Long before I ever started dressing up in costume for the operas, I spent much of my Septembers and Octobers surreptitiously slaving away in my small bedroom on my Halloween costume for the year. Unsurprisingly, Halloween is my favorite holiday ─ not because of witches and ghouls and black and orange décor, but simply because I have always loved dressing up.
In the spirit of the season, I thought I would share some of my past outfits.
Before learning to sew on a machine, I had to rely on tape, garbage bags, and old sheets to create costumes. In 2013, newspaper was my material of choice…
I went as “Old News” ─ quite literally since all the newspaper used was out of date before the 31st dawned. This costume was well worn: in all, I slipped on the tiered skirt and laced up the “corset” bodice 7-8 times during the season. Thankfully, it never rained.
I love history. It’s an engaging escape for my antiquarian imagination. I also love to learn about the famous (and infamous) characters in history. Not knowing exactly what inspired it, I chose to be Marie Antoinette in 2014. The peruke and panniers were a crafting feat; both were constructed from plastic grocery bags and toilet paper rolls, but that’s where the similarities ended. Long stretches of white cotton were carefully hot glued to the cardboard “curlers” of the wig and then given a misting of watered gray paint. I crocheted the hairy tendrils. For years I kept the safety pinned skirt of tulle and sheets in a desolate drawer… until I realized that I was never going to wear flimsy cardboard panniers again and my mother wanted her sheets back. “Let them eat cake !”
In the same month that I was introduced to my first opera, my family went on a cruise ! Who would have thought that that cruise would wipe out 2½ months of social activities ? Yes, I came down with a horrible illness during the tail end of the trip that caused me to miss Tannhäuser in HD and Halloween 2015…
A Gold Rush Girl by day, Cleopatra’s doppelgänger by night… it was a whirlwind Halloween.
Brünnhilde the Valkyrie… Is there anything spookier than a mythical being whose primary purpose is to decide who lives and dies in battle and gathers up the fallen heroes to haul them to Valhalla ???
And just in case you’re wondering, I left my axe at home for the evening…
In all my years of dressing up, I don’t think I ever disguised myself as a princess; maybe a witch in a long, black gown or Miss America, but never a princess. The plush pink 1890’s ball gown from Manonwas my outlet for elegance and grace, living out every little girl’s fantasy.
Clearly my long-time love of dressing up has played a starring role in my life. The only question left is… what will I wear this Halloween ?
Oftentimes it is the lead female character of an opera which I try to portray in my costumes. Front and center, they usually have all the great arias while dressed in the most beautiful clothes. Although not necessarily a soprano, the prima donna is a personal delight to play. But sometimes it is the supporting actress, the seconda donna, who intrigues me more. Such was the case with Verdi’s Aida.
Egyptian princess. Heir to the throne. Most eligible woman in all the land. Seemingly, Amneris has it all. Yet her one desire ─ the love of the Egyptian warrior, Radamès ─ is denied. Jealousy flames and anger rages towards her slave, Aida, who has ensnared the heart of the princess’s beloved. Because of the meaty musical and acting material given to the mezzo-soprano singing the role, I knew playing Amneris would prove to be lots of fun. Now to plan my costume… but first, a note ─
Typically, I don’t feel comfortable creating a complex opera costume unless my deadline is at least two months in advance. But because of a serious fitting flaw with my gown for Samson et Dalila, my start time for Aida was enormously delayed. So with just a little over three weeks before the October 6th broadcast, I commenced work on my Egyptian ensemble.
Now back to the clothes…
It was a no-brainer. Now was not the occasion for interpretive gowns or my own conjuring of the character. With the Met’s current production spanning in existence for well over 30 years, there was little question as to what I would wear since the production’s costumes are as well-known as the opera itself. A doppelgänger I must be, more specifically, Anita Rachvelishvili’s twin.
Opting to recreate the second of the character’s two outfits, an assessment needed to be made of each component of the costume:
Belt and Sash
Collar and Wrist Cuffs
The plain white cotton shift I could handle. The wonderful historical clothing and costuming website, Fashion-Era, provided helpful diagrams on how to map out my gown pattern, which was nothing more than a large length of broadcloth (double my height) folded in half at the shoulder level (crosswise) and then cut downward at a slant from each side of the shoulder to the corresponding selvedges, like a trapezoid, making sure to allow enough room at the bust and hip levels. Of course, I had a slight miscalculation and had to add gussets to widen the bust area after the first fitting.
The dress was hemmed at the bottom and a decorative Greek Key ribbon, leftover from my gown for Tosca, was sewn onto the sleeve openings to finish the garment.
