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Back deck of the Santa Fe Opera at dusk

Staff Spotlight: The Costume Shop

Santa Fe Opera Staff

Creating Costumes while Living in a World of Zones, Pods and Pivots


We want to take a moment to thank our employees who are on the front lines of making a season happen during a global pandemic. In the world of opera, it takes a large team working together and the challenges are immense even in a normal year. This year, we want to share their stories.

The Santa Fe Opera’s Costume Shop staffBlair Gulledge (Mint Hill, NC), Kristi Johnson (Coronado, CA), Brianna Fristoe (Las Cruces, NM) and Kim Buetzow (Pittsburgh, PA) – typically have the season’s costume designs locked down by the time April rolls around: selection and purchase of fabrics has been completed during the fall, designs have been solidified and the team is preparing for the arrival of their 60+ seasonal staff members. At this time, they would be finalizing costumes that are not built in house, organizing pertinent information and physical space in preparation for the team’s arrival and restocking general supply inventory.

costume material backstage
costume backstage
fabric backstage

But it is 2021 and the pandemic has turned the world upside down. As our understanding of the virus has grown, so have plans in the costume shop. Adjustments are being made as preparations continue and the team, along with Mike VanAartsen, our COVID Compliance and Safety Manager, are carefully studying how the virus interacts with textiles.

A considerable portion of the plan is based on how the virus impacts the work environment. How long should a costume “rest” to be considered safe? Studies suggest relative safety is achieved after a quarantine of several hours to several days. We have used these studies to create a safe median rest period. So, with our staff’s health in mind, and the success of a season riding on safety, we have decided that 48 hours is ideal. So, once a costume has been fitted, it is placed on a quarantine rack and red tagged with the date and time of the fitting. It is then allowed to sit. In cases where a 48 hour quarantine is not feasible, we will sanitize the costume with a highly concentrated LED disinfection tool called Deactivate, created by Xenex. Every nook and cranny of the costume must be blasted with UV light for one full minute in order to be disinfected. The operators must be in full PPE, including an N95 mask, face shield and gloves. While this minimizes a costume’s rest time, the challenge is that a costume is made up of multiple pieces, such as dress, train and veil. With 212 costumes in the season, that adds up quickly!

Another new challenge for the team this year is creating a plan that will limit exposure between costume teams and the singers. Typically, a costume is built through a production line of designers and crafts persons. Multiple people interact with each artist to fit the costume and then return to the workroom to make the necessary adjustments. If singers are in multiple productions, they are often working with multiple teams in the shop.

This year, the costume staff has been divided into teams assigned to specific artists. The floor plan and the paths the teams can travel around the shop have been planned in painstaking detail. The primary goal is to keep everyone in the workspace at a safe distance. Specific sewing machines and worktables are assigned to specific people. There are four teams on the workroom floor, with a fifth mini-team operating out of the wardrobe space. Workspace for each of the 64 staff members has been reimagined, as well as the assignment of duties. The creation of this plan has been the focus of a large amount of the staff’s time.

The Costume Shop staff finds the biggest challenges have been navigating endless pivots layered with facilitating the typical workload for the season. While there is a sense of operating in uncharted territory, there is also a strong desire to support vendors and artists who have faced a difficult year of performing arts closures. It is gratifying to once again be collaborating with the most talented artists and apprentices in the field of costuming.

In a year where the world has been robbed of moments of human connection, we all are excited to bring live opera back to Santa Fe.

Thank you Blair, Kristi, Brianna and Kim and everyone on the Costume Shop staff for leading the way through this difficult time.

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