By Katricia Lang
November 17, 2014
Today I talk with Dena Scheh, well-respected Houston costume designer and frequent collaborator with Opera in the Heights, about her work on Opera in the Height’s currently running production HANSEL UND GRETEL. Despite the German title, it is the story of Hansel and Gretel you know and love. There is a witch, and candy house, and a clever, resourceful brother and sister duo.
The making of HANSEL UND GRETEL
BWW: Tell me how you saw the story of HANSEL UND GRETEL from a costume designer’s point of view.
Dena Scheh: This is a very iconic, archetypal story. To me, the show is so elegant and timeless. It’s a classic. It’s not only a coming of age story, but it could possibly be the original good triumphs over evil. Both of the characters, Hansel and Gretel, are cunning and clever, and they get justice in the end. It’s a real story of loyalty as well. Each one, in their own time, gets their time to shine. At first, Hansel is the strong one. When he gets locked up, it’s an opportunity for Gretel to really shine and show her strength.
BWW: How did this play into your decisions in the costuming department?
Dena Scheh: I definitely wanted to give them strong details with my color choices, and fabric.
BWW: What did you decide on?
Dena Scheh: This era is so rich with jewel tones. It’s old worldly. So, I was very realistic and historically accurate.
BWW: Can you tell me a little about the era you drew from?
Dena Scheh: It’s the traditional Nordic. I have friends from the area, and they still grew up wearing these costumes that were passed down to them from their grandmothers on traditional holidays. Like the dirndl dress with lots of lacing and outlining and greens, browns, and reds. They’re not afraid of black and strong colors. It’s very much like the movie Frozen.
BWW: Recently, I was talking to another theatre artist, and I found it interesting how practical his approach was to a production. Do you approach your projects in that way as well?
Dena Scheh: I’m very practical. Everything has to be really user friendly. Opera singers are particular about how things fall on their neck, their waist, even down to their shoes. They’re particular about their hair and makeup, and jewelry – anything that touches their face and neck.
BWW: How do you meld that with your artistic or aesthetic vision?
Dena Scheh: It can sometimes be challenging, but it’s also a nice opportunity for me to grow.
BWW: What is your general process? And what has been your process for this project?
Dena Scheh: It’s the same every time. When I’m researching, I see what’s been done and which way I want to go. I like to see the faces of the actors that have been assigned to the roles – the artists – as I’m researching. So, I print out their faces. For me, as a costumer, this is my whole life. I do have a family too [I Laugh] but the show gets my entire heart. I sleep, I dream, and I breathe each show. I like to really get enthralled by and involved in the character.
I also talk to the director and set designer to see what their feeling is on the production. With Opera in the Heights, since I’ve been there so long, I feel I’ve established myself as an artist. So they’ve given me so much freedom and respect. They never question. They rely on my quality, timeliness and aesthetic. The costumes are always going to show up on time and be great for every person! [Laughs]
For the characters in this particular show, I think about what happened in the witch’s life that has led her to this point. And what would have been the steps that it took to result in her personal collection or wardrobe, because we collect our wardrobe over a lifetime. “I got this coat from my mom.” Or, “I picked this skirt up at a thrift shop.”
BWW: How did you work with the director to create this production?
Dena Scheh: The director was pretty determined in her ideas and what she wanted. She suggested that the parents are over-exaggerated in their size and patterns juxtaposed with the children. We talked about the Sandman and the Dew Fairy who are reminiscent of Gustav Klimt with geometric shapes and metallics. We agreed that the Dew Fairy should be otherworldly and glamorous.
I really felt like we agreed on the rich jewel tones and archetypes of each character. The one thing she added that I might not have come to the conclusion is she wanted all the plaids on the witch. You’ll see. The way that the plaid came together for her is amazing.
BWW: My final question: What is the draw of the show? Why should audiences come to see it?
Dena Scheh: There’s so much in the world, and this production is just a sweet escape of family, bonding, loyalty and triumph.
The making of Dena Scheh
BWW: Do you do costume design full time?
Dena Scheh: Yes, I am a full-time costume designer at Performing Arts Supply Co., Inc.
BWW: What is Performing Arts Supply Co., Inc.?
Dena Scheh: We are a costume rental warehouse, and we ship out all over the U.S. To Grand Rapids, Michigan, St. Petersburg (in Florida), and Pace University – even Lyric Opera in Alaska! – and everything in between.
BWW: I’m jealous. How did you get there?
Dena Scheh: I studied costume design in college, and Houston is a great place for performing arts.
BWW: Do you think that attending a university to study theatre is necessary? Do you think it was instrumental in making your career?
Dena Scheh: Absolutely. The history I studied, and then my minor was business management, which helps out in this business. I do know other costumers that have great grasp on fashion history without having been through schooling. But I really love the costume history, art history, and theatrical classes I took.
BWW: How did you decide on costume design as a career?
Dena Scheh: I always thought it looked really fun. My father, granddad and uncle were fine jewelers and my mom is an educated artist and costumer so I grew up entrenched in exquisite colors and fine quality art. Craftsmanship and artistry are in my blood.
BWW: Do you have any wisdom to pass on to those aspiring costume designers?
Dena Scheh: I know a lot of costumers and the one thing I can definitely say about costume designers is that we’re constantly evolving in our craft. And we just always get better. There’s always something you can learn and someone you can learn from – a technique or a different way to visualize and execute – professionally and in life.
A note about the artist: Interestingly enough, I found that, once the piece was finished, “the making of Dena Scheh” section was much shorter than “the making of HANSEL UND GRETEL section. This is a very telling fact about the artist herself. The art before the artist always. Scheh said during our conversation that she wants her art to speak for itself. It seems like she has done just that.
Dena Scheh has worked with Opera in the Heights on several productions including RIGOLETTO, MACBETH, and OTELLO. Her work has also been seen in several productions around Houston including Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s THE SORCERER. To get a look at her most recent work, OH’s HANSEL UND GRETEL, pay a visit to http://operaintheheights.org/ and get your tickets fast! The show runs until Nov. 23.
HANSEL UND GRETEL photo credit: Deji Osinulu Photography
HANSEL UND GRETEL logo courtesy of Opera in the Heights
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt
Photo of Dena Scheh courtesy of Dena Scheh
See the full interview HERE