Cendrillon ─ Project MASSenet

How could I resist ?! When Cinderella slips her fair foot into the shoe of Massenet, it’s bound to be a ball ! My bubbling excitement aside, I was highly enthused when I espied Laurent Pelly’s whimsical production perched on the latter portion of the Met’s Live in HD 2017-2018 schedule. Would the slipper fit ?

A scene from Cendrillon / Metropolitan Opera

My motives for seeing the opera did not begin and end with the story of Cinderella, but rather Massenet─ Several years prior, I had been deeply moved by a recording of the “Meditation” piece from Thaïs as I was struggling with a health issue. The soothing sounds of the strings were beautiful as well as edifying to my body and spirit. Since then, I had long desired to attend a Massenet performance of any title.

A performance of the Meditation piece from Massenet’s Thaïs (video: TheClassicalmusicfan)

So how did I Cendrillon suit me ? Well, not as much as I had imagined. Thinking of a fairy tale, I expected the music to be joyous and buoyant. While there were moments of bombastic humor during scenes with Stephanie Blythe’s Madame de la Haltière and her two balloon-bottomed daughters, I wouldn’t describe the score as a perfect fit. However, the overall appeal of the story was enough for me to overlook the damp flaws in the music.

Maya Lahyani as Dorothée, Stephanie Blythe as Madame de la Halitère, and Ying Fang as Noémie in Cendrillon / Metropolitan Opera (photo via The New York Times)

Back to my bubbling excitement… The occasion of Cendrillon screamed out loud for me to wear a ball gown─ a BIG, b-r-o-a-d, beautiful ball gown ! A girl could only dream… Since teaching myself to sew in 2016, my projects had been kept to conservative accessories and commercial pattern dresses. But for such a grand occasion, I wanted to branch out and make something that was truly elegant and couture. Looking over the production photos, the creamy eggshell gown in the opera appeared to have been sewn from satin with its hem ombré dyed in charcoal.

Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon and Alice Coote as Prince Charmant

Admittedly, I thought it looked odd and very unusable ─ would I ever be able to wear a gown with a blackened bottom out in public ? Emphatically, not ! No, the gown in the opera was not for me, at least not all of it. Since the price of a full satin skirt would have sent my pocketbook to the gallows, I opted instead for a thrifty gathered tulle skirt. Here are a few of my preliminary sketches:

Searching for guidance, I stumbled upon a site called the Corset Academy and knew I had found my answer: I spotted the most beautiful tulle ball gown skirt I had ever seen and video recorded in easy to follow tutorials so I (and others) could emulate its cloud-like glory. I signed up for the free trial and eventually bought an annual membership.

Tulle ball gown skirt from the Corset Academy

While I did not wear a hoop skirt underneath the gown, a full crinoline suited the style better, especially since 50 yards of tulle wasn’t enough to disguise the appearance of a peeking steel bone from beneath the skirt’s lining. Even without the hoops, the gown was voluminous. I dubbed the creation of this gown as “Project MASSenet” for a reason…

The gown was complemented with a corset back closure on the creamy matte satin bodice.

A cloud of soft tulle… dreamy !

My mother fashioned my hair into a stylish French twist. I just love the elegance of the pearly barrette in its rolled knot !

The process of sewing the ball gown was eye-opening: not only did I learn couture techniques for sewing formal garments, but I also discovered that my mother’s Singer sewing machine, which had been hibernating under her bed since the early 2000’s, was unbeknownst to me, broken. During the gathering of endless strips of tulle ruffles, the bobbin threads continued to snap and brought about a maelstrom of frustration. After the opera, I made an appointment with a local sewing shop to have the machine cleaned whereupon I learned its malady: cracked gears and irreplaceable damaged parts. The diagnosis was fatal and I had to part with my machine. But just as in the story of Cinderella, there is always a silver lining: I purchased a superior Baby Lock machine and serger and it has made all the difference in my sewing.