Next came the piece that would turn the most heads and lower the most jaws: the accordion pleated cape, which was essential to Amneris’s second costume in the opera. Glimmering gold and fragile like paper, I knew tissue lamé would be the perfect material to use for the cape. But how to make a pattern for a pleated cape ? It sounded complicated. I was at a loss… until I stumbled across a children’s sewing pattern for Egyptian costumes on the web…
I know, I know ! It sounds far-fetched and ridiculous to think that a kid’s pattern would be of any personal benefit to a grown adult. Although not the size of a child, I believed this pattern would afford me an excellent advantage in gaining a head start on my cape. No serious math equations for calculating width or number of pleats ─ all that was needed was to extend and enlarge the outlines that were already in place. An ingenious plan had been born. Acting upon the flicker of the figurative mental light bulb, I bought the pattern (in the smaller size set, no less !).
I confess, the steps I took to alter this pattern are blurred in my memory. There were some frustrations during the process, such as the bobbin repeatedly running out of thread during the endless basting, but the finished result was far more potent than expected as I attached the steam-pressed lamé cape with snaps onto the back of the white frock.
Look how the cape falls in a shimmery waterfall down the back ! The sheen is as lustrous as the sun-flecked Nile.
With the cape and the shift under my belt, it was time to move onto the real belt and the standout symbolic sash.
The Belt and Sash
Scrutinizing images like the one above, faux leather seemed to be the obvious choice to create the belt. However, finding it reasonably priced online was a bit difficult due to minimums per order, shipping costs, and negative reviews about the color tinges for some of my favorite options. But while perusing the aisles of Hobby Lobby, I spotted a bolt of bright gold upholstery faux leather, which was perfect for the project. I bought 12 inches and drafted a relatively straight band that arched slightly at the center front. Velcro was used to secure the belt in place. Easy on, easy off !
The sash required more attention.
Hieroglyphic in their composure, the characters on the sash and belt present a story in their design. Thinking at first that I would paint these figures onto more of the broadcloth, I decided against that approach after realizing the appendage’s outcome would be much more effective if I snipped the characters out of scraps of the gold lamé used for the cape. Muted paint is no match for glaring metallic foil fabric ! Carefully studying the symbols, I sketched onto paper each figure and used them as a stencil. Then, after cutting the lamé, the pieces were glued onto the broadcloth sash in replica fashion.
Lamé frays ─ badly ! You can see below how the edges of the cut caricatures are splintering.
But I shouldn’t gripe too much; it is just a costume, after all. I bordered the sash with a long, folded strip of lamé sewn between the face and the lining of the sash. Teal paint added a pop of color to the cotton fabric and then, I was done !
Now that all the accompanying accessories for the base dress were completed, I was ready to take on the more elaborate portions of the costume, mainly the tedious tasks of decoration.
The Collar and the Cuffs
I knew that there would be numerous little trinkets and accouterments to this costume as it needed to resemble the full regalia of ancient Egyptian royalty. But I dreaded the teensy-weensy elaborations to follow. It’s true ─ when much time is spent on one or two dizzying details, I never feel like I’m making progress towards my goals. However, particulars matter, especially when recreating Amneris’s attire and signature style.
While it’s apparent that the gaudy, ostentatious collar worn by the mezzo-soprano in the opera largely consists of strung beads in all shapes and sizes, I did not have the time, resources, or budget to take on such a mammoth job. And so, I did my best to mimic the model piece using more broadcloth, paint, seed beads, and yes ─ lamé !
While Velcro was used on the belt, I preferred hooks and eyes for the collar closure.
Similarly matching were the wrist cuffs, sans lamé. Please notice the eye sewn near the serged edge. Its importance will play a part later…
The Wig and Headband
Initially, my plan to create the hair for the wig was to knit a plethora of black yarn i-cords to attach to some sort of beanie cap. I knitted, and knitted, and knitted ─ both day and night almost ceaselessly. But with time running out faster than Arctic daylight in the winter, I began to seriously rethink my method. Troubled, I grasped for ideas. Then, coming to the rescue once again was the Simplicity child’s costume pattern.
See those wigs ? They were included in the pattern envelope as well. Simply explained, the strands of “hair” were large rectangles of cotton jersey knit fabric, cut into measured strips from both lengthwise sides of the rectangle (but not all the way to the middle !). And then with a tug of each strip… voilà! Deftly furled locks of hair. It was the Monday before the opera and with only 5 days left to complete my heretofore unfinished outfit, I jettisoned the i-cords in favor of the expedient children’s pattern. While the pattern had particular blocks for constructing the wig, I bypassed these since I knew they would be too short for my desired hair length. Haphazardly, I stitched segments of the pulled cotton jersey onto a crocheted cap I had formed earlier.
The gold “beads”, which were dynamic in their effect, were fashioned out of… scrapbook paper ! Who would have guessed ? Thinking logistically of the potential weight of the wig, I reasoned that nearly anything heavier than a feather would be too excessive when multiplied by the number of “beads” needed for the strands of hair. Real beads ─ wooden or plastic ─ were out of the question. Paper seemed the likely solution. So when I chanced upon a gilted crosshatch patterned paper at Hobby Lobby, I said, “Bingo !”
