Boris Godunov

Opera is back at the Met for the 2021-2022 season with its Live in HD opener, Boris Godunov, a Pushkin-based Russian opera about a dubious tsar and the haunting of his rise to power. To scale down production, this was the first time that the Met performed the opera in its original 1869 format, which had obvious distinctions: no leading lady, no intermissions.

A scene from Boris Godunov / Metropolitan Opera

Due to technical difficulties at the theater, our local audience missed the first 20-30 minutes of the performance and was left to mentally piece together the fragmented story. An inauspicious omen for the opera ? I think so… Truth be told, the opera felt disjointed ─ whether due to the composer’s intentions or the abbreviated simulcast narrative, I can’t be sure. While I was disappointed in the latter, I went for the Russian language experience and René Pape and was duly rewarded by each. And as a bonus, the audience was compensated with free tickets and a free small popcorn for the inconvenience. Nice !

As there was no central female character in this version of Boris Godunov, I had to get creative with my outfit. Intriguingly, it was the Russian people that provided the influx of inspiration. I wanted to be a peasant (or serf) and knew just what I would wear…

Folkwear 128 Russian Settlers’ Dress

The sarafan is a traditional Russian folk dress popularized by peasants, but was also worn by the dignified in the imperialist regime. Typically worn with a loose shirt and apron, the jumper can be made as plain or as fancy as a seamstress wishes. Since my aim was to look poor and deplete on the outstretching Steppes, I left much of the red washed linen and cream double gauze as unadorned as possible.

This was my first time using a Folkwear pattern, which has long been on my sewing wish list. Included in the packet were detailed instructions on how to modify (or modernize) the traditional style of the garment as well as helpful information for embroidering the shoulders of the blouse. I opted to gather the back of my sarafan and stitched matching ribbon to hold the fabric in place.

A scarf from my mother’s dresser drawer transformed into a babushka tied around my head and the single braid trailing down my back.

Although I was thrilled with my authentic creation, someone else was not… “You need to throw that out right after you wear it; it’s AWFUL !!!!!” wailed my mother as I walked out dressed in full costume. She grimaced and turned away after every press of the camera button ─ it’s a wonder I even got any pictures to share !

As (un)flattering as the sarafan may have been, it was the perfect outfit for an opera where the peasantry plays a major role. I just wish I had been able to see the entire opera !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits

Boris Godunov ─ Modest Mussorgsky (1869)
Live in HD air date: October 9, 2021

Cast:
Boris Godunov ─ René Pape
Grigory ─ David Butt Phillip
Shuisky ─ Aleksey Bogdanov
Pimen ─ Ain Anger
Varlaam ─ Ryan Speedo Green

Credits:
Conductor ─ Sebastian Weigle
Production ─ Stehpen Wadsworth
Set Designer ─ Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Costume Designer ─ Moidele Bickel
Lighting Designer ─ Duane Schuler
Fight Director ─ Steve Rankin
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Angel Blue

Rusalka

Dvořák’s opera of a water nymph who desires to be human should be familiar territory to anyone who has read or seen “The Little Mermaid” in any of its contexts. Whether it be the Hans Christian Andersen tale or Disney’s beloved movie, “The Little Mermaid” has had an endearing effect on the public. As someone who grew up watching the Disney film and reading Andersen, Rusalka was a must-see for me during the 2016-2017 Live in HD season. It was now time for the Czech composer to shine in the thalassic classic.

This was a new production for the Met and Mary Zimmerman’s designs were brought to life with forest fauna and frothing watering holes…

The forest sprites in Rusalka / Metropolitan Opera

This was fitting, but the glaring garishness of the palace where the prince lived was (intentionally) off-putting. Even Rusalka was ready to hightail it back to her pond !

Kristine Opolais (center) in a scene from Act II of Rusalka / Metropolitan Opera

An attractive draw to this performance was the casting of Kristine Opolais as the title character. As an actress, she’s evocative and affecting, yet her voice doesn’t tend to coat my ears in richness. However, my auditory senses were deliciously rewarded when Jamie Barton took the stage as Ježibaba, the cackling, steampunk-esque witch. She stole the show !

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka and Jamie Barton as Ježibaba / Metropolitan Opera

Yes, I was eager to attend Rusalka. Even more, I was excited to create a costume for the opera. With the scene set as the rivers and lakes amidst a cool forest, I played around with the thought of building a transitional outfit that started as “water” and gradually turned into a “land” ─ like an ecological ombré effect. Skirts and scarves in blues and greens would resemble the water and an Easter bonnet made of paper plates would have been a crafty representation of the flora above. Here’s my Easter bonnet from years ago:

Remember this, Aunt Countess ?

But no ─ I couldn’t wear my flamboyant fascinator to the theater and cause the folks behind me to become utterly enraged. Farewell to the forest ! Returning to the water theme, a backstage video from the Met threw me a helpful costuming clue…

Rusalka costume discussion / Metropolitan Opera

Just as in the Met costume shop, I fashioned my own lilies for my skirts of “water”… except my lilies were not silk… they were coffee filters !

