T’was the night before a chilly Sunday in January when I received a Facebook message from Aunt Countess alerting me to a concert at a nearby church. Why was it so special ? Dimitri Pittas, tenor, was performing a recital and the name seemed all too familiar. Scraping the midsection of my mind, I quickly recalled the name from when I had seen Otello in 2015. Dimitri Pittas sang Cassio in the performance. “Getting the chance to see a real life opera singer in person…?” Oh, yes, I HAD to go !
For a knockout deal of $10, I stepped into the church to find Dimitri and his accompanist (and heavily pregnant) wife, Leah, chatting with audience members as they meandered into the sanctuary. The program consisted of classical favorites translated into English as well as some sports-themed selections, which carried more mirth and appropriateness than expected: NFL playoff games were occurring simultaneously and once during a break between songs, Dimitri hollered for an updated score of the Green Bay/Atlanta game.
Wrapping up the concert with “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’Elisir d’Amore and “Maria” from West Side Story, a reception of prepared foods and punch followed. And it was here that I had my moment to jest: as a die-hard New York Yankees fan, Dimitri glowered in frustration as I broke the news of my devotion to the Boston Red Sox. So prickled was he that in between chats about growing a beard for the role of Cassio and Thanksgiving dinner with Željko Lučić, he stopped to abruptly turn and greet Jennifer as she waited her turn to speak. I folded in half with laughter.
Dimitri was a good sport, all in all, and even allowed me to take a picture with him. Too bad that the one and only photo I have of meeting a real life opera singer is of inferior quality. Oh, well… It will have to suffice.
A last minute plan turned out to be a thrilling afternoon. I bubbled with pride and giddiness as I regaled my friends with the details of the concert. And best of all… I MET AN OPERA SINGER !!!!
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits
Dimitri Pittas in Concert First Presbyterian Church Lakeland, FL Date: January 22, 2017
It was an easy decision. After my spellbinding first opera experience with Il Trovatore, I couldn’t wait to shell out another $24 at the ticket booth for a following Verdi tragedy 2 weeks later, Otello. Intriguingly, it was Otello that jumped out at me the most when viewing the Live in HD schedule in the summer of 2015: the drama based on Shakespeare’s play could have easily been my first opera. Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Bartlett Sher’s production, with frosted Lucite walls that were supposed to be a spoof from a quote by Verdi’s librettist about enclosing Otello in a glass house, mimicked frozen blocks of ice rather than the intended domicile of transparency. They were cold, lifeless, and ineffective from my point of view.
The cast was decent with a liquid Željko Lučić and a piercingly chill Sonya Yoncheva (fitting for the icy production), but I felt Otello suffered from an identity crisis: with his clothing and styling (not to mention his lack of blackface) just as drab as all the secondary characters and chorus, there was nothing to distinguish him among the throngs of people on stage. Shouldn’t he have looked more… Moorish ?
While Desdemona’s final “Muoio innocente” was moving, I was left underwhelmed by the overall performance. Still, my exuberant, newfound interest in opera was undeterred by this small nick in the grand scheme of things.
Dressing up for my first opera was almost as much fun as seeing the performance itself. There’s something vicarious and invigorating about feeling fancy as if you, yourself, are a part of the opera by the clothes you choose to wear. To my second opera, however, I wanted to “theme” my outfit for the sunny Venetian locale of Otello and Desdemona’s spotless disposition. “Something golden, something demure…” I mused.
The scarves and skirts of my closet were paraded in breezy seaside style as I toyed with layering and softly blending color schemes. I used my standby gold tank top, which I wore to Il Trovatore, and slipped on a long white linen skirt. Then the fun began. A metallic gold thread woven through the pinky-peach and cream striped scarf gave glints of gentility and coastal charm. When I tied its fringed ends together into a loose side knot, the effect was just right… at least for an outfit made from scarves and skirts !