The slipper of Cendrillon may have been a misfit, but the quality and ease of my Baby Lock machines couldn’t be a more perfect fit.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Cendrillon ─ Jules Massenet (1899)
Live in HD air date: April 28, 2018

Cast:
Cendrillon ─ Joyce DiDonato
Prince Charmant ─ Alice Coote
La Fée ─ Kathleen Kim
Madame de la Haltière ─ Stephanie Blythe
Pandolfe ─ Laurent Naouri

Credits:
Conductor ─ Bertrand de Billy
Production ─ Laurent Pelly
Set Designer ─ Barbara de Limburg
Costume Designer ─ Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer ─ Duane Schuler
Choreographer ─ Laura Scozzi
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Ailyn Pérez

La Traviata ─ the Red Dress Disaster

At last ─ a new production of La Traviata ! If you recall, I was not a fan of the previous Met production of Verdi’s timeless tale. A gender fluid mob of tuxedoed chorus members and a bald-faced clock certainly didn’t fit within my perceptions of the glittering Parisian world of Violetta Valéry.

Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Thankfully, that production is now old news. With Michael Mayer stepping in to create a new Traviata, I was more than enthused to supplant a fresh image in my mind of how La Traviata should be staged. The released promotional design concepts seemed promising for an enchanting, whimsical production.

Design concept for Michael Mayer’s production of La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

While living up to my expectations of a more traditional Traviata, I wouldn’t call it a hands-down winner. Christine Jones’s sets were beautiful, as were Susan Hilferty’s costumes, but the brightness of the colors and the curly embroidery detailing on Alfredo’s jacket (and the chorus members’ attire) could only summon to mind a Disney musical on Broadway.
All things considered, I was pleased by this production of La Traviata and how it partially fulfilled what had been my initial hope: to see a traditionally set performance of opera’s immortal tragedy.

Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo Germont and Diana Damrau as Violetta Valéry in La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Costuming possibilities are rich for Traviata ! Voluminous skirts, statement bodices, and historical implications all play a part in most mainstream performances. Since Michael Mayer’s production was making its world debut at the Met, I had no past performance pictures to reference for designing my costume. All that was available was one promotional sketch released by the Met.

Ambiguously lost between the 18th and 19th centuries, the image lacked the clarity I needed to carry out my design plans. My struggles with coming to a creative solution reached near delirium as I fiddled with different gown styles and ornamentation to no avail…

Eventually, I e-mailed Susan Hilferty, the costume designer for the opera, fishing for possible details. Unsurprisingly, the bait remained on the hook.
With time running out, I resignedly choose a similar style as the promotional sketch. And since the Live in HD broadcast was scheduled just 10 days before Christmas, how could I go wrong with a stylish scarlet gown ?

I categorized this dress under ‘Couture’ because of its showstopping grandeur and formality. But don’t be fooled─ its interior was a mess ! In preparation for draping the outside of the bodice, I sewed the lining only. Multiple fittings promised a success.

Less than a week before the opera, I carefully began folding and manipulating strips of my red matte satin and pinning them to the bodice, arranging them attractively as I went. Once the drapes were secured, I steam pressed them and was ready to try on the gown for the final fitting…

However, when I slipped into the gown, it swallowed me like an engulfing wave ! The dress was HUGE and I didn’t know why… It fit perfectly before I applied the drapes. Panic struck as it was the day before the opera and I didn’t have a dress to wear ! The rest of the day was spent taking in the central back seams and resewing the zipper innumerable times. Each alteration led to another problem and now I was seriously contemplating a Plan B. Finally, at 8:30 p.m., I finished altering the dress to where I felt confident that it wouldn’t fall to the floor as I wore it to the opera. What a close call !

Oh, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet… Throughout the day at the theater, I felt the dress becoming larger and looser with every movement. Fear of a ebbing gown pressed against the forefront of my mind as I consciously made efforts to prevent an embarrassing situation from occurring.
Unzipping the gown in the evening was an utter relief ─ I made it through the opera without a wardrobe malfunction !