A stack of basic white coffee filters were snipped and twisted to create fanned water lilies with pale yellow stamens reaching forth. Atop my head was a lily pad, which was a crocheted doily I made for my mother years ago. And the crochet lace halter top ? I bought it at a consignment store. My outfit cost me next to nothing and was a worthy copycat of Kristine Opolais’s Act I gown.

Kristine Opolais in Act I of Rusalka / Metropolitan Opera

In “The Little Mermaid” as well as Rusalka, the price for becoming a human being is the seeker’s own voice and immortality. And while the ending in the opera was not a “happily ever after” scenario, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the result of my costume ─ all the fun of a water nymph for the day with no remote danger of losing my voice or life.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Rusalka ─ Antonín Dvořák (1901)
Live in HD air date: February 25, 2017

Cast:
Rusalka ─ Kristine Opolais
The Prince ─ Brandon Jovanovich
Ježibaba ─ Jamie Barton
The Foreign Princess ─ Katarina Dalayman
Vodník, the Water Gnome ─ Eric Owens

Credits:
Conductor ─ Sir Mark Elder
Production ─ Mary Zimmerman
Set Designer ─ Daniel Ostling
Costume Designer ─ Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Designer ─ T.J. Gerckens
Choreographer ─ Austin McCormick
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Matthew Polenzani

Die Zauberflöte ─ The Queen of the Night

If you have a penchant for fairy tales like I do, you’ll find genuine delight in Mozart’s final opera, Die Zauberflöte. Centered around a quest for truth and knowledge (and a damsel in distress), the opera is as noble as its hero, Tamino. Between stipulated testing and bravery of self-determination, I willingly succumbed to the dashing chivalry of the prince on a mission to rescue the princess, Pamina.

Charles Castronovo as Tamino and Golda Schultz as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

If the pursuit of true love doesn’t tickle your fancy, the spectacular production by Julie Taymor (of “The Lion King” on Broadway fame) will surely elicit at least one or two gasps of wonder and amazement. The uniqueness of the costumes and puppetry fits seamlessly with the whimsical roots of the opera. There’s even creative comedy for those still unpersuaded.

Marcus Werba as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

Still not convinced ? Perhaps a fearsome villain is more appealing to you and luckily Die Zauberflöte showcases one of the most despised in the bewitching Queen of the Night. While the name sounds like a beacon among the stars and moon, the wicked queen is far from harmonious and caused me a slight shiver, partially due to the most unattractive styling of the character’s costume and make-up. If there was any doubt as to whether the Queen could make a face turn later in the opera, her appearance alone body slammed those speculations onto the floor.

Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

With the Queen of the Night singing the most famous aria in the opera (and I’m sure you’ve heard it, too), it was without question that I would disguise myself as this otherworldly being for my outing to the opera. While the Julie Taymor costumes are original and ostentatious, I didn’t necessarily feel they best embodied the title of “Queen of the Night” so I imagined my own vision of the character.

Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

I had a long black velvet dress in my closet ─ that was a running start ─ and now I needed to accessorize the pitch black gown to fully realize its nocturnally regal potential. A queen needs a crown, right ? I thought so, too, and cut a pattern out of a corrugated cardboard box, spray painted it silver, and glued on separately cut star and moon shapes (spray painted and glittered) to the tiara. Silky black ribbons were used as the fastener. The Queen had her crown !

“But what else ?” I pondered. The idea of wearing various accessories whisked through my mind, but when I spotted a shimmery black organza printed with silver stars online, I knew I had found my answer. What could be more stunning than a floating veil of the night sky ? Using 2 yards of fabric, I gathered one widthwise edge and sewed it onto a hair comb. To the opposite widthwise edge, I drew arced lines creating a circular perimeter around what became the bottom of the veil. All raw edges and selvedges were finished and voilà ─ a veil ! Just look at how it sparkles in the evening breeze…

With all the articles combined together (including my long black gloves and jewelry), the outfit’s celestial beauty belied the cruelty of the Queen.

Psst ! This outfit also became my Halloween costume for the year. My bedazzled spider bracelet simply begged to be taken trick-or-treating…

As charming as the starry night, Die Zauberflöte goes down as my favorite Mozart opera. The music dazzles and the story is uplifting. But I’m a sucker for fairy tales, after all…

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Die Zauberflöte ─ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)
Live in HD air date: October 14, 2017

Cast:
Pamina ─ Golda Schultz
Tamino ─ Charles Castronovo
Papageno ─ Marcus Werba
Queen of the Night ─ Kathryn Lewek
Sarastro ─ René Pape
Speaker ─ Christian Van Horn

Credits:
Conductor ─ James Levine
Production ─ Julie Taymor
Set Designer ─ George Tsypin
Costume Designer ─ Julie Taymor
Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder
Puppet Designers ─ Julie Taymor, Michael Curry
Choreographer ─ Mark Dendy
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Nadine Sierra

Porgy and Bess

Folk tale. Sing-a-long staple. Twentieth century masterpiece. Porgy and Bess is beloved for many reasons, but there’s probably none greater than being America’s opera. The title protagonists ─ lovable cripple, Porgy, and well-meaning drug addict, Bess, offer glimpses of an unlikely love by an even more unlikely pair in the Gershwins’ classic, which features hit tunes like “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty O’Nuttin'”, and “Ain’t Necessarily So”, just to name a few.

