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Arts & Entertainment

Dressing the Part

CFA’s Nancy Leary designs costumes for opera, theater, and television

Click on the slide show above to hear Nancy Leary describe the process of designing costumes.

Before hearing a note of this summer’s Chautauqua Opera Company production of Werther, the audience saw the characters emerge on stage in costumes cut from dark velvet and thick wool, all created by Nancy Leary, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of production and design.

Full of unrequited love and suicidal threats, Werther, written by French composer Jules Massenet in 1892, is based on Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Leary (CFA’03) says that her costume designs reflect the mood and tone of the book. In the first scene, the character Charlotte is preparing for a dance, where she will meet the somber and passionate poet Werther for the first time. Charlotte, caring for several siblings, has promised her dying mother that she will marry the older Albert.

“She is getting ready to go the ball, but in her own stoic way,” says Leary, who also worked with the rural New York company to produce the opera. “The costume is lovely, but very simple, with a Regency period silhouette. I think Werther falls in love with the idea that she’s taking care of this family, how lovely it all is. It kind of begins his obsession with her.”

Designing a costume can take from six months to a year. “Each design goes through so many changes,” says Leary, who worked on two previous Chautauqua productions, The Crucible and Vanessa. “It could start one way and end up completely different.”

Before the finished product is worn on stage, it is crafted from one of Leary’s designs at the opera company’s costume shop. Costume drapers and stitchers build each piece onto forms and fit it to the performer, working with Leary to ensure that all the costumes reflect her vision.

“I’m here for every fitting and every decision,” she says. “I have an opportunity to say how I feel about each costume.”

The hard work pays off once the curtain rises, says Leary, who will work on Opera Boston’s production of Handel’s Semele in February.

In addition to designing for the Chautauqua Opera Company, Leary, who earned a master’s degree in design from CFA, has worked with Opera Boston, the Huntington Theatre Company, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, and on the PBS miniseries The War That Made America.

“BU’s program is incredible, because it’s hands-on,” she says. “The students learn the basic ideas in the classroom, then they get to use them on stage in a production.”

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.