Love potions and promises of love. A snookered bumpkin, a wealthy proprietress, and… a bottle of Bordeaux ? Rife with hijinks and hilarity, it’s hard not to love Donizetti’s bubbly comedy. As a part of the Met’s “Summer Encores” series, the biggest draw to this past performance of L’Elisir d’Amore was its stellar cast. And therefore, the decision to make the long trip to a distant theater to see Anna Netrebko and Matthew Polenzani perform was an easy one.
Did I mention that L’Elisir was funny ? So hilarious was Matthew Polenzani’s “drunk” scene that I was half bent out of my seat, cackling with laughter. The sweat that poured from Nemorino’s brow as he danced around the town square with his magic “elixir of love” was enough to fill a bucket ! Surreptitiously, Matthew Polenzani dropped to the floor in an act of pleading desperation while furtively taking the moment to wipe his perspiring hands (and nearly his drenched head !) on the stationary skirt of Anna Netrebko’s lingering Adina ─ a clever improvisation. Too bad the snooty people in the theater could not see the comedy of the ruse… they barely chuckled ! Stiff crowd, but nothing could spoil my amusement.
I should say that amid all the chicanery and cavorting, the opera ended in the manner in which all comedies must wrap: with a wedding and a happy outcome ! No one ever weeps by the end of a Donizetti bel canto romp.
Adina, the opera’s heroine, is a wealthy landowner in the Basque region of France. In Bartlett Sher’s entertaining (and characteristically quirky) production, her attire consists of a peasant blouse, underbust corset, skirt, crop jacket with tails, and occasional top hat.
While the underbust corset and top hat were out of the question with such short notice, I felt I could pull together a knock-off look with garments I already had in my closets… and so I did ! The coral crinkle skirt has been in my mother’s closet for ages… who would have thought that it would be perfectly suitable for Adina ? And although my brown shawl can’t claim to be a crop jacket with tails, it certainly added to the coordinating color scheme of the model outfit worn in the opera.
But the real story belongs to the sashed blouse…
In 2004, my mother and I were bridesmaids in my aunt’s Colorado wedding where we wore matching peach satin skirts and ivory blouses with pearl buttons. Even as the years have passed, the two identical blouses have remained burrowed deep in our closets. Unsurprisingly, my original child’s blouse no longer fits… that is, unless I wanted to dress like Britney Spears from her “…Baby One More Time” music video.
Maybe some other time…
For now, my mother’s blouse fits me fine and recalls to mind memories of my aunt’s autumn wedding day in Steamboat Springs. Here’s what the blouse looked like when paired with the peach skirt:
A bridesmaid’s blouse worn as a costume to the opera ? That almost sounds like a crafty trick from L’Elisir d’Amore !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
L’Elisir d’Amore ─ Gaetano Donizetti (1832) Live in HD air date: October 13, 2012 (Encore seen: June 29, 2016)
Cast: Adina ─ Anna Netrebko Nemorino ─ Matthew Polenzani Belcore ─ Mariusz Kwiecien Dulcamara ─ Ambrogio Maestri
Credits: Conductor ─ Maurizio Benini Production ─ Bartlett Sher Set Designer ─ Michael Yeargan Costume Designer ─ Catherine Zuber Lighting Designer ─ Jennifer Tipton Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Deborah Voigt
Madame Butterfly represents a “full-circle moment” for me: it was in 2016 that I taught myself to sew when I didn’t have anything in my closets to wear to the movie theater performance of the opera. Seeking anything that gave the impression of an Asian aesthetic, I wound up sewing a cotton yukata, which was the genesis of my sewing passion. New doors had been flung wide open !
But it wasn’t a cakewalk. Despite the rather traditional manner in which the yukata was fashioned (save the contrasting collar ─ I ran out of tropical fabric !), my interior seams were horrendous ! Because of my previous ignorance of how to properly work a sewing machine, the bobbin threads are bunched and looped into chaotic cocoons, a sign of incorrect tension in hindsight. Although I was ashamed of how slipshod the inside of the yukata turned out, the disappointment was replaced by triumph as I overheard the whispers of a little girl to her mother about the “kimono lady” that silently slipped by in the theater. Priceless !