Pretty on the outside, tragic on the inside… It’s almost as if the dress had been Violetta herself. And also like Violetta, the long red dress was permanently retired.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Traviata ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1853)
Live in HD air date: December 15, 2018

Cast:
Violetta Valéry ─ Diana Damrau
Alfredo Germont ─ Juan Diego Flórez
Giorgio Germont ─ Quinn Kelsey

Credits:
Conductor ─ Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production ─ Michael Mayer
Set Designer ─ Christine Jones
Costume Designer ─ Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer ─ Kevin Adams
Choreographer ─ Lorin Latarro
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Anita Rachvelishvili

The Making of Manon: the 1890's ball gown

When pondering a new project, I always search for that one piece of inspiration to set the creative gears into motion. It can be a pair of shoes with just the right decoration for mimicking on a collar, or a necklace from ages past that would look perfect with a historical replica gown. For Manon, that trinket of musing was this pink and silver butterfly barrette:

Pale, frosted pink with touches of mauve and iridescent rhinestones gave me great ideas for the color scheme of my Belle Époque outfit. Determining whether I would create a walking suit, day dress, or evening/ball gown became the main challenge as I vacillated between contrary designs like a pendulum swinging from a string. Ultimately, a ball gown seemed like a safe choice since I knew that it would be rather simple in construction and wouldn’t limit my comfort or mobility the way a spectacularly broad daytime hat would against the back of a movie theater seat (I have experience in these matters, as surely you can tell). I did, however, sketch a design in the vein of one of Laurent Pelly’s signature looks from the opera:

Manon / Metropolitan Opera

Once the decision was made in favor of the ball gown, I settled on the 1890’s for my gown’s impersonation since La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Age) spans well over 40 years (roughly 1871-1914 by generous standards) with varying fashions in each decade. Now to narrow down the style of the neckline, sleeves, and skirt…

The gowns of the decade were bedecked in fancy laces, expensive jewels, and lavish ornamentation. Most noticeably were the enormous puff sleeves and long evening gloves worn by the ladies.

The decoration of the gores on the skirts was also in vogue.

As for me, I wanted a trademark 1890’s style, which meant a separate, softly pointed bodice and gored fan skirt trailing behind ─ both cut from pale pink crepe back satin and decorated in contrasting rosy mauve corded lace. Making a mock-up was the first order of business. I designed my bodice to have shoulder straps that opened wide onto the chest and a pointed bottom at the front and back, which was characteristic for the time period.

Once the bottom edge was modeled to my satisfaction, I cut along the line and had my new patterns pieces, which were then laid out onto interfaced cotton lining fabric.

Covered Rigilene bones were sewn onto the front princess seams in addition to one bone down the middle of the face side of the lining while other bones were sewn onto the bust portion of the bodice to give it shape and support.

Onto the back !

A minuscule waist was at the forefront of the iconic 1890’s silhouette. While the broad design features of bouffant sleeves and sweeping skirt hems aided in the appearance of a tiny waist, I wanted to be sure that I did my best to achieve the proper look and decided to make a built-in corset in the bodice. The attached lacing panels are shown below. Each panel has two sides: one for the lining (cotton) and the other for the side facing the back (satin).

Next came the skirt…

Doing my best to keep the gown fairly accurate, historically speaking, I made a pattern using measurement instructions given in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashions 2, an invaluable resource for fashion historians and sewing enthusiasts alike. Seam allowances were added and then the paper pattern was pinned to folded layers of crepe back satin (face), lining fabric, and interfacing to save time on the cutting process.

The interfacing was fused to the wrong sides of the face and lining fabrics and set aside for later…

After sewing together all the pieces of the bodice, pressing the seams, and stitching quilt batting onto the bust to cover the exposed bones, it was time for a fitting !

The fitting indicated that the armscyes needed to be cut down slightly since it was jabbing into my underarm area in a most uncomfortable way. (Later on I would cut down the armhole even more since it was still bothersome.)

A portion of the armscye cut down.

Let’s get back to the skirt…

As per Patterns of Fashion 2, the hems of the fancy skirts in the 1890’s were interlined with buckram in order to keep them stiff and stand out and away from the wearer. This was essential in creating the proper figure that I wanted to achieve so I bought 1 yard of heavyweight buckram and cut it into strips based on the equation of the circumference of the skirt divided by the width of the buckram. If I remember correctly, I think I ended up with 8 strips that were 56-57″ long (the width of the buckram) and about 7¼” tall. Sewing the strips together gave me one long strip of stiffener.

The edge closest to the hem was sewn on first. Then to compensate for the decreasing skirt circumference higher up, I made long cuts into the buckram along the top edge (and shorter ones along the bottom) to help bend the stiff mesh into a circular shape.

