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Costuming a Small Military of Virgins for the Met Opera’s ‘El Niño’

Within the Metropolitan Opera’s new manufacturing of “El Niño,” which reimagines the story of Jesus’ delivery and early childhood, there are singing and dancing Virgin Marys, Marys of the land and sea; there’s an Indigenous Mary, a Tropical Mary, a Golden Mary.

For the costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, differentiating this flock of Virgins was only one problem in bringing to life this new imaginative and prescient of the composer John Adams and the director Peter Sellars’s eclectic Y2K-era oratorio, which attracts simply as liberally from Latin American poetry and mystic hymns because it does from the New Testomony. Within the director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s imaginative and prescient, the motion takes place throughout a number of “planes.” It may very well be lots to absorb.

Fortunately for Mr. Levi Blanco, 39, he has developed one thing of a shorthand whereas working with Ms. Blain-Cruz, whom he has recognized since he was an M.F.A. scholar on the Yale Faculty of Drama. The pair have collaborated a number of occasions, together with on “The Pores and skin of Our Enamel,” for which Mr. Levi Blanco received a Tony Award in 2022.

Within the case of “El Niño,” painterly surroundings by the set designer Adam Rigg evokes the pure surroundings. And since the refrain is onstage for a lot of the efficiency, the query turned, What to do with these 5 dozen singers? The answer: Flip them into flora.

Mr. Levi Blanco developed 4 variations of the choral costume, all in the identical shade of avocado inexperienced, that may very well be tailored to particular person refrain members. If a singer wished lengthy sleeves or a crop prime, say, or pants as an alternative of a skirt, the costumes may simply be tweaked.

“Every one is a leaf,” he stated of the variation. “Every leaf is totally different.”

“El Niño” was first carried out in Paris in 2000. However Ms. Blain-Cruz’s “El Niño,” in all probability probably the most absolutely realized manufacturing of the work ever staged (most earlier variations have had minimal set design), takes a extra international view. In keeping with Mr. Levi Blanco, the inventive workforce discovered inspiration within the tales — and clothes — of migrants from not solely Central and South America, but additionally Cambodia, Indonesia and Congo.

The costume for the singer whom this manufacturing calls Mary of the Land (the soprano Julia Bullock), certainly one of its two singing Marys, attracts on what the designer described as a unity in silhouette that exists in Indigenous cultures the world over. “There’s often a skirt, a shirt after which some type of masking that can be utilized in lots of methods,” Mr. Levi Blanco stated. That is likely to be a scarf within the Caribbean, a shawl in Southeast Asia or a serape in Mexico, however the fundamental parts are the identical.

“I simply wished to honor, type of, this outdated however very acquainted silhouette,” he stated.

Land Mary’s visible counterpart, Mary of the Sea (the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges), might be simply distinguished from the teal- and blue-clad “sea migrants” she seems with by means of an surprising palette. In her greenish-yellow skirt and matching floral bodice, Mr. Levi Blanco stated, “we’ll all the time realize it’s her.”

Three extra Marys, portrayed by dancers somewhat than singers, occupy what the present calls the enduring airplane. These extra ethereal Marys have extra elaborate costumes than their singing counterparts — supersize silhouettes, ornate headdresses, intricate detailing — that extra immediately evoke spiritual iconography.

In keeping with Mr. Levi Blanco, a vital a part of this manufacturing was taking ladies who aren’t typically mirrored in Christian lore in any respect and placing them entrance and heart.

“I believe it was inevitable that our interpretation of ‘El Niño’ would additionally embody individuals who seem like us,” stated the designer, who’s half Black and half Mexican.

Together with her sunburst headpiece and shimmering robe, Golden Mary might be probably the most conventional of the Marys whom audiences will encounter onstage, suggesting Catholic statuary of the Spanish Golden Age. Mr. Levi Blanco suspects that Tropical Mary, along with her iridescent scarf and ropes of pearls, may need been most significant for Ms. Blain-Cruz, who’s of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. “That was a Mary that she grew up with,” he stated. However for him, Indigenous Mary had the best resonance.

Rising up evangelical Christian in New Mexico, Mr. Levi Blanco had an up-close view of the way in which that Christianity may merge with Native American and Mexican cultures — not simply spiritual traditions, but additionally aesthetic ones.

Blanketed in floral motifs of beads and sequins, Indigenous Mary is “all about nature,” the designer stated. Even her oversize lace crown, which was initially impressed by conventional Oaxacan headdresses, ultimately got here to remind Mr. Levi Blanco extra of a shell. A lustrous abalone end accomplished the look.

Mr. Levi Blanco stated that his grandmother Stella, who ran a enterprise making lampshades and was half Yaqui Indian, was an essential template for Indigenous Mary. Though she died as “El Niño” was coming collectively, her grandson felt her presence all through the manufacturing. “Fringe, beads, all these things that I grew up enjoying with in her workshop, continues to be an lively each day a part of my life,” Mr. Levi Blanco stated.

“She was my Indigenous Mary, you already know?” he added.

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