Over three years later, Puccini’s immortal opera returned to the Live in HD schedule for the 2019-2020 season. I knew I had to go. However, since my sewing skills had improved exponentially, I wanted to create something that was more suited to the Anthony Minghella production’s styling of Cio-Cio-San. A wedding gown was in the works…
More specifically, a wedding kimono. Like a specter rising from the grave, the gossamer veils that clothe Cio-Cio-San in a milky moonglow is breathtaking. Without fail, I’m enchanted by the first appearance of the geisha climbing up the stairs with her wedding party. With the decision easily made, it was time for the research…
And there was plenty of it !
The aforementioned Minghella production has been a crowd-pleasing staple at the Met since 2006 with a plethora of sopranos playing the title role, from Patricia Racette to Kristine Opolais (who sung the part in 2016), to Hui He, singing in the 2019 Live in HD performance. A simple image search provided up close detailing of the white satin kimono and its sash.
With the success of my tropical print yukata, I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use the same pattern instructions, which worked so well in 2016. Look no further than this helpful site: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~weyrbrat/Japan/yukata/ I have all the pages printed out and stored in a zip top bag for future uses. The instructions are vivid, realistic, and accurate and equip sewers to create their own authentic yukata (or kimono) from scratch. Since I wasn’t aiming to create a historically/culturally accurate garment, I made my own adjustments to the notes and measurements that I wrote down in 2016.
If there was one thing I learned during my time as a Valkyrie, it’s that polyester linings can act as saunas to my skin. Nobody wants sweat rolling down their back and besides, the silvery white charmeuse satin I bought was just a bit too see-through for my liking. It needed a lining ─ and a cotton one at that ! Cotton voile was the perfect choice.
The construction of the kimono was easy enough, following the instructions as before, and now it was time to focus on the more thought-provoking elements of the costume… the sash and decorations !
Theater costumes fascinate me. Not only are they beautiful to look upon, but they also possess the most ingenious tricks for rapid removal without compromising the overall style. Surely, there must be staunchly guarded secrets on how best to employ the illusion. Instead of cutting a 30′ long strip of fabric and folding it over and over again, I imagined the belt being like a corset with the folded “knot” at the back being analogous to a modesty panel. And so I cut two wide rectangles and fused the the face layer with strips of double sided interfacing since there would be gathered drapes applied to the front.
Have you ever wondered how random drapes are made ? It’s simple and a lot of fun ! Cut a strip of fabric that is at least twice the height of the area that needs to be draped. For example, each horizontal half of my belt measured about 15 cm (for a total width of ~30 cm, top to bottom) so I cut pieces of fabric that were over 30 cm each and stretched the swath side to side, placing pins where the folds and creases looked appealing to me.
Once satisfied, it was time to steam press the folds that were pinned to the fusible web and then, voilà ! Secured drapes ! “Ah, but what are those round starburst “gears” peeking out from beneath the folds ?” you question. Those are called yo-yos, commonly made by quilters and used for handicrafts and decorations.
While they may not be the exact folded form of origami used on costume designer Han Feng’s stunning wedding kimono, I thought the shapes looked very similar to the humble yo-yo and therefore, I began the long and fiddly process of hot knife cutting and hand sewing the yo-yos into their recognized shape. I made hundreds of them !
Pillowy chiffon, shiny satin, bright broadcloth ─ from tiny to giant ─ mingled in a colorful array worthy of the distinction of ‘art’ on their own.
But back to the belt…
With the front portion complete, the lined belt needed to be stuffed with a stiffener so that it wouldn’t crease when sitting. First trying a thick felt, the result was undesirable. What would be stiff, yet pliable…??? Aha ! I remembered the leftover strip of buckram from the ball gown skirt for Manon and raced to find it. It was perfect ! I love when I can reuse materials for different projects.
The thick piece of felt, however, was not without its own fulfillment─ I still needed something stiff for the inside of the faux knot/modesty panel and it was used for this purpose.
Two additional panels were made as part of the belt’s meeting closure; their back edges were stitched with Rigilene boning…
…then folded over and stitched in between the bones.
And here’s what the face side looked like afterwards:
Time to punch the grommets ! The belt was nearly complete !
