A Costume Designer’s Role as Dramaturge, Den Mother, Seamstress and Psychologist

This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.



In one of the opera’s most vital roles, wearing many hats is as crucial as making them.

A portly gentleman, clad entirely in red leather, stood on stage and began tearing off his clothing. He snatched the generous epaulets from his shoulders and cast them into the air. The man was increasingly nude with each moment, and he was raging. Patti watched from the wings, knowing that, somehow, this was her responsibility. The man’s face had attained the same color as the pants in a heap at his feet. He was flush, heaving, standing in his underwear, while a dozen other people stared at him, frozen. This was not an avant garde burlesque show, or performance art. This was another day in the life of Patti Campbell, freelance costumer designer and unsung hero.  

Courtesy Dana Sohm
Jon Fredric West, playing Herod, Marcy Stonikas, as Salome.

The play was Salome, as famous for the seductive dance at its core as anything else—the titular character’s legendary Dance of the Seven Veils. But Dionysus loves a good joke, so it was instead Herod shedding his costume in a fit of increasingly worrisome gyrations.  

While doubtlessly fashionable, a red leather bodysuit doesn’t “breathe.” The actor wearing the leather was a man of somewhat generous proportions and advanced age, and the toll of strutting around Judea in said bodysuit had sent him over the edge.  

Patti Campbell was tasked with fixing the problem. It was the final dress rehearsal, the night everything finally goes according to plan, and there was serious concern that one of the leads was going to collapse from exasperation and heat exhaustion. There was no time to design a fresh costume—the show opened in less than twenty-four hours.  

Instead, Patti had to find a way to keep the actor cool in an airtight costume, and do it right away. She decided to approach the problem from the inside. She rigged a harness capable of storing multiple ice packs, which Herod could wear underneath his bodysuit. Armed with his new icy undergarment, the actor kept his cool, and the show went on. 

Over years of designing costumes for opera, theater, and film across the country, Patti has learned that there’s always a Herod. The secret to dealing with small town despots and surly queens is in learning to peel back the layers. Not just the leather, but what’s underneath.  

As someone who helps actors cultivate their images and create their personas, Patti often finds herself practicing improvised psychology. There was once a particularly cantankerous actor, for whom she had crafted an entirely new outfit when he expressed his displeasure with the original. Patti told him the new pants she made looked great on him. She then raced to other cast members and asked them to subtly compliment the fit of the actor’s new costume. After a flurry of deftly-delivered praise, the actor’s rancor faded, his posture changed, and he finally settled into his role.  

To be an expert costume designer, you should know your muslin and silk, but you must also acquaint yourself with the textures of the human ego. This can mean stitching together the vision of the director, the demands of the script, a limited budget, and the will of the person who must wear your creation in front of thousands.

It’s crucial to Patti to get this patchwork just right. “My bottom line is to make sure the director is happy, visually, with everything on stage. That it’s his vision. That’s my job. The clothes tell the story,” she says. 

To tell this story believably, a costume designer must bring scholarship and style in equal measure. When creating costumes for a period piece, Patti must ensure every last detail is consistent with the production’s time period. “Even the soles of the shoes have to match the era of that particular production,” says Patti.  

When she’s not doing sartorial research on ancient Rome, or poring over blurry photos of bygone eras, Patti is looking for garnishes and flourishes—the emerald broach or wide-brimmed hat that will inspire the actor and bring her character to life. She knows that audiences come to the theater to watch the actors embody characters from a heightened reality, and that begins the second the lights come up. The elegant must be opulent, of course, but even the filthy must be filthy in a way we recognize instantly.  

Playing the role of everything from dramaturge to den mother, seamstress to psychologist, Patti Campbell is one of Opera Grand Rapids’ most essential unsung heroes. 


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