Hugh N. Pruett, wardrobe director for Lyric Opera of Chicago, died May 5 at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke Medical Center after a brief illness. He was 68 years old. He came to Lyric Opera of Chicago as assistant to the wardrobe master in 1959 "with a love of opera and a degree in business administration," he said in a 1998 interview for Lyric's program.
Pruett was named Lyric's wardrobe master (or co-director of costumes) when the late Ardis Krainik became the company's general director in 1981. Pruett was named wardrobe director in 1996, when his longtime companion and professional colleague, John Hamlin Peters, retired. (Peters died in 1999.) The two worked together at Lyric for 38 years.
As wardrobe director, Pruett oversaw between 35 and 50 wardrobe staff, stitchers, cutters, and dressers, depending on the size and complexity of any given opera production. Over the course of his career at Lyric, Pruett worked with countless international opera singers, directors, and designers on 329 productions (including revivals) from the standard and contemporary repertoire, including several world premieres. The directors and designers with whom he collaborated included Nicola Benois, John Bury, Liviu Ciulei, John Conklin, John Copley, Giorgio de Lullo, August Everding, Gotz Friedrich, David Hockney, Frank Galati, Herbert Graf, Jane Greenwood, Desmond Heeley, Peter J. Hall, Richard Hudson, Ming Cho Lee, Yuri Ljubimov, Santo Loquasto, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Harold Prince, Pier Luigi Samaritani, Michael Stennett, Michael Yeargan, and Franco Zefirelli.
Born in Martin County, Indiana, and raised by his mother and grandmother, "who loved opera," Pruett "grew up listening to Caruso on those thick disks," he once recalled. He attended Indiana University (Bloomington) and Miami University (Oxford, OH), and earned a business degree from Harvard. He subsequently joined the Navy, serving as an admiral's aide in Hawaii for three and a half years. After leaving the military he worked for a builder in Hawaii on what is now the Hilton Hotel, managed an officers' club in New London, CT, and studied fashion briefly.
In the interview for the 1998 program article, Pruett noted, " 'Costumes' doesn't just mean a dress or jacket and trousers. We also deal with shoes, hats, gloves, jewelry, stockings, ties, petticoats--sometimes capes and overcoats. We do make many of the costumes in our shop during the spring and summer months, and the only items that we are not equipped to make are shoes, armor pieces, and many formed hats. Even in these cases, we have sometimes been forced to improvise."
For about 25 years Pruett was the business agent for the International Alliance of the Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Pictures Machine Operators of the US and Canada (IATSE) Wardrobe Union #769. He recently stepped down from that position. 'He was certainly well loved, well liked, and well respected, said Jerre Jean Broll-Cook, president of the local. "In fact, he was given the award for best business agent in the wardrobe division about four years ago."
His mother, Agnes E. Smith of Florida, survives Pruett. Private funeral arrangements are pending. A memorial service is being planned.