Flowing greens and the soft pinks of cherry blossoms adorned the stage, stimulating the exultancy of The Lyric Stage’s musical satire production of The Mikado. Rafael Jaen, the costume design advisor and part of the design-tech faculty at Emerson, was the visionary behind the maids dancing with pastel sun umbrellas and men in royal blues waving delicate fans.
Born in Venezuela, Jaen has been a costume designer for over 25 years. His work spans a wide range of productions, oscillating from a modern take on Henrik Ibsen’s Dollhouse to the Japanese-inspired The Mikado, for which he received a nomination from the Independent Reviewers of New England for Best Costume Design.
Jaen, a longtime friend of Spiro Valoudos, who serves as the artistic director of The Lyric Stage, has designed the first show of every fall season for
the past 10 years.
“It was expected that I was going to do the musical for last semester [or The Lyric Stage],” said Jaen. “I was actually going to take a year off, and then he told me that this year he was doing The Mikado, which is one of my favorite shows to design, so he got me there. And he also had people working there that I love.”
The Mikado is written by librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. It is set in the fictional town of Titipu and tells the story of Yum-Yum (Erica Spyres), a young girl who is engaged to be married to Ko-Ko (Bob Jolly), the lord high executioner of the town. However, she falls in love with the nomadic minstrel, Nanki-Poo (Devron Monroe). Through operatic twists and turns, the musical highlights love and compassion as Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo try to fight the odds.
Jaen’s designs, including silky kimonos and woven bags, are inspired by a large pool of ideas, but also hold his signature as a designer and stylist. He characterizes his style as having three parts: He adores bright colors, he loves layers that allow the actors to express their stories, and he delves deeply into the psychology of the scenes and the characters.
“I’m not afraid of color or texture,” he said. “And it could be the fact that my background enforces that because I grew up in the tropics — great exotic birds and flowers — so I go to color to tell a story. The second thing would be layers. I love giving the actors accessories and stuff they can use to tell their story.”
However, he did not originally choose the path of sequin and suede.
Beginning school in Venezuela as architecture major, Jaen received a grant and applied to study at New York University. Jaen focused on lighting and set design, but in his last year, he studied under Carrie Robbins, an award-winning costume designer. She would take Jaen and the other students to Broadway to see her productions and to other big costume shops in the city.
“When I saw the collaboration that went on, and when I was able to interact with the actors, I kind of fell in love with the psychology,” said Jaen. “And talking to someone about motivation and how color and texture can translate emotions or qualities of a character.”
Jaen received his bachelor’s degree in costume design from NYU. After moving to Boston, Jaen opened up a costume shop, but after receiving a master’s degree in theater education from Emerson and a full-time position at Emerson, he closed the store and began to focus his career on local and Emerson productions.
“And you know, what’s really funny is that all of the jobs that I got right off of school, I got maybe three lighting jobs and like one, set design [job]. Everything else was costumes, so it’s kind of
like it chose me.”