Jessica Jahn has made her career in New York but returns home briefly as the costume designer for Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Mary Stuart.’
The Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of “Mary Stuart” is a catfight like no other.
Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots are cousins, but also rivals for the throne of England. They are jealous and vindictive over courtiers, popularity, religion. Mary calls Elizabeth a whore and is beheaded.
Tragic as it may be, it makes for a costuming dream for Jessica Jahn.
The Seattle Opera’s “Mary Stuart”
Feb. 27, 28, March 2,5, 9, 11 and 12, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$186 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
Not only has she conjured up and designed the costumes that reflect Mary and Elizabeth’s romantic youth and steely adulthood, Jahn is making her Seattle Opera debut in her hometown.
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“How wonderful it is to be able to have this creative process in a place that is so comfortable,” Jahn said recently in the opera’s costume shop. “It’s nice to come home and come back with accomplishments.”
At 40, Jahn has successfully paired her dance background with her eye for clothing design, making a name as someone whose costumes are sympathetic to performers.
“I try to take into consideration the performer and what they have to do on stage,” she said. “Both their physical movement and emotional self and how they are presenting themselves to an audience.
“But mostly, it’s my understanding of the body and movement.”
That all started in Seattle, where Jahn trained under Edna Daigre at the Ewajo Dance Center, and graduated from Garfield High School in 1993 — when she also completed a Preparatory Dance Program for Youth at Cornish College of the Arts.
She graduated from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in 1997 and started dancing in New York.
Around that time, a friend was directing a play called “The Sacrificial King” in a small, downtown underground theater. Knowing Jahn was a seamstress and visual artist, he asked for her help.
“I had an overwhelming, positive reaction to the work,” Jahn recalled. “I remember calling my mother and saying, ‘Mom! I know what I want to do!’ ”
Her parents were encouraging.
“I was doing things I loved, creatively,” she said.
But it was also a natural-born skill. Jahn’s great-grandfather was a tailor. One grandmother was a housewife and seamstress and the other a quilter. Needles and thread ran through her family.
Opera, well, that was a much harder sell. She wasn’t a fan at all.
“Oh, gosh no,” she said. “I knew it was a musical art form, but I didn’t know anything other than that.”
That changed when she was hired as an assistant to costumer Constance Hoffman for a Puccini opera at The Glimmerglass Festival outside of Cooperstown, N.Y.
“I totally fell in love with it,” she said. “It was a chorus of almost all men and I remember sitting in the audience and having this overwhelming musical and emotional experience. The sound was so impressive and so big.
“It knocked me off my feet.”
Jahn has thrown herself into the drama of Donizetti’s “Mary Stuart,” researching the characters, poring over portraits and designing with a sense of where the women were in their minds and hearts.
The production — including costumes — originated at the Minnesota Opera. So when it came to Seattle, Jahn happily came with it.
With Mary Stuart, “It is important to present her as a woman with multiple emotional characteristics,” she said. “As a strong leader, but also as a woman who was a real person with real emotional needs.”
That dichotomy is captured in the light, feminine and romantic colors she wears in the beginning of the opera, which turn darker, heavier and more layered as the drama escalates.
“We started her out with a sense of innocence,” she said. “She’s in very light blue and little bit of floral. And then we start to armor her, get her ready for battle, psychologically with what, to me, feels more like a majestic robe over her dress.”
Later in the opera, the costumes create a more “iconic” image, Jahn said. “The black gown and the white cloth and veil, which is what we see in the portraits.”
In the end, when Mary Stuart is martyred, Jahn strips that all away, and sends her to the gallows in a blood-red shift.
“The information we have about period petticoats is that the color red was used frequently,” Jahn said, adding that the legend is that Mary Stuart’s dog scurried out from under her petticoat when she was hanged.
“We’re not doing a dog,” Jahn said. “But the image of red against the darkness of the set and the shadowy chorus … It was a way of isolating her.”
Outside of the costume shop, Jahn knows little these days about spending time alone.
She is staying for several weeks with her parents, which means coffee in the morning and dinners at night. (“It’s dorky, but I love it. And they love it, too.”)
She is also fitting in some of her must-dos: ferry rides to Bainbridge Island, visits to Seattle Art Museum and lots of Vietnamese food.
“But my favorite thing is to go sailing with my dad,” she said.
Jahn, who lives in Brooklyn, will stay here until “Mary Stuart” is launched Feb. 27. Then she’ll head back to The Glimmerglass Festival for “The Crucible,” and to “Norma” at The Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.
Some day, she would love to design costumes for “Tristan and Isolde” and “Madame Butterfly.”
“But for now, it’s Mary,” she said.
And that is plenty. That woman was a handful.
Editor’s note: This story was corrected at noon on Feb. 19. An earlier version of this story misstated the method of Mary Stuart’s execution.