An Interview with Portland Opera’s Laura Hassell
and Christine A. Richardson.

Written by Emilly Prado. Photos by Gia Goodrich.

Laura Hassell (left), Director of Production, and Christine A. Richardson (right), Costume Director
at Portland Opera.

T

he world of opera has grown tremendously from its spectacular Renaissance beginnings in Italy over four centuries ago. From the emergence of amusing comédie en vaudeville in the 17th century to the snappier operetten of Eastern Europe and entirely audio-based radio operas of the 20th century, the spread and evolution of professional and amateur operatic communities across the globe have been profound.

In the City of Roses, Portland Opera has provided a main stage for the art form since the mid-1960s—first in East Portland’s own Madison High School, and a short while later, at the Keller Auditorium in Downtown Portland. Today, the nonprofit is still thriving, and many of their productions continue to take place at the venue, thanks in large part to their staff and two vital leaders who are experts in the industry—and at wrangling the multifaceted aspects of any successful production.

Laura Hassell, Director of Production, is in her 25th season working with the Portland Opera and completed her very first gig with the institution in 1988. Christine A. Richardson, Costume Director, grew up in the area and returned to the organization after 17 years developing her career outside of the city. Hassell oversees hundreds of moving parts months ahead of each production, including lights, props, scenery and the work of Richardson’s costumer department, which engineers over 2,000 garments for more than 150 cast members. And while the fruits of their labor transpire in the form of a successful production, it’s the technical facets of their roles that most often remain backstage. Both, however, are excited to witness, contribute, and advocate for an increasingly inclusive and representative opera community, one spreadsheet or scenery build at a time.

CHRISTINE A. RICHARDSON (CR): Laura, how’d you get here?

LAURA HASSELL (LH): I started doing backstage theater when I was a teenager and found it fascinating. My brothers were both performers, but I enjoyed being backstage. I stage-managed my first show when I was 15. During the middle of technical rehearsals for that production, I said, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” I spent a brief time in college trying to find a real career before I gave up on that and went back into theater. I was doing primarily theater and musical theater, and then I kind of fell into opera because there were more jobs available. Portland Opera was actually one of my first big opera gigs in 1988. How about you?

CR: I grew up making things. I loved not just sewing but gluing, pounding, nailing, creating things. I began sewing and making my own clothing as a form of self-expression—the idea that what we wear presents ourselves to the world as who we are. When I realized that theater was an option, it was a continuation of that storytelling. The idea of putting clothing on people who are characters within a theater or opera piece—that was the throughline. In the mid to late 90s, I worked for Portland Opera. At the time, if I wanted to work in management and get more design work, I needed to go someplace else. I moved away and was gone for 17 years. I just moved back here three years ago.

Artslandia: Tell me about the expectations and stereotypes.

CR: Typically, my position and costume staff are mostly female. I’ve worked with a lot of great men in costume shops, but pretty much in leadership and workroom roles, there are predominantly women. What has come of that, over the years, is the perception that doing costumes is [air quote] women’s work; that it’s just laundry; it’s just clothing. It’s either that people think it’s amazing and magical, and they don’t know how you did it, or they say, “Oh, I did that in college.”

LH: Or, “My mom used to do that.”

CR: Right… “Mom used to do that,” or “I do laundry.” What’s the difference? There’s a perception, a misunderstanding, or just a lack of knowledge on the audience’s part or the public’s part about how much technically goes into what we do. How much logistics there are; how much computer work I do; how much organizing I do, whether it’s labor or materials. And that it’s not just about making pretty things. It’s a much more complicated and dimensional process.

LH: Even when I say, “We’re building costumes,” people always have an issue with the term “build.” But, you know, it’s just like building a house. Somebody designs it; somebody does a sketch of it, and then you do detailed plans of it, and then you order the materials and do the construction methods. And people don’t associate that with, “I used to make clothes.”

CR: Lots of people sew, and so they feel a connection with us. That’s why we use the term “building,” because there is a well-thought-out plan behind the infrastructure that is not just about putting pieces of fabric together.

It’s about creating a shape. It’s about creating an understructure, which will support the outer structure. I use the term engineering. I’ve got an engineering mind. That’s how I come to it; that’s the creative problem-solving part of it. It’s building, but it’s couture. This is custom couture work.

LH: Tailors use the term engineering as well. They talk about how they engineer a suit.

CR: Yes. There’s a lot of math.

LH: And that’s part of the leadership of your role—determining those engineering techniques, determining which techniques work for which garment, and how to assemble that all.

CR: Absolutely. There’s the big picture management part of it—if there’s a better route to go, whether it’s an assembly line, whether it’s a one-off, whether we’re going to remake something. That logistical part of it is huge. And I love that part. It makes my synapses crackle!

LH: And it’s managing your resources, too, especially your personnel resources, in terms of how you’re going to construct something with the personnel you have.