Angel Blue as Bess and Eric Owens as Porgy in Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

This was the first time in over 30 years that Porgy and Bess was making an appearance at the Met. In James Robinson’s new production, a highly skilled ensemble cast sauntered around the planked floor of Catfish Row, a slum in Charleston, South Carolina. Tough-talking matriarch Maria (played by veteran mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves), devoted young parents Clara and Jake, Bible-thumping Serena, slithering Sportin’ Life, and Bess’s brutish ex-lover Crown rounded out the cast of dynamic characters. While intentionally created to be rudimentary in its design, the linear wood slats of the settlement almost looked like a playground jungle gym with its inhabitants hanging out of open window frames and weaving around the pilings below.

A scene from Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

Also swinging beneath the rafters was Gershwin’s jazzy score, which easily identified itself as a frequenter of non-operatic revues. Because of its atypical approach in music (it’s not your run-of-the-mill bel canto or verismo !), I couldn’t help but think that Porgy and Bess belonged more on Broadway as a musical than it did at the Met as an opera. There was too much talk and jive and not enough singing for my tastes. Nevertheless, the opera made for an enjoyable afternoon of spirited routines and recognizable melodies.

A scene from Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

Porgy and Bess takes place during the early 1930’s as the Great Depression doles out its hardships. Along with the coastal Charlestonian locale, where a battalion of reeds stand tall on bordering estuaries, I had plenty of costume ideas swirling in my head… Ultimately, my plan was to blend the two setting features into a feedsack print sundress that would be perfect for a picnic on Kittiwah Island, just as in the opera. Using the past performance pictures from the English National Opera and Dutch National Opera as my inspiration (the Met’s production would be identical), I had my vision set.

Nicole Campbell as Bess and Nmon Ford as Crown in English National Opera’s Porgy and Bess

Bess’s picnic dress conveyed a myriad of 1930’s details in its design: underbust gathers, a separate waist yoke, and buckle tie bows to embellish the frock. Locating the right material was the first step and boy, did I find it ! I had one uncompromising requisite when shopping and that was that the fabric chosen HAD to match a pair of strappy block heel sandals I had in my closet. No exceptions ! Although I had perused the web and ordered samples in search of my ideal “feedsack floral”, I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the printed patterns and/or the colors… until I opened the newest edition of my swatch club mailer and pointed to a cotton stretch poplin. “That’s it !” I rejoiced.

Cotton stretch poplin and coordinating pocket lining material with block heel sandals

The fabric matched the shoes almost perfectly and I was (mostly) pleased with my cute 30’s sundress. Too bad the weather was nasty the day of the opera… I had to bundle my bare legs in a blanket at the theater because of the cold, wet February front that had wafted its way across the state. Ick !

The weather may have been less than ideal that day, but the warmth of “Summertime” and the endearment of America’s greatest opera, Porgy and Bess, were enough to hearten the shrillest skies.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha


Curious about how I fashioned my feedsack frock ? Check out my tutorial post on its creation !

Cast and Credits:

Porgy and Bess ─ George Gershwin (1935)
Live in HD air date: February 1, 2020

Cast:
Bess ─ Angel Blue
Clara ─ Golda Schultz
Serena ─ Latonia Moore
Maria ─ Denyce Graves
Sportin’ Life ─ Frederick Ballantine
Porgy ─ Eric Owens
Crown ─ Alfred Walker
Jake ─ Donovan Singletary

Credits:
Conductor ─ David Robertson
Production ─ James Robinson
Set Designer ─ Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer ─ Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder
Projection Designer ─ Luke Halls
Choreographer ─ Camille A. Brown
Fight Director ─ David Leong
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Audra McDonald

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen

Relatively unknown to the world, dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen has been forging a meteoric rise to stardom with her powerful voice that has some critics calling her “the great Wagnerian promise of her generation.” With as much hype (and height ─ Lise is nearly 6’2″ !) surrounding the shy, Norwegian native, my interest in seeing this uncut gem perform was keener than usual.

Lise Davidsen performing at Oscarshall Palace with James Baillieu accompanying / Metropolitan Opera

Although lacking the total confidence that accompanies decades of professional stage experience, Lise’s humble, offhanded spirit brought a refreshing genuineness to her performance, which included a weighted set list of Wagnerian arias, Grieg, Verdi, and Strauss. There was a little bit of everything, so much so that the program felt like a potluck dinner party. Britten’s “Johnny” was playful with sultry low notes, Strauss’s Op. 27 was sublime, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” was a sugary charmer with James Baillieu’s scrumptious piano tip-tapping away. Adding to the ambiance was the stately Oscarshall Palace dining room, which easily recalled images of “Beauty and the Beast” to my fairy tale mind.

Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu performing at Oscarshall Palace in Oslo, Norway / Metropolitan Opera

The Cuisine

Known for its simplicity and seafood, catering our escape to Norway brought out new ideas and enticing recipes to attempt. Chris couldn’t resist trying her hand at gravlax and it was a smashing success ! Cured with salt, sugar, peppercorns, and dill, the sliced salmon was flavorful yet subtle.

Pairing marvelously with traditional mustard dill sauce, minced red onion, and a dribbling of capers, the feast was in running order. Please examine the filigreed handle on the spoon: coincidentally, it says ‘Oslo’ ─ how fitting !

Caraway crackers and rye bread were used as the foundation for the salmon and just look at how gorgeous Anne’s cheese tray was next to my platter of homemade cookies !

From left to right: Danish blue, Jarlsberg, and Havarti with dill

We do eat well at our little opera watch parties, that’s for certain ! The table was spread with delicacies from “The Land of the Midnight Sun” with a fanfare of ligonberry napkins serving as a makeshift flower arrangement.

You wish you were here with me !

Originally planning to bring a rye flour cardamon yeast bread with raisins, I scrapped that endeavour after the initial test run was a complete flop. I then switched my focus to traditional Norwegian Christmas cookies, like sirupsnippers and coconut macaroons…

Because of my dietary restrictions, I made the cookies with rye flour, coconut sugar, and maple syrup ─ no white flour, no white sugar ! The macaroons were especially artistic with their torched tips of flaked coconut.

The Clothes

When the concert location was announced, there was no hesitation as to what I would wear. Earlier in the year, I had sewn a Norwegian bunad costume for The Flying Dutchman that never was and so I’ve had a skirt and vest laying around the nether regions of my bedroom for months. Now with the perfect opportunity, I wore one of my mother’s blouses (swooping collar turned right side in for greater authenticity) under my sewn additions, which were based off a German dirndl pattern.

The palm trees in the background certainly don’t match the sub-arctic Norwegian landscape, but at least my outfit resembled the North Country. Mission accomplished !

Told by the cut caricatures of the sirupsnipper cookies, the fourth Met Stars Live In Concert event could be summed up as such:

From the forests of Norway…

…rising star Lise Davidsen brought her talents to a concert…

…broadcast around the world…

…where she won our hearts !

Hopefully, Lise Davidsen’s return to the Met will be soon; her voice (in addition to her country’s culinary specialties) were delectable !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen
Oscarshall Palace
Oslo, Norway
Live broadcast date: August 29, 2020
(Date seen: September 2, 2020)

Lise Davidsen ─ soprano
James Baillieu ─ piano

Carmen

“Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame… And if I love you, watch out !”

Act I ─ Carmen

Opera’s most notorious femme fatale finally sashayed her way into the theater after keeping me waiting for years. Truthfully, I have longed to see Carmen for two reasons. First, the bouncing music, which is both tuneful as well as recognizable, is an alluring draw to Bizet’s landmark opera. And then there’s Carmen herself, a meaty role for any mezzo-soprano. Clémentine Margaine, French by birth, slipped into the black dress for this Live in HD performance.

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

Gritty, but perfumed, Clémentine Margaine balance crude manners with beguiling charm. Watching her sent my mind into vacillations of resolve as to who she really was: a woman who looked attractive at first glance, but on further inspection was nothing more than a broad wearing lipstick and eyeliner. There was a hardness about her ─ an earthiness ─ that befit the role of the tempestuous gypsy well. This baseness was especially noticeable when compared to the sweet and singular Micaëla, played by Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, who also happens to be the real life wife of Roberto Alagna, the opera’s Don José !

Aleksandra Kurzak as Micaëla and Roberto Alagna as Don José in Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

While the songs were as exciting as I hoped they would be, I wouldn’t say that Carmen ranks as one of my favorite operas. It’s too long for a story that feels humdrum and predictable. From a personal standpoint, Bizet’s earlier work, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, was much more intriguing in terms of plot and outcome. Nevertheless, I was happy to be able to check Carmen off my list of must-see operas.

A scene from Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

Just as the singer who plays Carmen often relishes the chance to live vicariously through the role, so I also wanted to step into the clicking heels of a Spanish gypsy through my portrayal. Although Richard Eyre’s production is set in Seville during the 1930’s, I felt many of the costumes seemed pertinent to the present day and so I decided to model my look after the dancing ensemble worn by Carmen in Act II.

