Refreshing a Rarity
Although the Met’s production of Rossini’s Semiramide premiered nearly three decades ago, dozens of talented backstage wizards spent months refurbishing John Conklin’s sets and Michael Stennett’s costumes to ensure that they still captured the grandeur of this sweeping epic when the opera returned in 2018. By Christopher Browner
In the costume shops, a team of 110 artisans, only a handful of whom were with the company when Semiramide last appeared on stage, worked to repair, refresh, and recreate more than 230 individual garments. “We were pleasantly surprised when we saw that the costumes were in relatively amazing shape,” says Elissa T. Iberti, the Met’s former Head Costumer. Her team began preparing for this revival almost a year before, 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 to the 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 cut out for them. “Much of this scenery came out of the storage containers shredded or in tatters,” says Moody, who has been with the Met for close to 15 years.
A model of Conklin's set for Act I
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.”
Christopher Browner is the Met’s Associate Editor.