Costuming a Small Army of Virgins for the Met Opera’s ‘El Niño’

In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “El Niño,” which reimagines the story of Jesus’ birth and early childhood, there are singing and dancing Virgin Marys, Marys of the land and sea; there’s an Indigenous Mary, a Tropical Mary, a Golden Mary.

For the costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, differentiating this flock of Virgins was just one challenge in bringing to life this new vision of the composer John Adams and the director Peter Sellars’s eclectic Y2K-era oratorio, which draws just as liberally from Latin American poetry and mystic hymns as it does from the New Testament. In the director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s vision, the action takes place across multiple “planes.” It could be a lot to take in.

Thankfully for Mr. Levi Blanco, 39, he has developed something of a shorthand while working with Ms. Blain-Cruz, whom he has known since he was an M.F.A. student at the Yale School of Drama. The pair have collaborated several times, including on “The Skin of Our Teeth,” for which Mr. Levi Blanco won a Tony Award in 2022.

In the case of “El Niño,” painterly scenery by the set designer Adam Rigg evokes the natural environment. And because the chorus is onstage for much of the performance, the question became, What to do with these five dozen singers? The solution: Turn them into flora.

Mr. Levi Blanco developed four versions of the choral costume, all in the same shade of avocado green, that could be adapted to individual chorus members. If a singer wanted long sleeves or a crop top, say, or pants instead of a skirt, the costumes could easily be tweaked.

“Each one is a leaf,” he said of the variation. “Each leaf is different.”

Indigenous Mary, who will be portrayed by a dancer, is one of the production’s three so-called iconic Marys.Credit…Montana Levi Blanco
Indigenous Mary reflects the melding of Christian and Native aesthetic traditions — something Mr. Levi Blanco witnessed firsthand growing up in New Mexico.Credit…Winnie Au for The New York Times
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