Below shows how the interlining looks from the inside. There are two lines of stitching for the buckram (top and bottom) and then the pink outer face fabric was turned to the right side and the seam allowance topstitched to the inside.

All was pressed and ready to be pleated at the back. A simple waistband was added to the top, hooks and eyes were sewn to the band, and the skirt was ready for decoration ! Lovely, isn’t she ?

Calculating that it would take over 5 yards of lace trim for the bottom hem of the skirt, I purchased 3 yards of a sequined corded lace with double scalloped borders in the rosy mauve hue that would serve as the accent color, just like in the butterfly hair clip. Of course, the two selvedges of scallops gave me close to 6 yards of trim, which I snipped off and pinned their lengths in place onto the skirt.

Now, just between us, I glued the bottom border of lace onto the skirt with a clear fabric glue. I had no other choice ! If it’s early June, then I’m most likely going to hand sew the lace. But with only a month before the October opera and a bevy of other projects waiting half finished on my ironing board…well… Toss me the bottle of glue ! I did hand sew the rest of the lace, however, including the motifs along the two seams of the front gore, which took 3 hours EACH to complete. Yes, the glue saved me !
The skirt was complete (other than hanger straps, which I added later) and then it was onto the sleeves ─ the massive, puff sleeves.

The Sleeves

Perfecting the fit of a sleeve has always been an elusive task for me. They’re either too tight, too lopsided at the top, or just plain unsightly. Sometimes, I want to give up. Since I didn’t want a failure with my 1890’s ball gown sleeves (they were, after all, consuming almost a yard of fabric each), I counted off the number of squares on a layout in Patterns of Fashion 2 and my sleeve block turned out great with only a few tweaks. Below is my sleeve pattern with markings for the front, back, and shoulder seam. However, in the process of sewing and attaching, these factors were not so important and I ditched the idea of lining up the points with those on the bodice straps. You’ll see why in a minute…

Three layers of the sleeve pattern were cut:

  1. cotton lining
  2. interfaced crepe back satin
  3. crystal organza

After staystitching the edges, strips of horsehair braid were vertically sewn along the wide section of each sleeve at evenly spaced intervals. This provided a structured “oompf” and ensured that the sleeves would not droop. Next came a row of ruffled crinoline to begin building the “fluff” in the sleeve.

And then more rows of crinoline, and more, and more until the sleeve looked like this:

It almost looks like a pink and white lamb ! Baahhh !

Time to join the layers together…

…and gather the tops and bottoms.

And this is where things got tricky. Because it’s infinitely easier to gather and serge at the same time, I opted to use my serger to knock two balls out of the park after striking out with machine gathering ─ no matter how careful I was to not pull too hard on the thread tails, snap ! A thread would break. Frustration set in. Finally, it dawned on me to gather the sleeves on a cord so I went back to the serger and tried this trick. Guided by the red arrows, you will catch a glimpse of the white cotton crochet cord.

Eureka ! It worked ! From there, the sleeves gathered with remarkable ease.

And here’s what the bodice looked like after the sleeves were fitted to the straps. Sparkly, shiny, and fit for a princess, wouldn’t you say ? Time for a fitting !

A disaster: The inner support materials of the sleeves proved to be much too heavy for the wide set shoulder straps and as a result, the bodice became an “off the shoulder” style, which was not my intended look. I tried using lingerie tape under the straps to help them stay in place, but the copious amounts of horsehair and crinoline won out every time. Back to the drawing board…
The seam ripper and I have a very close relationship and it was in action again with this project. I picked apart the sleeve layers, removed half of the horsehair strips, and reduced the number of crinoline ruffles before serging together the layers ─ again. Thankfully, my fear of having droopy sleeves due to a reduction of inner support was unrealized and once reassembled, they still possessed that iconic “poof” with no signs of droop. They remind me of swim floaties worn on the arms of children who are learning to swim.

A fitting was carried out and STILL the straps were falling down, just not as quickly as before. Only one thing could be done to salvage my hopes of keeping the straps on my shoulders and that was to somehow shorten the length of the strap. This was done by pinching together a back portion of each strap and sewing it down by hand. It sufficed, but wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, the corded lace sewn onto the bodice covered any obvious imperfections.