My only regret about the scrapbook paper is that I didn’t buy enough ! Two 12″ x 12″ sheets sliced into ½” strips were not sufficient to wrap the entire mass of coiled knit locks. But alas, it had to suffice.
A latent cobra, poised and ready to strike, was the concluding element to an ensemble crammed full of indispensable details. Would you like to guess where I found its pattern ? Why, yes ! The same children’s pattern that already served me so gallantly on more than one occasion. This time, I only used the head portion of the pattern and slid a wire into its pleather skull along with a small wad muslin for added dimension. With the cobra head completed, it was hot glued to a band of the same faux leather where it sat looking down as ruler and judge.
While most might believe that I finished my costume with plenty of time to spare, such sentiment was untrue. It was late Friday afternoon, the day before the opera, when I unplugged the hot glue gun once and for all, resigning myself to a completed job. A close call, indeed ! All that was needed was exotic make-up and gold sandals whereupon I became Amneris, ancient Egyptian princess, for a cinematic Saturday afternoon.
Remember the eyes on the wrist cuffs ? They were used in conjunction with the hook counterparts attached to the edges of the cape to lift its shiny crimped folds into the sun. Marvelous was its impression.
Although the costume was completed in time for the opera, I have no desire to ever be so pressed to meet a deadline as I was for this project. Talk about stressful ! But there is great moral to this story and that is to never count out a pattern that doesn’t fit the bill at first glance. Deeper inspection and a dose of imagination were all that were needed to turn a child’s costume into an adult’s deliverance.
Aida is a grand opera. There are horses. There are ballet numbers. There are massive sets and ornate costumes. And what could be grander than having Anna Netrebko headline the Met’s 2018-2019 Live in HD season opener ?
I’ll be the first one to admit that Aida has never interested me. Whether it be the mercilessly hot desert locale of Egypt or the tension of two women fighting over one man (I infinitely prefer two disparate, but equally impassioned, suitors sparring over one fair maiden in my ideal operatic amorous affair), the opera has never been a very important “must see” for me except for its fame alone.
But this was Anna Netrebko’s Met role debut as Aida… how was I to miss that ????
We all knew that Netrebko would be lauded as the star of this opera. More surprisingly, she had arguably one of the toughest battles of her career up against her mezzo-soprano rival, Anita Rachvelishvili’s fearsome Amneris. Hailing from Georgia (and I don’t mean the state), Rachvelishvili prowled the stage like a lioness eyeing her prey. Gripped and enraged, her stentorian voice roared during the showdown scene with Netrebko upon learning of her slave’s concealed love for the warrior, Radamès. I ate it up like a meaty dish of stew, salivating for more. It was the highlight of the opera for me.
The opera fizzled to a slow burn after the early fireworks between Netrebko and Rachvelishvili. Was my opinion changed after seeing Aida for myself ? Not particularly. Oh, well… There is a possibility of my future attendance, but only if Anna and Anita are cast in the starring roles ! Another toe-to-toe contest of prodigious prowess would be worth the sullen bore of the plot.
Due to a previous project which swallowed up my sewing schedule unexpectedly (ahem, Dalila), I had under a month to conceive, curate, and craft my costume for Aida. I doubt I’ll ever do that again. Since the Met’s production has been around for over 30 years, the pictorial research wasn’t difficult. While the obvious choice would have been to masquerade as the titular Ethiopian slave/princess, I was more drawn to her glitzy Egyptian rival, Amneris, and began my work on mimicking the character’s garb, almost as if I was to be her doppelgänger.
The outfit came together in the nick of time and was a fun way to immerse myself in the ancient Egyptian culture. Though I based my costume off of pictures from the opera, I still engaged in my usual research for historically-based operas.
The lamé cape was my favorite part… as well as the patrons of the theater ! I was repeatedly asked to spread its golden folds to reveal its full glamour.
Later in the month, I wore this same costume for Halloween as it was perfectly acceptable for Cleopatra. While the flocks and droves easily recognized me as the most famous Queen of the Nile, I wonder how many of them knew of the other great Egyptian Royal… the one in Verdi’s grand opera… Amneris !
Aida ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1871) Live in HD air date: October 6, 2018
Cast: Aida ─ Anna Netrebko Amneris ─ Anita Rachvelishvili Radamès ─ Aleksandrs Antonenko Amonasro ─ Quinn Kelsey Ramfis ─ Dmitry Belosselskiy The King ─ Ryan Speedo Green
Credits: Conductor ─ Nicola Luisotti Production ─ Sonja Frisell Set Designer ─ Gianni Quaranta Costume Designer ─ Dada Saligeri Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler Choreographer ─ Alexei Ratmansky Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Isabel Leonard