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Karen Brown Larimore, Resident Costume Designer

Karen Brown Larimore has been the resident costumer for Opera for the Young since 2008, and is a favorite with Madison Arts organizations including Madison Opera, Madison Ballet, and Madison Savoyards, Madison Repertory Theatre, University Opera, University Theatre, Children's Theatre of Madison. She has created the designs for two world premier operas, Tight Rope and Esperanza. You might even see her work in your home as she is the designer of the original Molly, Samantha, and Kirsten doll clothes for American Girl Collection

Meet the Designer! An interview with Karen Brown-Larimore

How did you become a costume designer?
I did theater in high school, even in grade school. I was the kid in the backyard putting on the play, putting the blanket over the clothesline and inviting the neighbors over and putting on a play with all the other neighborhood kids. And then in high school I was in all the musicals, I was in drama club…I knew I wanted to do theater, but you don’t always know all the things you can do with theater. I started out (as many do) as an actress in undergraduate, decided I did not like acting, and then was a set designer with specialization in scene painting and props construction. Then I was asked to design sets and costumes for a show and found that I loved doing the costume part much more than I liked the set design, so I switched over to costuming. Went to NY, found that I really liked costuming but needed more knowledge in the construction and building of costumes, and then I came to Madison for my graduate study. Got my master’s degree at UW-Madison, then went out on tour for ten years as a star dresser and came back to Madison with my husband and 7-year-old child and settled down here.

What would you say to someone who loves theater, but feels nervous onstage?
You do not need to be an actor to make it professionally in theater! I love doing backstage work, I love doing quick changes, I love working with actors as a dresser. Lately I had to do a cue where I had to go onstage during a blackout during a Broadway show, pick up something in the dark and cross to the other side of the stage. The first day I was so nervous back in the wings, going “I’m going to fall, I’m going to embarrass myself – the lights are going to come up and you’re going to find me sprawled across the stage” but I did it every time and I didn’t get caught by the audience. As long as I’m backstage, I’m not nervous. So if you’re nervous of acting, try out the backstage parts, you might like lighting, set design, costume design, directing, etc.

What shows did you tour with?
I was out with Dreamgirls, My One and Only, Phantom [of the Opera], and Les Mis.

What shows inspire you as a costumer?
It’s the big giant Broadway extravaganzas…the Hamiltons, the Wickeds…I’m amazed by the design, the construction, the building - I also work as a unioned stagehand or dresser, so I’m able to work backstage and see everything close-up, which I think is really great.

Of the shows you’ve been a part of, which is your favorite?
I think Dreamgirls is my favorite. It was my first tour and the original Dreamgirls was just brilliant – full of quick changes, full of beautiful costumes.

Do you have a favorite style or era of costume to design?
I don’t have a favorite, but I do love doing pieces that are based on history. I love doing my research, finding out what people wore. Then sometimes, especially in opera, you might say “Well it’s historically accurate, but we don’t have to be completely accurate.” I might do a looser throat because the actor needs to sing, or in dance it’s all about the movement.

Besides theater, have you designed for other mediums?
I have done some cosplay for my daughter – things like a steampunk Tinkerbell! I also designed the original doll clothes for three American Girl dolls: Samantha, Molly, and Kirsten.

What kind of preparation or research do you do to make costumes?
It depends on the show. If it’s set in history, you first want to do your historical research - if it be 1780’s or 1870’s or 1970’s – you want to know what people wore at the time. And then you read the script, you see what the characters are, what you’re trying to portray, so that a person would look at them onstage and say “Oh! That’s the villain” or “that’s the good guy” or “those are the lovers” and then you work with a director, see what they see in the characters, and then you bring designs to the director and discuss them, then you change things according to what the director wants or what you’ve gotten new from the director, and then you finalize your designs and then you start building them or have them built.

What was challenging (or fun!) about creating the costumes for “Super Storm!”?
I think one thing that was really fun about it was designing the children. We knew that there were abandoned cats and dogs, so what is an easy way for dozens of different children to wear them daily? And one of the things that we’ve come up with is the tabards, and so designing the cats and dogs that would go on to them, with the director what breeds you wanted on them, and then having them painted. And they need to be washed daily, so you have to think of that, all the costumes have to be laundered easily. With the Superheroes I have to keep in mind that we had three different casts with lots of different sizes and shapes. What comes to mind when you think of Flexibella? Somebody who’s flexible, somebody who can move easily, something that can stretch, and then you think of a costume. Singers may not be comfortable in a tight unitard like many superheroes wear, and you can’t really put them in the new pleather/leather superheroes that are out there now. So you find something in between. Something they can wear comfortably in the classroom and can change quickly from their designed street clothes. So there’s those elements in there! If you look closely, you can see the remnants of their street clothes in their superhero, sometimes in the color, sometimes in the style – a sweatshirt turns into a superhero padded, muscular sweatshirt on one character, a longer coat on another.

Besides being Opera for the Young’s Resident Costume Designer, what other companies do you design costumes for?
I’m the Resident Costume Designer for Madison Opera, Madison Ballet, and then also up in Door County for Northern Sky Theater.

Were you always good at drawing?
No, I was NOT always good at drawing, and I still sometimes dislike my drawing. I’ve taken a lot of art history and I see artists who can draw simply and easily. It’s still work for me – I’ve taken drawing classes, I’ve taken life-drawing classes and it’s really helped but it’s still hard. But I still work at it - I do my simple drawings and they convey what I’m trying to get across. Could I go in and do more to them? Yes, but they work for when I’m working with a director to show them that this is what the costume will look like.

Final thoughts?
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Last Updated: 3/27/2019

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