A scene from Act II of Carmen / Metropolitan Opera

A voluminous bell sleeve blouse and lace skirt swings in time to the rousing Gypsy Song while a black corset exemplifies Carmen’s signature seduction. Planning my version of the outfit was easy, especially when I thought of the coral colored crinkle skirt in my mother’s closet that would be perfect for the part. Marking the tiers with rows of beads, it was destined for bohemian couture. Two yards of Raschel lace, which I bought for a bargain during a Black Friday sale, were draped and pinned on the outside of the skirt like a sarong.

The lower half of the outfit complete, I moved onto the fun parts ─ the corset and the blouse !

Yes, I made a corset. It was easy with the patterns and instructions from the Corset Academy, which I use often when making structured garments. Shaping my figure, the corset was mostly hidden beneath the flouncy tie bottom blouse I sewed using the free wrap blouse pattern from Anke Herrmann’s website for Flamenco Dressmaking. Her advice and support were valuable as I altered the style slightly to suit my needs. Once I found a festive dot crepe fabric on closeout online, I was ready to sew my blouse.

Making the bell sleeves was not as difficult as I anticipated, especially using a circle skirt cutting layout. And I loved using the rolled hem setting on my BabyLock serger ! It made the edges of my bell sleeves frilly and polished.

“But what about your hair ? Is it real ?” Yes and no. Looking over past Met performance pictures, I knew I needed tightly curled locks to match that of the character’s and so I related my plight to my mother (also known as my hairstylist) whereupon she gauged that trying to curl my naturally soft and wavy hair was a futile effort. Ultimately, she suggested I find some hairpieces. Well, I did, but the entirety of that story is not fit for publication. It involved a shady shop on the wrong side of town and a man who tried to convince me that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Che Guevara. Fearful for my life ? Just a smidge.
Doing her best, my mother mingled my hair with the newly bought hairpieces to capture the Spanish vibe I was seeking.

Steeped in Sevillian style, I thoroughly delighted in playing opera’s most infamous gypsy, especially when twirling around in the theater on the way back to my seat. Olé !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Casts and Credits:

Carmen ─ Georges Bizet (1875)
Live in HD air date: February 2, 2019

Cast:
Carmen ─ Clémentine Margaine
Don José ─ Roberto Alagna
Micaëla ─ Aleksandra Kurzak
Escamillo ─ Alexander Vinogradov

Credits:
Conductor ─ Louis Langrée
Production ─ Sir Richard Eyre
Set and Costume Designer ─ Rob Howell
Lighting Designer ─ Peter Mumford
Choreographer ─ Christopher Wheeldon
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Ailyn Pérez

Madama Butterfly (2016)

Tragedies have always attracted me. Fully aware that the ending will be sad and the experience will most likely cause some degree of physical and emotional depletion, I still find myself being drawn to the most dramatic literary form like a batty moth to a glaring light. And when one of opera’s most famous tragedies is set to some of the most beautiful, heart-soaring music, the call to attend is heeded without question.

Intriguingly, Madama Butterfly could have been my first opera: glancing over the 2015-2016 Live in HD schedule, I thought it would be a perfect “first-timer” opera since its title is readily on the lips of laymen. But other decisions were made and now stepping into the theater in early April 2016, my opera attendances had now totaled beyond what could be counted on one hand.

The opening pantomime from Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

So what did I think of Madama Butterfly ? I loved it ! The music was thematic and stunning while the costumes were colorful and imaginative. Also appropriately mimicking the clean, Japanese aesthetic were the sets designed by the late director, Anthony Minghella.
Of course, there was heartbreak, but the unwavering balance created by the supporting characters of Suzuki and Sharpless added stability to an otherwise distressing story.

Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki / Metropolitan Opera

However, my winner of the day goes to Kristine Opolais, who sang Butterfly. What a sublime actress ! Her ability to convey both tenderness and frustration as the unfortunate geisha was unmatched, even though her voice sounds a bit too “hollow” for my liking. If only she and Roberto Alagna (Pinkerton) could have swapped heights… Too many times did I notice Opolais purposefully stooping as she pattered on stage in order to diminish the deficit between her head and that of her leading man’s.

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

“Now, what to wear…?” Hitherto, I had been able to furnish themed costumes out of accessories in my closets with limited issues. Butterfly was a different story. Not knowing anything about the opera beforehand, I first toyed with the idea of draping a long skirt in a scarf printed with bright butterflies and donning a pair of child’s dress-up butterfly wings… Just as Pinkerton abandoned Butterfly, so I also jettisoned that silly notion.

Madame Butterfly ? Not quite…

Desperate for a solution japonaise, I realized I had no other option but to make my own kimono. But where to begin ?! I didn’t even know how to operate a sewing machine ! Determination, however, was stronger than Doubt. Unearthing the old Singer sewing machine, sheathed in dust, from under my mother’s bed, I sat on the floor of my bedroom trying to understand how the machine worked. Turning the hand wheel and observing how and where the needle fell was a fascinating procedure, but I wasn’t gaining ground on my endeavour. Thank goodness for online articles and YouTube ! After many failed attempts at propelling the needle on its journey, something finally clicked and I sewed my first line of stitches. Eureka ! Now to begin the staggering challenge of sewing a yukata…

Inspiration while working on my yukata: cruise line travel brochures !

