Birthday Blues (and Purples, too !) ─ Matching Birthday Dresses

Have you ever come across an object that so uncannily embodies the persona of someone you know that you almost have to do a double take ? This is exactly what occurred as I was thumbing through an issue of “Julie’s Picks” swatch club one summer afternoon.

There it was: a royal blue burnout velvet that had me screaming inside my head, “Faith !!!!”

Faith has an affinity for blue (and royal blue in particular) the way I have an alliteration affinity (and am an absolutely ardent advocate about appropriate and ample application !). When I spotted an additional royal purple colorway listed on the page, the wheels in my head began to cycle at rapid RPMs. Matching dresses !

Was I being irrational ? After all, I have never met Faith in person and trying to do a fitting online seemed impossible. But that didn’t matter… it was destiny and as soon as the fabrics became available, I snatched up several yards of each.

Originally, I envisioned this duo of dresses for Christmas, but with no opera outfits to conjure, my schedule was left wide open. Since Faith and I share September birthdays that are 6 days apart, it seemed like an appropriate deadline and perfect birthday present. Birthday dresses, it is !

Now came the tricky part: choosing a pattern style that would suit two completely different figures ! Because of the low cost, I turned to Lekala patterns since I knew that they offered customized PDF patterns based on individual measurements for a bargain. Velvet begs for the opportunity to be draped and ruched so the faux wrap style of #4078 was my top choice. The V-neck and triangular inset promised a slimmer appearance, which is desired by all.

Agreeing to the style and process, Faith sent her measurements and I began to work… but first, a detour. Since the almost-neon purple ITY knit I ordered for the lining of my dress was ill-matched to the deep plum of the purple velvet, I decided to use the ITY knit for a mock-up, which I wore to Jonas Kaufmann’s concert in July.

The mock-up proved two things: 1) the dress needed to be looser in the bust and upper arms, and 2) the hem could be lengthened just a smidge to cover the knee, as per Faith’s request. This was done for the real deal. Taking precautions, I cut out the patterns with extra seam allowances, but sewed at only a ¼” seam. Just a tip: cut your stretch velvets with the right sides facing each other… it’s too slippery the other way !

So was the grand plan pulled off without a hitch ? Yes ! Cutting it close, I mailed Faith her dress just days before her birthday, holding my breath to learn of its fit or misfit. It was a gamble, but I heaved a mighty sigh when I received word of its perfection. Whew !

Faith chose to style her dress casually with leggings and boots and with coordinating accessories. As for me, I had the professional modes in mind and added gold jewelry and stockings to complement a dressed up business look.

This was an accomplishment I will always remember: sewing my first fitted project for someone, virtually. The moment was all the more relished by the satisfactory result and the shared bond of two friends with matching birthday dresses.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Designing a Diva: Dress Inspired by Anna Netrebko

Anna Netrebko is a bona fide diva. She has the pipes to blast the roof off a building, the meticulous technique and luster a good singer could only wish to achieve, and the histrionic ability that could put any Hollywood A-lister to shame. She’s also very beautiful. Aside talent and looks, one of the greatest semblances of a diva is a wardrobe of couture designer gowns and shoes. And Anna Netrebko is no exception !

As the concert for Anna Netrebko neared last summer, my mind was set on creating a true “diva” gown─ something that was as stunning as Anna herself. But where to begin ? Firstly, I browsed online and then on Anna Netrebko’s Instagram account in search of clues. Although she has worn many different styles of dresses, I noticed a reoccurrence of strapless gowns in bold colors and patterns.

Even for her wedding to Yusif Eyvazov in December 2015 Anna chose to wear a strapless gown…

Strapless it is. Now for the colors…

Interestingly, a post on Anna’s Instagram account pointed to the reasoning behind her selection of bright colors for concert and gala gowns: she rarely wears black on stage since it blends in with the orchestra’s attire and the audience wouldn’t be able to see her from afar. Brilliant ! As for me, I had a different motive for choosing colors. I wanted to use up a portion of my fabric “stash” and recalled the bright fuchsia satin I used for my Dalila gown in 2018. The remnants of the hot pink satin totaled to less than 2 yards. A sheath style with high thigh slit seemed inevitable. But what else ? Reaching for other fabrics in my stash, I tested different color combinations until I hit the mark: fuchsia and royal blue ! Since the duo made a mesmerizing pair, the idea of a dramatic lace overlay tickled my fancy. Grab your sunglasses before you read any further !

I purchased 2 yards of both lace and stretch charmeuse satin for the lining (yes, I wanted to use up my stash and not add to it, but sometimes it’s not always possible) and cut my patterns for the strapless sheath with not an inch to spare !

Constructing the lining was straightforward: I interfaced the pieces, sewed on Rigilene boning, added interior lacing panels for the corset, and padded the bust. Time for a fitting !

