The Seattle Opera and its general director, Speight Jenkins, clearly aren't afraid of much.
They've chosen as the opera to inaugurate the new Marion Oliver McCaw Hall what is ironically the last of Wagner's operas and perhaps the most challenging. Clocking in at more than five hours long, "Parsifal" is considered by some to be the most elusively complex of Wagner's operas. And to up the ante, Jenkins has brought back director Francois Rochaix and designer Robert Israel, whose risky, modern take on Wagner's "Ring" at the Seattle Opera in 1985-86 rustled up both admiration and controversy.
Rochaix and Israel will again harness a modern look, which ought to shake up audiences' vision of "Parsifal." Roughly, the story line is that Parsifal, a "wise fool" who is pure of heart, comes to break the enchantment of the sorceror Klingsor. The sorceror has created the gorgeous Flower Maidens to tempt and destroy the members of an order of religious knights whose king the sorceror has given a debilitating wound that refuses to heal.
Critical to the production's look is the costuming. In keeping with Jenkins' concept of the story being religious but nonsectarian, Israel aimed for costumes that suggest religious fundamentalism without pinning it to any particular faith.
Which is where Susan Davis, Seattle Opera's costume shop manager, and her crew come in. Each of the costumes built by the costume shop - typically in a subdued, earthy, almost dirty palette of grays, browns and yellows - subtly crosses cultural boundaries, leaving the viewer unable to define its exact origins.
Lead cutter Mary Ellen Walter - for those of us unfamiliar with costuming lingo, she's the head patternmaker - and Davis explained.
"We blended a lot of cultural influences from everywhere - Asia, the Middle East," Walter, a Queen Anne resident began.
"... to make our own world of 'Parsifal,'" Davis finished. "We have certain kinds of hats you'd be hard-pressed to find where they came from in the real world; they're 'Parsifal' hats."
This Mixmaster approach seems to work, perhaps in part because the fabrics stay in the same color range and in part due to the careful attention to proportions when seemingly mismatched apparel, such as a frock coat and an ankle-length tunic, are layered.
The show was designed about a year ago, an advantage for Davis' staff, which grew to as many as 21 workers to build about 105 unique costumes. Unlike many productions, Israel treated all of the performers, even the chorus, individually and sketched different costumes for each of them to arrive at the effect he was seeking.
"When 60 men [in the chorus] are on stage, they are part of creating the scenery in front of which the principals express themselves, so [Israel] is painting with fabrics in a way that not every designer would," Davis said.
The fabrics are as individual as the costumes, chosen in February when Davis traveled to Los Angeles to meet with Israel and his assistant for an intensive week of shopping.
Davis noted that the costumes have a threadbare quality, with ragged edges and erratic holes, to reflect the destitute, harsh lives of the knights.
"The costumes were aged to make them look like they've been worn a long time. The craftspeople distress them with wire brushes, sanders, chains in the pockets to bag them out," Davis said.
The intense lighting of Act III threw the biggest monkey wrench into the costuming works, making some colors too startling, according to Davis. That led to adjustments to the color palette, such as toning red fabric down into a burgundy.
Davis also struggled with Israel's concept of the Flower Maidens, so she wasn't much help in choosing fabric for their costumes, she admitted.
"They're a cacophony of color, a manifestation of Klingsor's evil. They should defy all our expectations," Davis said.
Seeing the Flower Maidens on stage now, she said she can't figure out what other vision would have made sense.
"Parsifal" is rife with symbolism, which is reflected in the costuming.
"Some of the knights have red ribbons that show their allegiance to Amfortis with his wound that doesn't heal. Whether we can see the ribbons once the costumes are distressed, I don't know," Davis said. In the end, the details count. Even the details the audience fails to consciously notice add up on a subconscious level, David noted, weaving the fabric of a convincing stage universe for operas such as "Parsifal."
Seattle Opera's "Parsifal" plays at the new Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., in the Seattle Center, from Saturday, Aug. 2-Sunday, Aug. 24. Be aware: evening performances start earlier than usual, at 6:30 p.m., while matinees are at 2 p.m. Prices: $47-$125. Tickets: 389-7676 or 1-800-389-7676. Information: www.seattleopera.org