A pair of lace gloves (thank you, Aunt Countess !), antique gold rings (such a faux pas when worn with gloves ─ fie, me !), and just the right assortment of necklaces and earrings helped me feel right at home as Desdemona. Do I look as if I’m about to be strangled ?
I styled my hair in a “twisted sections pinned up and back” sort of style. Nothing fancy, but very elegant when clipped together with a gold flower hair accessory.
An outfit for free, a better-than-front-row-seat ticket for $24… Enjoying the thrills of opera and the emulation of one of Shakespeare’s most virtuous heroines doesn’t have to be a ship-sinking occasion. If only the production of Otello had fared better…
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Otello ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1887) Live in HD air date: October 17, 2015
Cast: Otello ─ Aleksandrs Antonenko Desdemona ─ Sonya Yoncheva Iago ─ Željko Lučić Emilia ─ Jennifer Johnson Cano Cassio ─ Dmitri Pittas Roderigo ─ Chad Shelton Lodovico ─ Günther Groissböck Montano ─ Jeff Mattsey A herald ─ Tyler Duncan
Credits: Conductor ─ Yannick Nézet-Séguin Production ─ Bartlett Sher Set Designer ─ Es Devlin Costume Designer ─ Catherine Zuber Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder Projection Designer ─ Luke Halls Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Eric Owens
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.
The opera that catapulted Handel to stardom in 1709 certainly didn’t appear to possess any of the typical semblances of its Ancient Rome setting. TV news reporters, business suits, smartphones, and rather raunchy physical comedy could all be taken in during the Live in HD performance of Sir David McVicar’s staging of Agrippina.
So why did I decide to attend ? After all, I don’t like modern productions… or do I ?
A course taken on 18th-Century Opera from edX the previous summer softened my ossified resolve on the idea of attending a Baroque opera in a Y2K setting. It was worth a shot… and that shot was fired with poignant accuracy─ I laughed harder than I have ever laughed at any opera, nearly falling out of my seat on innumerable occasions ! The antics were well-timed, especially from Joyce DiDonato’s saucy Agrippina and her hellion son, Nerone, played to utmost perfection by a tattooed, skinny jean wearing, cocaine snorting Kate Lindsey in a trouser role.
As a scintillating counterpart to the opera’s R-rated comedy, the singing was sublime. With many scenes being accompanied only by the deft strings of maestro Harry Bicket’s harpsichord, the singers were exploited for their talent and technique alone, which was all the more appreciated after the insightful edX course.
The question remains to be asked: was the radical redux of the Met’s oldest opera in the repertoire worthy of my stalwart traditionalism ? Resoundingly, yes ! Call it sacrilege if you please, but if Agrippina had been staged in its original setting of the infancy of A.D. history, I think it would have been an absolute snoozefest ! Sorry, Handel.
Realizing the modern-dress style of the opera could very well lead into a fashionable sewing project, I envisioned a specific mode ─ an overall perceived attitude ─ for the styling of my outfit: Italian couture. Fittingly, Agrippina is centralized in Rome and while Ancient Rome is a completely different entity from the country of Italy in existence today, I still couldn’t resist aligning the two nations in my quest for haute couture. Perusing pictures and watching video clips from previous renditions of the same McVicar production (extant since 2000), I chose to model my outfit after the Agrippina standing on the stairs in the picture below.
Up close, the blazer was not just one solid color; it was subtlety patterned in a diamond motif. Satin first popped into my mind until I spotted the perfect fabric, which arrived in one of my monthly swatch club mailers from Fabric Mart Fabrics.
To sew my very first blazer, I used a PDF pattern from Lekala. Although not without flaws, I learned in strides how coat construction comes together. Styled with a “business bun”, Whiting and Davis purse (my mother’s), cat eye sunglasses, and gobstopper pearls (thank you, Aunt Countess !), I was poised to take on the world in sleek, corporate couture fashion.