Enormous, just right, skin tight ─ the dress was a mess ! After all, what’s dressmaking without some mishaps along the way ? Alterations were made and the slit jettisoned: a new silhouette had to created to compensate for the unwalkable bottom half of the dress. A triangular gore was inserted into the back of the dress, but for the lining only ! The idea of a chiffon train floated in my mind…

After tweaking the bodice, it was time for the lace application. I pinned the zipperless gown on my dress form and began the process of manipulating the lace, especially in the bust dart area.

Sew far, sew good ! No, really ─ there was A LOT of sewing with this dress because of the lace. I spent days securing the majority of the motifs onto the pink satin, first “stitched in the ditch” along the princess seams and then elsewhere. Thankfully, I had a great slanted zigzag stitch to use on my Baby Lock machine.
With the upper portion of the dress complete, I repeated the lace application on the lower half of the gown ─ more sewing…!

The wrong side of the face after sewing on the lace

A week later, I sewed on a ruched sash with the help of this tutorial: https://mamamadeit.blogspot.com/2011/03/ruched-satin-taffeta-sash.html Thank you, Mama !
The gathered ends were capped with a folded strip of satin and hooks and eyes were sewn on the underside.

During the last stages of sewing and fitting, I realized the train was unrealistic. For one, I couldn’t squeeze myself into the dress during the final fitting and had to rework the back gore, slashing it into two. Fortunately, I was able to scrounge up enough fuchsia satin in the scrap bag to cut two identical gores. Once they were sewn onto the dress, the fit was better. However, the light and sheer chiffon just didn’t seem like a cohesive match when placed next to the adjacent sturdy and thick guipure lace; elegance is best personified in simplicity.

Despite the rescheduled concert date (February instead of October) the dress was perfectly suited for the mild weather and everything I had hoped for it to be, especially when accessorized with an abundance of pink organza. It was a diva’s dream !

I knew white rhinestones would be my accent color and the shoes were one of my main inspirations. They were last worn to the Pavarotti documentary in 2019. Bling, bling !

The lace was so pretty with its edges peeking above the neckline of the dress. Now, if I only had a big, sparkly diamond necklace to show off…

…like Anna !

Anna Netrebko is a muse for generations to come. And while I cannot compare myself to the caliber of a world-class soprano, my couture concert dress certainly gave me a taste of the fame and fashion of a true diva.

Toi, Toi, Toi,
Mary Martha

Diva du Jour ─ Anna Netrebko Live in Concert

“Diva assoluta del mondo.” “Prima donna.” “Showstopper.” Regardless of how you choose to phrase your expressions, the fact of the matter remains constant: Anna Netrebko is the World’s Reigning Diva. She is also my favorite singer. And so, when the time came for Anna Netrebko to be featured in the Met Stars Live in Concert series, there was no question that I would be watching.

Cleverly, the program was divided into Day and Night art songs ─ the first portion floated with some of Anna’s Russian repertoire calling cards while the latter half was devoted to darkness. While most of the selections were enjoyable (most ─ Debussy’s “Il pleur dans mon cœur” sparked the need for an antidepressant), I couldn’t help but wish for an injection of opera somewhere into the set list. Art songs can only be sustained for so long, even with Pavel Nebolsin’s nuanced piano playing…
What was delightful, however, was the addition of mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova to complete two duets. The girls were a pretty sight together and their Venetian masks worn in part for Offenbach’s Bacarolle painted a portrait of pure whimsy.

Anna Netrebko and Elena Maximova singing “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amore”

The Cuisine

The Spanish Riding School offered an extraordinary venue for a concert. And its host city, Vienna, became the inspiration for the food. Anne’s cheese platter contained a mix of Muenster, Manchego, and Danish Blue. Something German, something Spanish, and something as blue as the Danube. Brava, Anne !

Chris’s canapes were a work of art ! Open faced sandwiches never looked better…

And what would an opera concert be without some bubbly imbibement ? From the bordering hills of Italy, I supplied a bottle of Prosecco.

But Vienna is probably best known for its renowned dessert: Sachertorte ! Who would of thought that a simple chocolate cake could be heightened to extraordinary levels by a smearing of tangy apricot jam and a bathing of velvety ganache ? Okay, that’s not too much of a profound pondering. We all had seconds !

Sachertorte

The Clothes

While the storied city of Vienna may have supplied the inspiration for the food, it was Anna Netrebko herself who became the muse for my outfit. As a bona fide diva, Anna Netrebko wears gowns worth dying for. My research began by browsing online images of Anna’s past concert and gala gowns. The results led me to two conclusions: Anna Netrebko loves bright colors and bold styles. Other noticeable features were the repetitions of strapless gowns with coordinating waistband sashes. Using these as my standards, I set out to create a “Diva” dress, glam and all.

Bright colors ? Check ! Bold style ? You be the judge…!

My “Diva” gown, accentuated by an abundant organza stole, made me feel like I had stepped onto a Hollywood red carpet ! More appropriately, it fit the mold of my all-time favorite diva, Anna Netrebko ─ “la diva assoluta del mondo.”