CR: Sure. People get sick; fabric comes in late; designers change their minds, but I keep the focus on the endpoint. I balance fiscal responsibility, time management, all of that. That’s a challenge, but again [conspiratorially whispers] I love that part!

LH: You’re good at that part!

CR: Thank you very much! What about you?

LH: I came up through the business as a stage manager, and stage management is pretty much evenly male/female or maybe slightly more female-dominated. It’s a lot about organization, and it is a leadership role. But it’s also kind of a serving role; it’s very much a facilitator role. Then I moved into the Director of Production role, which is very male-dominated. And I think the reason is that it’s more technically based. It’s more people who know carpentry and engineering and rigging and all that. But when I started as a teenager, I did a lot of everything. I built a lot of scenery; I hung a lot of lights; I designed sound and ran the light board and did all that, so I have a good smattering of information. I’m not an expert rigger, and I couldn’t be the Technical Director, necessarily, but I understand enough about it. I can speak it and understand the issues, and that allows me to gain people’s respect pretty quickly. I can point out things, and they’re like, “Oh, you know about that?” And that immediately raises me into the conversation.

I’ve also had good mentors along the way. Starting with when I was a teenager, there was a female director who empowered me to become a stage manager, who taught me how to stage-manage and said, “You can do this.” And then I’ve had a lot of male mentors and Directors of Production who taught me how to pursue the job. There are more female Directors of Production now.

CR: I think that in production in general, there are a lot more. Even in admin, it’s just great to see; it’s a different vibe; it’s a different conversation.

LH: I think in opera, in general, the top positions still tend to be male dominated, but there are more women in a lot of the other positions. I mean, Portland Opera is an example. Three of the four senior directors are female. That’s becoming more commonplace, and we’re seeing more female directors and conductors as well. It’s still a minority, but it’s definitely growing.

CR: You were talking about working your way up, and you know, I have always said that a big part of my success is that I was a stitcher for years and a design assistant, worked into draping and then combined that with other mediums like TV, film, and dance. It was a circuitous route to where I ended up, but I know that it’s right because I can do all of these things. I may not be the best at this and that, but I know how it’s done. Having worked with some incredibly successful and brilliant drapers and designers over the last 30 years, I know what I’m seeing. I don’t need to do their jobs, but I can speak the speak and understand everything they’re talking about.

LH: That’s an important quality of being a leader, to have an understanding of what those you lead are doing and how to help them achieve the greatest things they can. That’s part of leading.

Artslandia: You’re both in positions of leadership, and you’re both coming from a place of having the experience of being a woman. So how does that factor into your leadership style, and what are some experiences that have helped of shape that?


LH: 
I have difficulty with that question because I don’t know what it’s like to be a non-female leader. I don’t know how much my gender has to do with my leadership style, but my path probably influenced my leadership style. As I said earlier, the stage manager is the facilitator. A lot of my style is leading by example—creating a team and getting everybody on the same page focusing on common goals. That’s pretty easy to do in a theatrical setting because it’s a very collaborative atmosphere. There’s not a lot of sabotage or backbiting because everybody has the same goal: to get the show on. My job is to keep everybody and everything moving toward that goal. It’s not a “power” position; it’s more just a collaborative leading position, guiding everybody toward the goal: success. How about you?

CR: I’m not sure how to answer that question other than to say that I am aware that I am a woman in a role of leadership. I approach younger women who are coming up by continuing to be an advocate for them and whatever it is that they’re doing, encouraging them to continue working in the arts. Nobody chooses to work in nonprofit arts because they think they’re going to make a lot of money. We choose these things, or they choose us. So I reinforce with young women, and women in general, to be persistent about what it is that they want to be doing. I try to be that sounding board, that other woman to say, “You’ve got this. What do you need?”

It makes me want to be a great leader, the best leader. I want to be that example for them. I want to be that strong woman. I came to management not because I really want to be in charge of people. I came up through the facilitating and advocating aspect of it. I’m good at what I do, so let me be in charge so that I can help you get what you need to get done. It all goes back to making sure that people have the resources and the support they need. I’m aware, in a situation with other leaders, that I want to be a great role model. And that’s when I’m most aware of the fact that I’m a woman.

LH: Well, what do you think the future holds?

CR: I’m encouraged! New pieces are being created by women, and there’s the idea of broadening the scope of opera to include new stories that will include a larger portion of our community, especially here in Portland. That is the future.

LH: I think so too.

The future will continue to grow brighter and brighter, and the world of opera will evolve. There are new operas written every year, so we’ll see how they take hold and change the world!

2018/19 Season at Portland Opera

Let’s celebrate growth and the art of opera. Let’s commit to the art of listening, and witness that power and heights of the human voice. We will find music that unlocks our hearts, and stories that speak to our most empathetic virtues. Let’s gather with friends, family, and community at the opera.