The classic, Chanel-esque cocktail dress, which employed pattern and alteration techniques from the Corset Academy, was the perfect base garment for my “cutthroat corporate” ideal. Here was my inspiration dress:
The ponte knit dress was customized with a mesh upper lining and built-in underwire bra…
Did I mention this was an Italian couture outfit ? Everything, from the damask weave crepe challis wool of the blazer to the black ponte knit of the cocktail dress, was sourced from Italy.
Italian couture and a ruthless Roman matriarch… a match made in heaven ? You be the judge ! The taste for high-end fashion and the delicious vocalities of Handel’s breakout opera left me as hungry as the titular Empress herself, salivating over her next scheme.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Agrippina ─ George Frideric Handel (1709) Live in HD air date: February 29, 2020
Cast: Agrippina ─ Joyce DiDonato Nerone ─ Kate Lindsey Poppea ─ Brenda Rae Ottone ─ Iestyn Davies Pallante ─ Ducan Rock Claudio ─ Matthew Rose
Credits: Conductor ─ Harry Bicket Production ─ Sir David McVicar Set and Costume Designer ─ John Macfarlane Lighting Designer ─ Paule Constable Choreographer ─ Andrew George Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Deborah Voigt
The brainchild of a 24-year-old Mozart in the spring of his career, Idomeneo embodies drama and torment on an intense scale. A Trojan captive bemoans her plight of wartime displacement. A runaway Grecian princess seethes with humiliation and jealousy from unrequited feelings. A father and king, crossed between the angry seas ─ and even angrier gods ─ suffers from the anguish of the cruel task that besets him.
While the basis of the plot was heavy ─ the title king, after being saved by the gods during a disastrous storm at sea, must kill his own son as recompense ─ the music was quite the opposite. Comprised of a windswept coterie of strings and woodwinds, the score was typically Mozartian and showed the beginnings of his lauded career. Singing the trills of early Mozart was made to look easy as Matthew Polenzani gave a stirring performance as the king. His voice was unhampered, but his soul was not.
The women provided for some much needed romantic rivalry to break up the repetitious monotony of the staid opera seria format. It’s true─ the opera was far too longwinded and soporific for my withering patience as I reached my home well after 6 that evening. At least the textured costumes and the spastic mad scene provided ample attraction and distraction from my jadedness.
Loosely based on the lace and jewels of Elettra’s gown, I snagged a favorite from my mother’s closet and made a simple alteration. The bright blue dress, being 8 sizes too big for me, would have swamped my figure more than the devouring seas of Idomeneo. A simple fix, I ran a line of baste stitches up the back of the dress and, voilà ! The dress fit. My mother was horrified with my action, let me tell you, but I assured her the stitching could easily be removed as I promptly pulled out the threads after the opera was over and the pictures captured.
My headpiece was a borrowed transformation. Previously, the black glittered tiara sported red rhinestones along the top points and an attached piece of black lace.
First popping out the red rhinestones, I replaced them with standard white ones and added gold fan sequins for seaside flare. They coordinated with my dress and the mantilla was beautiful enough for a princess. In case you were wondering, I removed all the sequins and replaced the original red jewels before I returned the accessory to its rightful owner.
Isn’t that necklace fabulous ? It’s a Metropolitan Museum of Art (also affectionately nicknamed “the Met”) replica given to me as a present from Aunt Countess. I cherish gifts from travels afar, much like the shell necklace and pashmina shawl that I wore to The Pearl Fishers the previous year. While New York City isn’t as far-flung as ancient Crete, the necklace made a statement worthy of Elettra’s tempered fury and Mozart’s fledgling opera.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Idomeneo ─ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1781) Live in HD air date: March 25, 2017
Cast: Idomeneo ─ Matthew Polenzani Idamante ─ Alice Coote Ilia ─ Nadine Sierra Elettra ─ Elza van den Heever Arbace ─ Alan Opie
Credits: Conductor ─ James Levine Production ─ Jean-Pierre Ponnelle Set and Costume Designer ─ Jean-Pierre Ponnelle Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler Live in HD Director ─ Barbara Willis Sweete Host ─ Eric Owens