Pinched portion of back shoulder strap sewn down by hand stitches

Completing the look was the beautiful rosy mauve lace I bought online from a Los Angeles fabric store. Snipping out varied motifs was necessary, but tedious at times, and don’t get me started on how much of a brain buster it was to match mirrored pieces ! I think I scrutinized each scroll of the lace pattern until I couldn’t see straight ! But, the devil is in the details and it paid off in the final outcome.

C’est très chic, n’est-ce pas ?

With the final touch of the butterfly clip ─ the source of my inspiration ─ perched atop my updo, I felt like I had stepped back in time to the grand days of Paris in the 1890’s. The dress gave me fits during construction, but not at the opera ! It was a dream to wear. Now, if only I had a Chevalier des Grieux on my arm and a fancy ball to attend…

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Manon

The score of Manon is a sensual pleasure for the ears… It’s a pity that I wasn’t more enthused about opera from the get-go ! But after my repelling experience with Puccini’s Manon Lescaut in 2016, I was tepid to take on the French version of the same tale. However, I sought to give the Massenet piece a fair shake ─ and it’s a good thing I did !

Lisette Oropesa as Manon / Metropolitan Opera

With charms tantamount to a Cartier necklace, Lisette Oropesa and Michael Fabiano lit up the stage with their untamable chemistry. It flowed and never ebbed, even in spite Manon’s tastes for frivolous Parisian luxuries. I confess that the blush on my cheeks turned redder than beets during the smouldering peak of Manon and des Grieux’s passion… atop a battered bed in the open sanctuary of a church. Awkward.

Lisette Oropesa as Manon and Michael Fabiano as des Grieux / Metropolitan Opera

While the screen was seared by the heat of the lovers, I had my eye on the historical aspects of the opera, namely, the costumes.

Although Manon is originally set in the Parisian courts of the 18th century, the Met’s current Laurent Pelly production has switched the setting to the late 19th century, or “La Belle Époque” as it is called among fashion historians. While rich with possibilities for sumptuous gowns, the costumes for this particular production looked a tad… “polyester”… and were all over the place in terms of isolating a specific decade: I noticed armored cuirasse bodices and fluffy bustles ─ indicative of the 1880’s ─ to gored skirts and enormous feathered hats, synonymous to the early Edwardian period of the 1900’s. There were even contemporary gowns of no historical basis. The myriad of differing modes of dress spanning 30+ years made for a lack of continuity as well as identity in the production. Was it traditional ? Was it modern ? The answer remained obscure.

Lisette Oropesa in Manon / Metropolitan Opera

Knowing that Laurent Pelly productions are filled with whimsy and topsy-turvy lineages, I didn’t aim to directly copy any one single costume from the opera since I knew, in taking that tack, the possibilities for future wear would be slim to none.
Coming to the decision was tough, but I eventually opted to create an 1890’s ball gown inspired by the mauve, pink, and silver butterfly clip perched in my hair.

The puff sleeves were enormous and reminded me of spun cotton candy…

With lace hand sewn onto the bodice and front gores of the skirt, this costume had couture qualities about it.

Paris, here I come ! I remember walking (or waltzing ?) into the theater that sunny late October afternoon and observing the gentleman ticket taker rendered speechless as he approached the podium. While approbation is never my motivation, it’s always a pleasure to receive remarks about the enjoyment elicited in others and their gratitude for what the craft adds to the Live in HD simulcasts.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

For more information on how I created my “pretty in pink” 1890’s ball gown from start to finish, check out my tutorial post: https://costumeclosetcouture.com/2020/04/21/the-making-of-manon-the-1890s-ball-gown/

Cast and Credits:

Manon ─ Jules Massenet (1884)
Live in HD air date: October 26, 2019

Cast:
Manon ─ Lisette Oropesa
Chevalier des Grieux ─ Michael Fabiano
Guillot de Morfontaine ─ Carlo Bosi
Lescaut ─ Arthur Ruciński
de Brétigny ─ Brett Polegato
Comte des Grieux ─ Kwangchul Youn

Credits:
Conductor ─ Maurizio Benini
Production ─ Laurent Pelly
Set Designer ─ Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer ─ Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer ─ Joël Adam
Choreographer ─ Lionel Hoche
Associate Director ─ Christian Räth
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Nadine Sierra