical style and kind of singing. Also, Carol and everyone involved really tries to make the program accessible to the community at large.
What is your favorite memory from this year’s rehearsal process?
I went to the Salvation Army last weekend to find a whole bunch of things that I hadn’t found yet. We have this one woman in the show who plays a classic Victorian police officer and I just didn’t know how I was going to find the right thing. Finally, at Salvation Army, I came across a simple structured blue blazer and wondered if I could make it work. We put it on her the other day and realized that if we just popped the collar, it looked perfectly Victorian. It only cost us $8. And now everyone in the audience will know our secret!
Admission is $5 with a student ID (Tufts or other) and $10 for non-students. Curtains will open at 8PM on Feb. 18-19 and at 3PM on Feb. 20.