Keeping my project a secret, I worked late hours in my bedroom following the instructions for a homemade yukata. Astoundingly, I learned and retained more information about kimonos, yukatas, and Japanese geisha culture than I ever imagined. One of the greatest benefits of sewing costumes is the amount of research needed to facilitate an authentic look and therefore, the knowledge gained in the process. Differentiating the method from textbook learning is the hands-on approach that ensures greater retention even after the project is complete. Even now, I can name off all the parts of a kimono and some of the little intricacies of geisha manners.

Nearly all the design aspects of my cotton yukata are traditional (except the contrasting bachi eri, but that’s only because I ran out of the main fabric !). From the ohashori (pouched fabric beneath the obi) to the left-over-right okumi panels (NEVER right-over-left ─ that’s for corpses only !!!!), my yukata was fit for a Japanese festival. I even made a matching kanzashi chopstick hairpiece to tie into the tropical print of the yukata.

Kanzashi hairpiece and obi tied into a bow

Overall, I was proud of my very first sewing project─ wearing my creation to the theater made me feel as if I had conquered an unimaginable feat !
With Madama Butterfly, my taste for tragedy was well satiated. In matters of sewing, my palate had just been whetted.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Madama Butterfly ─ Giacomo Puccini (1904)
Live in HD air date: April 2, 2016

Cast:
Cio-Cio-San ─ Kristine Opolais
Pinkerton ─ Roberto Alagna
Suzuki ─ Maria Zifchak
Sharpless ─ Dwayne Croft

Credits:
Conductor ─ Karel Mark Chichon
Production ─ Anthony Minghella
Director and Choreographer ─ Carolyn Choa
Set Designer ─ Michael Levine
Costume Designer ─ Han Feng
Lighting Director ─ Peter Mumford
Puppetry ─ Blind Summit Theatre
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Deborah Voigt*

*Matthew Polenzani originally scheduled to host broadcast.

Die Walküre

I couldn’t have asked for a better opera for my first outing of Wagner: from Bugs Bunny to WWE wrestler walk-up music, Die Walküre‘s fame and legacy permeates all realms of music and culture. Who hasn’t heard the irresistibly iconic “Ride of the Valkyries” or been amused by the warrior women with braids and Viking helmets ?

Part of an epic tetralogy know formally as “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, Die Walküre explodes with mythological drama and some of the most involving music ever written. Ever since I began attending operas, I’ve always heard mentions of Wagner’s “engrossing” music and how spectators loose track of time while taking in a performance, despite the harrowing length of most of Wagner’s works. Knowing this, I was a little apprehensive about how I would fare at my first Ring opera.

Jamie Barton as Fricka, Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre / Metropolitan Opera

I shouldn’t have been worried ─ I loved Die Walküre and was hooked on the Ring Cycle ! While the layered story dipped into several previous arcs that occurred in Das Rhinegold (the first opera in the tetralogy), I found I was able to keep pace with the action and inevitably slipped into that intoxicating Wagner “trance”. Brutish warriors and incestuous twins aside, there were greatly tender moments as well. The final farewell between Wotan, the flawed God of Valhalla, and his disobedient Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, nearly sent my mascara running !

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre / Metropolitan Opera

What is a ‘Valkyrie’ anyway ? In reading up on Norse mythology, I learned how Valkyries were immortal female fighters who aided in the battles among men on earth and safely carried the fallen heroes to Valhalla where they would live and serve Wotan in happiness. Although generally styled as Viking women with horned helmets and long braided pigtails, the Met’s Robert Lepage production has altered the women’s accoutrements to have filigreed chrome wings mounted to diadems and textured skirts of a metallic mylar material. As a costume that would unmistakably smack of cosplay, I set out to replicate the shiny scaled armor bodices and flashy skirts of the Met’s fearless Valkyries.

A scene with the Valkyries: Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Eva-Maria Westbroek as the Wälsung, Sieglinde / Metropolitan Opera

Sourcing the materials was the first step. Initially, I thought of using a spangle sequin fabric for the chain mail bodice, but decided against it in favor of hand cutting my “scales” out of versatile silver pleather for a more authentic look. In order to use my hot knife on the pleather, I needed a stencil and a sturdy one at that ! A branding pen devours paper like the flames of Brünnhilde’s bridal fire ─ I transferred my paper patterns onto an empty soda can and burned both pleather and black matte satin using their forms.

With long lengths of scalloped scales simultaneously cut and sealed, I sewed them alternately onto a princess bodice I drafted to fit my figure using patterns from the Corset Academy. Wax paper was the saving grace while stitching sticky, scrunching pleather…

Wax paper stitched on top of the pleather

Just a note─ I don’t suggest making a lining out of heavy polyester satin, especially if you live in hot and humid climates like I do. While I could quell my mascara from running down my cheek, the sweat down my spine I could not. The bodice was a polyester sauna !

