John Lehmeyer, a prolific costume designer who also directed operas and plays, died Monday at St. Joseph Medical Center of pneumonia related to cancer. The Bolton Hill resident was 63.
A Peabody Institute faculty member who was formerly production director of the Baltimore Opera Company, he directed or costumed hundreds of shows in his four decades of creative work.
Born in Baltimore and raised on West Pratt Street, he appeared as a child at the old Hilltop Theater near Brooklandville and received training at the old Isabel Berger's Children's Experimental Theater.
In a 1980 Sun interview, he recalled being taken to New York's Metropolitan Opera as a child by his mother on a day when sets and costumes were being loaded. He broke loose and ran through a backstage door, saying, "`Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it wonderful?' And right then, she knew I was lost, the fates had got me."
Mr. Lehmeyer dropped out of City College so he could devote more time to designing and making costumes for theater troupes.
He later received his graduate equivalency diploma, and was in a Maryland Institute College of Art-Johns Hopkins University program for several months before moving to New York to be a sketcher for Mr. Mort, a Seventh Avenue women's fashion house. This led to his becoming a costumer's assistant at the Provincetown Theater on Cape Cod.
"He filled out the season for the regular customer designer, who was pregnant and left to have a baby," said his nephew, Mark W. Adams of Reisterstown. "He finished her work and never looked back again."
Mr. Lehmeyer returned to Baltimore and became Center Stage's costume designer for two years in the early 1960s. He also did work for the Milwaukee Rep, New York Shakespeare Company and Trinity Repertory in Providence, R.I. He joined the Baltimore Opera Company staff in 1974 and a year later became its assistant general manager.
"He loved every minute of show business and opera -- and making a strong impression on the audience," said Michael Harrison, general director of the Baltimore Opera Company. "He was an artistic visionary and a terrific stage director. He would develop his own concept, then work with set and lighting designers. He worked behind the scenes so much that I had trouble getting him to take a bow on opening night."
Mr. Lehmeyer was costume director-designer for Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston from 1977 to 1978, and directed and costumed Martha for New York City Opera in 1990. For the past 24 years, he was resident director and artistic director of the Washington Summer Opera.
"I've never known anyone as devoted to his craft. He lived and breathed it," said George Goebel, owner of A.T. Jones & Sons, the Howard Street costumers. "His sketches for costumes were works of art."
"He was brilliant, talented, funny and a quirky person," said Rhea Feikin, host of Artworks This Week on Maryland Public Television, for whom Mr. Lehmeyer designed costumes at Center Stage many years ago. "He had a perfect eye -- it showed in his costumes."
In 1994, he joined the faculty at the Peabody, where he was opera stage director, costumer and coach.
"He not only provided clothes which brought an entire production to life, but would work with the singers to get them to become the roles which his clothes made possible," said Roger Brunyate, Peabody's opera director. "His generosity in giving support to his colleagues was matched only by his shyness in accepting compliments in return."
His last works locally were a Peabody production of Candide and Death on the Nile for Theatre Hopkins.
A memorial service is being planned for the fall.
He is survived by a brother, Dr. F. Robert Lehmeyer of Birmingham, Ala., his nephew and two nieces.