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(from left to right) Santa Fe Opera Head Milliner Deborah Nash, Assistant Sam Toney, and Apprentices Tommy Cobau and Maria Mignone.

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Meet the People Behind the Santa Fe Opera’s Amazing Hats

Hats off to the milliners!

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What’s the difference between a Kleenex box and a hat? Nothing, according to Deborah Nash, head milliner at the Santa Fe Opera. "It was the craziest hat I ever made," she explains. "It was at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The actor had to reach up into her hat and pull out a handkerchief when she was crying. I rigged it so that another one popped up in its place, like a Kleenex box. It got a laugh from the audience every night."

As she spoke, Nash, surrounded by hats on stands, headpieces, a sewing machine, an iron, her trusted assistant Sam Toney, and apprentices Maria Mignone and Tommy Cobau, was putting the finishing touches on hats for Vanessa, the fifth and final opera of the summer season. The millinery quartet work congenially in close quarters, near the costume shop, under fluorescent lights, making everything from bonnets to top hats to nuns’ headdresses. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the team produced 110 pieces ranging from black mourning hats to pastel-hued headpieces fit for a festive ball. In a moment of stage magic, the black hats are removed in full view of the audience to reveal the bejeweled, feathered, delicate party headwear underneath.

Head Milliner Deborah Nash and apprentice Tommy Cobau juggle hats backstage at the opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Paul Ross

So how did these hat mavens end up as milliners at the prestigious Santa Fe Opera? Nash, who played the violin, went to the Baltimore School of the Arts, a performing arts high school. She decided that she wanted to do theatre production work — sewing costumes. One summer, when she was 13 or 14, her grandmother taught her to sew. She studied costume design at Boston University, and when she graduated she landed a job at the Arena Stage; it included millinery, crafts, and dyeing. "Ever since then," she recalls, "I have alternated between the Arena Stage and the Santa Fe Opera. It’s 19 years that I have been doing it. And when I first came here to the opera, I started as an apprentice."

Toney joins in with her own trajectory. "I took a millinery class in college, at UNC Greensboro, and I liked it. As soon as I graduated, I worked as a stitcher [a seamstress]. It seems like at every theatre you go to, people are scared of making hats because they haven’t learned how." She was working for Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York, and did all the hats because no one else had training. Then, at the Lexington Children’s Theatre, she made crafts, which included hats.

Stylish retro hats from the Santa Fe Opera’s production of "Vanessa" await their turns on stage. Photo: Paul Ross

"From there I went to Playmakers Repertory in North Carolina, which was a prestigious tech program." She took a graduate course in millinery, and then worked at the Utah Shakespeare Festival as a milliner. Next was graduate school in Arizona, for an MFA in costume design. "Utah wanted me to come back, but I decided to come here to the Santa Fe Opera. It’s my first summer here."

Opera millinery, according to Nash and Toney, is not a full-time job. Nash spends 11 weeks in Santa Fe, doing millinery for five operas, and leaves when the summer season ends. At the height of the season, there are about 50 people working in the costume shop. After the cast of Vanessa takes its bow and basks in the appreciation of the audience on opening night, the costume crew will be reduced to 15 apprentices and five costume staff.

The joys and challenges of millinery seem to outweigh the need to juggle more than one job. One of Nash’s favorite tasks this summer was making all the bonnets for the production of Romeo and Juliet, which was set in the American Civil War era. "Women at that time trimmed their own bonnets, and we got to research and create some of those trims. We used dress fabrics to make ribbons. We took lace and made bavolets, which are the little curtains on the backs of the bonnets," Nash says with obvious delight.

Nash goes on to describe exactly what her job as an opera milliner entails. She starts with a rendering, which is provided by the costume designer, who also frequently provides a lot of research and photos concerning the millinery. Next, Nash creates a mock-up, which is often made of brown paper, wire, and tag (i.e. poster) board.

