Refreshing a Rarity

January 15th, 2018

Although the Met’s production of Semiramide premiered nearly three decades ago, dozens of talented backstage wizards have spent months refurbishing John Conklin’s sets and Michael Stennett’s costumes to ensure that they still capture the grandeur of this sweeping epic.

In the costume shops, a team of 110 artisans, only a handful of whom were with the company when Semiramide last appeared on stage, have worked to repair, refresh, and recreate more than 230 individual garments. “We were pleasantly surprised when we saw that the costumes were inrelatively amazing shape,” says Elissa T. Iberti, the Met’s Head Costumer. Her team began preparing for this revival last May when they first retrieved racks of costumes from a vast storage warehouse in Oakland, New Jersey—a facility that accommodates tens of thousands of pieces.

From there, they had to decide which could be reused and which needed to be constructed from scratch. “Luckily, we didn’t have to build anything new for the chorus,” Iberti notes, “but we are rebuilding many of the costumes for the principal characters.” To do this, the costume shop drew on a number of sources. “We look at the original designs, as well as a record of the fabrics used when the production was new,” she explains. “Of course, we try and keep as close tothe original design as possible, but sometimes we have to update the fabrics, trying to find something as close to the original as we can.”

Left, Yvonne Lee and members of the Met Costume Department prepare one of Semiramide's gowns; Right, one of Stennett's costume designs for the title character

Two floors above, Chargeman Scenic Artist Robert Moody took a similar approach to restoring the show’s scenery. As opposed to the costume department, however, it was obvious from the beginning that they had their work cutout for them. “Much of this scenery came out of the storage containers shredded or in tatters,”says Moody, who has been with the Met forclose to 15 years.

Before he and his crew of painters and sculptors could work their magic, many of the pieces had to be partially or completely rebuilt by scenic carpenters, who referred to technical drawings from the early 1990s. Then, they began to stich together old and new. “We get as much of the actual set as we can and match to that. As soon as a wall is shored up, we chase it with paint and foil,” he explains, noting the many gilded walls that contribute to the production’s opulence.

The intricate look of the production made the process quite rewarding. “There’s a lot of metallic elements, and it’s littered with ornament,” he smiles, “That’s a joy to touchup.” And in the end, the goal is simple for Moody. “Above all else, we want to maintain the integrity of the designer’s original vision throughout the production’s entire life—whether it’s a show we do every season or only every 20 years.”

A model of Conklin's set for Act I