Bodice lined, boned, and topstitched along seams

One of the most distinguishing features of the costume was the lofty pair of wings, glinting in the flashes of battle. Using pictorial resources available on the web (particularly, Deborah Voigt’s portrayal), I drew a freehand version of the openwork wing on paper and transferred it onto a thin cardboard cereal box to be spray painted later.

Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde / Metropolitan Opera
The paper wing stencil

Once the wings were painted, they were affixed to a pleather covered foam diadem. Wrist cuffs out of the same foam/pleather combination anchored the tapered ends of the fishnet mesh sleeves. All that remained was the skirt, which was created from steely stretch taffeta by a series of angled half circles formed into a wrap style. The costume was finished and I was ready to take flight as a Valkyrie !

In spite of the poor choice of lining material, wearing this costume was a thrill ! After all, how many people can claim that they’ve been a Valkyrie ? This outfit also doubled as my Halloween costume for the year and just as at the theater, it sparked otherworldly interest.

“Hojotoho !”

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Die Walküre ─ Richard Wagner (1870)
Live in HD air date: March 30, 2019

Cast:
Brünnhilde ─ Christine Goerke
Sieglinde ─ Eva-Maria Westbroek
Fricka ─ Jamie Barton
Siegmund ─ Stuart Skelton
Wotan ─ Greer Grimsley
Hunding ─ Günter Groissböck

Credits:
Conductor ─ Philippe Jordan
Production ─ Robert Lepage
Associate Director ─ Neilson Vignola
Set Designer ─ Carl Fillion
Costume Designer ─ François St-Aubin
Lighting Designer ─ Etienne Boucher
Video Image Artist ─ Boris Firquet
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Deborah Voigt

Madama Butterfly (2019)

Arguably the most heartbreaking of all operas, Madama Butterfly fully represents one of the key reasons why I love opera so much: it unearths emotions in me that I rarely feel otherwise. One cannot help but be mortally affected by the tragedy of the teenaged geisha as she bestows complete faith in a foreigner she has never laid eyes upon to be her wedded husband. Characteristically of Puccini, the score sweeps with valor and brings forth some of opera’s most emblazoned moments, culminating in the painfully hopeful aria “Un bel dì”, which nearly brings tears to my eyes.

Hui He singing an excerpt from “Un bel dì” / Metropolitan Opera

Although I had seen this same Anthony Minghella production in 2016, I couldn’t resist going back a second time when it returned to theaters. In a dramatic twist, a relatively unknown tenor, Bruce Sledge, jumped into the leading role of Pinkerton with just 2 days notice and stunned ─ at least, vocally. His acting was heinous, but it was to be expected with hardly any rehearsal time. I would love to see him again when he has more time to prepare. His potential was tremendous !

Bruce Sledge as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

One of the fundamentals of the much-adored Minghella production is the use of traditional Japanese Bunraku puppets, most notably as Butterfly’s 3-year-old son. While it’s mesmerizing to watch three veiled men in the shadows maneuver the head, hands, and feet of the wooden child, I felt that some of the attention to detail in regards to the physicality of the puppet had diminished since seeing the 2016 performance: the child toddled not as often as before and relied more frequently on being held by his mother.

Hui He as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

This was just one detail that aided in the feeling of something being amiss. Although I can’t quite put my finger on it, this particular performance lacked a chemistry and fire that is so needed for a convincing Butterfly. Still, I enjoyed the opera ─ and the visually stunning production ─ nonetheless. It is Puccini, after all.

A scene from Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

She’s a geisha, yes. But more significantly, Cio-Cio-San is Madame Butterfly─ as in, a married woman. The centrifugal moment of the opera, which triggers all the dominoes to fall, is the marriage ceremony between Butterfly and Pinkerton. Climbing up the glossy stage while accompanied by her wedding party in bright regalia and corrugated fans, the silken white figure of Cio-Cio-San is a breathtaking sight to behold. This was exactly the look I wished to emulate with my costume.

Hui He as Madame Butterfly (seen here with Roberto Armonica) / Metropolitan Opera

With exactly a month before the opera, I commenced work on a replica kimono that I hoped would give credence to the character. An abounding bevy of varying satin “yo-yos” were cut and hand sewn together as the key ornamentation of the robe, which was quite comfortable since it was lined in a thin cotton voile. The logistical challenge of creating the obi (sash) and faux drum knot was another story, but for now we’ll just say it was adequate for its brief stint at the theater. My lovely friend, Judy, captured a photo of the back of the outfit during intermission.

Raven black wig, red poppy affixed, and yards of silvery white satin summoned to mind the ancestral artistry of the Met’s Minghella Madame…

Hui He as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

With properly applied white face, a dab of rouge, and ruby red lipstick, I felt every bit the geisha for Cio-Cio-San’s wedding day. The pantomime was complete !