My deadline nearing, the wearisome work had begun. While I find it appalling to glue fabric onto clothes, Time sometimes forces me to bend on my tenets. There were many detailed photos on the web of Butterfly’s kimono and belt, but this picture was my guiding diagram when deciding how to arrange the yo-yos:
And so, I glued, and glued, and glued some more… I used two bottles of craft glue on those yo-yos and finally adhered the last one early Friday evening ─ the night before the opera ! Whew !
The glue dried with not a moment to spare and the following morning, I suited up in my silky kimono, applied a waxy whiteface, donned a long black wig, and clipped on a red poppy.
I just love that little wooden fan ! Its intricately cut panels remind me of ancient Far East traditionalism… Thank you, Aunt Countess !
The back of the belt held up well despite the futility of the sewn snaps I added onto the overhang. Never doubt the power of a few safety pins, my friends !
I bought the wig and the poppy clip from sellers on eBay and Etsy, respectively…
As much as I desired for the length of the sleeves to be much longer (and therefore, traditional, in that sense), there comes a point of practicality and whether or not I would be comfortable with the ends of my sleeves dragging in the dirt… grazing the dusty pavement of the parking lot… trailing along in the bathroom… NO !!!! Measurements are critical, and determining an appropriate length for the sleeves was no different.
Who would have guessed that the simple yukata I endeavoured to sew with nothing but gumption and the will to succeed would have bloomed into a passion of sewing costumes for cinematic opera productions ? For all the memories I’ve accrued over the years, I have Madame Butterfly to thank.
“All women are like that…” so says the cynical Don Alfonso to his naïve friends as he demonstrates the fickleness of the fair sex… But is the assumption ─ that women are bound to stray from their lovers if given the chance ─ an accurate claim ?
While sometimes considered outdated for modern society, Mozart’s piquant comedy about the test of fidelity through trickery was nothing but a delight to me. Lesley Koenig’s picturesque production was understated and elegant and the cast was just as pretty, especially the two lovestruck sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, played by Susanna Phillips and Isabel Leonard. With their dark brown hair and fair complexions, it wasn’t a stretch to believe them to be blood relatives.
Their fiancés were adorable. Ferrando and Guglielmo (such strange names in this opera ─ Fiordiligi, Guglielmo…) were so smitten with the sisters that their giggles and giddiness reminded me of teenage boys with their first crush. Even while disguised as Arab sheikhs their bubbling enthusiasm for their sweethearts couldn’t be stifled.
The thalassic score accompanied the harmonious singing like a sigh floating on a breeze and the lighthearted moments of comedy were balanced with some introspective seriousness. If I had one complaint about Così, it’s that it’s a tad too long: I walked out of the theater just after 11 p.m. from a 7 p.m. start time. However, the decision to travel over an hour and a half to catch the summer encore of Così fan tutte was well worth the late evening drive.
Since Così is a cute, zany opera, I thought a dress of a similar description would be the perfect outfit for the summer encore. Best of all, I didn’t have to look beyond my mother’s closet for the answer. Like me, my mother used to sew many of her clothes and thankfully she has kept nearly all of her dresses and jumpers from the 1970’s and 80’s. One of my favorites is the black and white polka dot dress with dropped waist and puff sleeves that fits me well. I even found the original pattern in the worn, bulging cardboard pattern box… Dress #2 at the bottom of the envelope was obviously the intended look my mother desired…
Keeping it classy with pearls, long gloves, and a ladylike chignon, I was decked out for the escapades of Mozart’s Battle of the Sexes.
The opera’s finale was a happy one and the men married their betrothed. But back to the all important question: were the women faithful to their fiancés ? No. Did I care ? Hardly ! All’s well that ends well ─ the opera was too charming not to forgive and forget.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Così fan tutte ─ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1790) Live in HD air date: April 26, 2014 (Encore seen: July 21, 2016)
Cast: Ferrando ─ Matthew Polenzani Guglielmo ─ Rodion Pogossov Fiordiligi ─ Susanna Phillips Dorabella ─ Isabel Leonard Don Alfonso ─ Maurizio Muraro Despina ─ Danielle de Niese
Credits: Conductor ─ James Levine Production ─ Lesley Koenig Set and Costume Designer ─ Michael Yeargan Lighting Designer ─ Duane Schuler Stage Director ─ Robin Guarino Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Renée Fleming