The Santa Fe Opera’s Assistant Milliner Sam Toney models her own private non-performance creation. Photo: Paul Ross

"I try to create the shape, so we can look at the scale before using real materials. At this point, it’s just the designer and me working together. I create a pattern and shape for the mock-up. Then I take it to a fitting and look at the shape and scale on a performer, and the overall design. The designer gives me notes about modifications, and then we talk about the materials for the hats — like straw and buckram, which is a stiff material that can be covered in fabric, wet, and molded. Then there is a second fitting with the real material, and there may be more notes. After the dress rehearsal, again there may be more notes — like maybe the hat is too tight."

Although the work is satisfying, collaborative, and creative, the milliners never have completely free reign in terms of design, because they are acutely aware of the rules of their trade. "Even if you are designing a turban or a veil, you don’t want to make a hat that covers the singers’ ears. They have to be able to hear the orchestra, so you leave the bottom of the ears exposed," says Nash. "And you can’t make a hat that impedes vision because they have to see the conductor. But I love the fact that we do is so challenging and exciting. We do a lot of brainstorming and find creative solutions using non-traditional materials like thermoplastics."

The milliners are aware that some of the materials they use can be difficult, like leather. It is not forgiving. If you take out stitching because you made a mistake, it leaves a scar behind. "Straw is still a new frontier for me," Toney says. "Older straw can be really brittle," Nash adds. "You often have to work with it when it’s damp. There is not a lot of room for error."

Head Milliner Deborah Nash is surrounded by some of the many hats created for this season’s production at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. Photo: Paul Ross

All four milliners nod when asked how they keep hats on the heads of singers who may make sudden or extreme moves "We use horsehair braid," Nash explains, "and we dye it to match the color of the performer’s hair. We can then use hair pins, and it becomes invisible." They depend on the wig staff to pin the hats on well, so they are secured. They sometimes add weights to hats and veils to prevent the wind from blowing them off, as Santa Fe can sometimes be a very windy desert environment, and the stage is exposed to the open air.

Of course, in opera, as in any other performing art, there are deadlines when pressure builds. "The first dress rehearsal for large shows is always a crunch," Nash says. "We have to finish that show, and also be starting on the next one. We have fittings for the next show at the same time as we are working on the first show."

Millinery apprentice Tommy Cobau hand sews the finishing details on a hat in the backstage workshops of the Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Paul Ross

Does Nash ever lose her temper under pressure? Mignone says, "Deb is like, ‘we have a lot to do, but we can do it.’ She motivates us." "She keeps it positive," Cobau adds.

One question audience members ask is if they can buy hats that they see on the opera stage. The answer is, alas, no. The opera keeps a stock of thousands of hats, which are divided into specific boxes, like men’s fedora hats in light colors, or men’s fedora hats in dark colors. They are kept on hand to rent to other productions, or to be used in co-productions with other opera companies. Even though the hats are used, the renters and co-producers are supposed to restore the hats to the condition in which they received them. And then the hats go back into storage. The hats are built to last for a long time.

Sometimes, hats are recycled from one opera to another. "For Romeo and Juliet," Nash explains, "we needed 19 bonnets in black and 19 in cream. We used a bonnet from Tosca [the Puccini opera] and took it apart and re-trimmed it and changed the color. We refurbish and rework pieces from stock, and we also build a lot from scratch."

Apprentice milliner Maria Mignone works on one of the 110 mens’ and womens’ hats for a Civil War setting of Romeo and Juliet at this year’s Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Paul Ross

In any given performance, hats can be subject to mishaps, and there is only one hat for each singer (unless the opera is double cast, in which case each performer has a separate hat). Hats can be sat on, kicked off stage, or even thrown at a wall. Luckily, the milliners have signed off on damage control. The wardrobe staff is trained to repair or re-block a hat. The milliners may be gone by then, working at their next job.

If you would like to become a milliner, Toney thinks that hand sewing is the most important skill. Nash adds that a good eye for color, design, and scale is important. Scale means creating a hat that is the appropriate size for what the designer intended and the size of the performer. You can start by applying to be an apprentice; Cobau and Mignone filled out applications four to five months before the season.

Of course, everyone wants to know who the milliners think wear hats well. For Nash, it’s the British Royal family. For Cobau and Toney, Beyoncé rules with her super wide-brimmed, bold hats that are simple but make big statements in a modern, chic way. And Toney adds, "I never want to discourage anyone from wearing a hat. If they’re wearing it, they’re doing a good job."

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