While the marriage between Butterfly and Pinkerton resulted in undue catastrophe, the afternoon at the opera was a carefree delight. Should you ever be proposed with the choice of attending a heartrending performance of Madama Butterfly, there should be only one reply in return… I do !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

For more information on how I created Cio-Cio-San’s signature wedding kimono, please check out my tutorial post !

Cast and Credits:

Madama Butterfly ─ Giacomo Puccini (1904)
Live in HD air date: November 9, 2019

Cast:
Cio-Cio-San ─ Hui He
Pinkerton ─ Bruce Sledge*
Suzuki ─ Elizabeth DeShong
Sharpless ─ Paulo Szot

*Replaced Andrea Carè

Credits:
Conductor ─ Pier Giorgio Morandi
Production ─ Anthony Minghella
Director/Choreographer ─ Carolyn Choa
Set Designer ─ Michael Levine
Costume Designer ─ Han Feng
Lighting Designer ─ Peter Mumford
Puppetry ─ Blind Summit Theatre
Live in HD Director ─ Habib Azar
Host ─ Christine Goerke

La Traviata ─ the little red dress

Everyone knows La Traviata. Whether you’re an exuberant opera fan or not, the tuneful music that sets the story of the consumptive courtesan, Violetta, is as recognizable as the Ten Commandments are to a man without Faith. From countless television commercials, to the iconic chick flick, “Pretty Woman”, it’s hardly a secret that Verdi’s 1853 hit left an indelible stamp on the opera world as well as in pop culture.

Going to the opera ─ a scene from “Pretty Woman”

Typically, I strongly prefer to experience an opera set traditionally before ever dipping my toe into the pool of a modern interpretation. But although an abstract production, I still wanted to see La Traviata when it came to theaters. Willy Decker’s stark sets and tuxedoed chorus members stripped the scenes to minimalist proportions. Languoring in a curve of the corrugated circular stage sat an enormous face clock with a latent theme. Was the intent ─ to allegorize Violetta’s time running out ─ effective ? That’s debatable. Unless previously enlightened, the concept was rather abstruse to grasp ─ at least it was for me. However, there was one upside to the bare bones production and that was the adorable little red dress worn by Violetta during the vibrancy of the opera.

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in Willy Decker’s La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Since debuting at the prestigious Salzburg Music Festival in 2005, the production’s scarlet flouncy floral brocade dress has been worn by leading sopranos around the world. From Anna Netrebko to Natalie Dessay, the pictorial research was readily available. Hitherto, my only sewing projects amounted to a yukata sewn for Madama Butterfly and a mop cap for my Hebrew slave costume for Nabucco. To take on a complex dress, I needed a real pattern. And after months of scouring and rumination, I found it !

It’s even red ! McCall’s 6834

With a full pleated skirt and the promise of Palmer and Pletsch fitting, I was elated to begin sewing McCall’s 6834 as my Traviata pattern. But obviously, some alterations needed to be made to elevate the style to the Violetta Valéry standard.

Michael Fabiano as Alfredo and Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

First adjustment ─ the front and back neckline. My goal was a “rounded square scoop” neckline for the front and so I fiddled with whittling down the existing pattern to how I intended it to look. But I needed help, especially with the curve of the back, so I pulled out an old sleeveless dress pattern from my mother’s bulging pattern box and used its pieces for the design of the straps and necklines. So far, so good !

See & Sew by Butterick 6398 / Circa 1988

The dress was a near replica of the one worn in the opera. So uncanny was the resemblance that a nearsighted lady, slowly forging her way towards the concession stand during intermission, came close to bumping into me where she halted and gasped, “You look just like Violetta !” The greatest of all compliments was received.

Because this was my first commercial sewing pattern project, I made many mistakes. My sizing was off and goodness, the rosy polyester satin frayed terribly ! The fibers continued to shed and tickled my bare legs with every step. Carefully, I toddled around the theater in my shiny crimson pumps, allowing a twirl every now and then.

Pondering life’s toughest questions: which party to attend next and with whom ?

The evening encore outing was a moderate success, however I look forward to seeing a more traditional Traviata in the not-too-distant future. Whether in a flouncy red cocktail dress or a grand antebellum ball gown, one thing remains constant: the emotional power and beloved recognition of Verdi’s timeless opera, La Traviata.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Traviata ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1853)
Live in HD air date: March 11, 2017
(Encore seen: March 15, 2017)

Cast:
Violetta Valéry ─ Sonya Yoncheva
Alfredo Germont ─ Michael Fabiano
Giorgio Germont ─ Thomas Hampson

Credits:
Conductor ─ Nicola Luisotti
Production ─ Willy Decker
Set and Costume Designer ─ Wolfgang Gussmann
Associate Costume Designer ─ Susana Mendoza
Lighting Director ─ Hans Toelstede
Choreographer ─ Athol Farmer
Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond
Host ─ Isabel Leonard