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Music People: Lyric Opera's calm behind the scenes

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"My job is not just to put a costume on a performer. A lot of my job is to be calm, making the person I'm dressing totally relaxed, so they can go onstage and give a really good performance," says dresser Jackie George. "Getting nervous and having sweaty palms is not going to help in a quick change. I think the calmer I am, the better off everybody is."

George dresses opera stars for Lyric Opera of Chicago--puts their costumes on them, mends small rips in emergencies ("large safety pins are the jewels of the Lyric"), fixes their tea, intercedes with stage managers, blocks off air-conditioning ducts, holds their hands, and in general makes their lives backstage as painless as she can. "I'm a fetcher. I'm a gofer. I remember props. If they like tea, I make sure I have the kind of tea they like--I carry my own supply of tea bags and honey. A lot of the job is knowing where to get certain things, who to see--which of the technicians onstage to talk to if they want something changed. It's important to know who to talk to." On the short side, with champagne-colored hair, George started in 1961 at the age of 31; at the time, her husband was a stagehand at the Civic Opera House. "They needed extra dressers; we needed extra money for Christmas. I've been there ever since."

Most dressers are women, says George, who's been the union rep at the Civic Opera House for almost 20 years. "We can cross the line. Women can dress men, but men don't dress women." Most dressers are also related to each other by blood or marriage; the backstage trade unions are, in some ways, the last of the medieval guilds. "There's a lot of nepotism in the business," George observes. "Mothers, daughters, nieces . . . " George's own daughter, Gay, is a part-time dresser.

Many dressers like doing long-running shows--The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables--because along with that grueling eight-show-a-week schedule goes a fat paycheck. Though George is willing to substitute for vacationing dressers when she's free, she doesn't care to work those productions full-time. "At the Lyric, you're never doing the same thing two nights in a row. I like the variety of opera."

George started out dressing the men's chorus, on the fourth floor--"As they've repeatedly told me, I've been demoted gradually to the main floor." Today she usually dresses mezzo-sopranos--her favorites--or baritones. "When you're doing principal sopranos, you really have to be on call every minute, and being the union rep, I'm sometimes required to leave the floor to hand out checks and things. But whether I'm dressing a star or anybody else, if I have to leave the floor, I make sure somebody's aware of it.

"Once you get past the piano run-through [a technical rehearsal that includes costumes, wigs, and makeup] and the dress rehearsal, you know the timings and when you have to be around," she says. "When they're onstage is when I'll eat my lunch, or run and get a Coke.

"Then there are the times when you're onstage for almost the whole show, waiting in the wings with a towel, a cup of tea, a glass of water, a shawl. Certain people are more confident with you there." In La clemenza di Tito last year, she waited in the freight elevator to help an artist make a quick change on the basement level.

The number-one soprano for any given opera gets the number-one dressing room, next door to general director Ardis Krainik's backstage digs and just across the hall from the stage-right door. The leading man is kitty-corner from her, and mezzos, baritones, and basses straggle down the corridor away from the stage. Dressing rooms four, five, and six are George's stomping grounds. "T wants room five, always," she says. "It's quiet, private, and bigger than the others."

"T" is what mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos's friends call her. A year ago Troyanos specified as part of her contract that George dress her in this season's Carmen (Troyanos has canceled, however, because of ill health). "I love her," says George. "I think she's a doll. We're very close; we enjoy each other's company." Other favorites include Marilyn Zschau, Minnie in this year's La fanciulla del West--"she's a hoot, I get a kick out of her"--baritones Tim Nolan and Richard Stillwell, and on the nonoperatic side, Angela Lansbury, whom George calls "very warm, very pleasant--a real lady."

If there are any that she doesn't like, you figure it out mostly from what George doesn't say about them--you won't get any of the gory details of diva fits from her. "What goes on in the dressing room should be confidential. A good dresser knows how to keep her mouth shut."

It's the rare performer, however, who doesn't respond to George's motherly warmth, dry wit, and attention to the little things. "What you have to remember," she says, "is that we're not dealing with the artistic--we're dealing with the person. It's my job to make sure they're comfortable. If I keep that in mind and do my job, it's a little bit easier for the singers to do theirs."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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