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha


Surely, you must want to know more about my jaw-dropping dress, right ? Details of its conception and completion can be found here: http://costumeclosetcouture.com/2021/03/09/designing-a-diva-dress-inspired-by-anna-netrebko/

Cast and Credits

Met Stars Live in Concert: Anna Netrebko
Spanish Riding School
Vienna, Austria
Live broadcast date: February 6, 2021
(Date seen: February 18, 2021)

Anna Netrebko ─ soprano
Elena Maximova ─ mezzo-soprano
Pavel Nebolsin ─ piano

“Pavarotti” documentary

Sometimes, it is the decisions made on a whim that turn out to be the best. This is what occurred as I opened a regular, mundane e-mail from the Met promoting a new documentary on Luciano Pavarotti. I didn’t know much about Pavarotti, personally, although his voice had always pleased my ears. With the doldrums of the slow summer months poised ahead of me, I figured, “Why not ?” and alerted my theater friends of the occasion.

Trailer for “Pavarotti” documentary

The documentary was informative in that it taught me more about Pavarotti’s life and highlighted his ebullient, larger-than-life personality. However, there was one thing missing in the context of the film and that was the preeminent tenor’s notorious reputation for being “difficult”. Although there were glimpses into tumultuous family spats, most bouts of “divo” behavior were brushed aside like specks of dust on a woolen suit. Naturally, the film was devoid of any serious damages to Pavarotti’s persona, notwithstanding his extramarital affair with Nicoletta Mantovani.

Nicoletta Mantovani and Luciano Pavarotti

Without question, the summit for all was the extended clip of one of Pavarotti’s celebrated performances of “Nessun dorma”. Behind and around me, I heard uncontrollable sniffles and the muffled sounds of Kleenexes to congested noses.

Pavarotti singing “Nessun dorma”

Pavarotti’s homeland and heritage of Modena, Italy, inspired the theme for my outfit worn to the documentary: Dripping in Diamonds. Situated between the fashion hubs of Milan and Florence, the northern Italian location evoked thoughts of trendy couture gowns and the glamourous styles. Brash and gaudy like a movie star, but also regal and polished, I grabbed one of my standby dresses from my closet: a sapphire blue one shoulder chiffon gown with rhinestone detailing on the shoulder. Years ago, I bought this gown on clearance at a consignment shop and now it was getting its turn in the spotlight. The jewels and gloves (and a purse “dripping in diamonds” ─ also a consignment find) were the icing on the cake.

A high bun with ringlets spiraling down was just right for my Italian diva look…

Oh, and those shoes ? They’re used, too ! I bought them at a resale closet for $16. They’re Ivanka Trump stilettos whose heights reach the heavens !

Leaving the theater that night, I had to trot back inside because of a missing pair of glasses I thought I had left behind. When I inquired at the podium in the lobby, one of the young attendants remarked that I all needed was a British accent. “Why ?” I asked. “Because you look like royalty” replied the attendant.

A diva I was.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Credits

“Pavarotti” documentary
Date seen: June 4, 2019

La Bohème ─ Mimì

My pastor once referred to the plot of La Bohème as “the hippies in Paris.” And after catching a past Met performance of La Bohème on TV one evening, I had to agree. Rebellion against authority, communal living, and starving artists flood the stage with the modes of their free-spirit culture. While one of the most popular operatic works, which has influenced a host of artistic projects outside of opera houses (i.e Rent), I was not initially won over by the loose morals of “The Bohemians”. However, my indifferent attitude did not prevent me from taking the trip to the theater when a fresh cast mounted the open garret of Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic 1981 production. “I’ll give it another chance…” I reasoned.

Matthew Rose as Colline, Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, and Lucas Meacham as Marcello in La Bohème / Metropolitan Opera

The pairing of Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabiano felt like an old photograph stuffed into an album presently displaced. They looked familiar, but where had I seen them…? Oh, yes─ in La Traviata just a year earlier. However, their wigs and wardrobes had changed drastically from the days of suits and satin sundresses.

Did my second viewing of La Bohème transform my opinion of Puccini’s lovable opera ? Not particularly. While anticipating my favorite melodies (I judge a soprano by the number of goosebumps on my body when listening to “Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì”) was an entertaining highlight, I still wasn’t as emotionally moved by the plot as I had hoped. Perhaps the third time will be the charm…

A scene from La Bohème / Metropolitan Opera

There are times when an opera costume should be interpretive. This was not one of those occasions. No, I knew from the instant I decided to make plans for attending La Bohème that I would dress head to toe as either Mimì or Musetta. Since the more recognizable of the two is the former, and since masquerading as the latter would throw me into a mid-season panic of having to sew something from scratch, I threw in my chips for Mimì. The dishwater blue frock ─ so iconic to Zeffirelli’s sickly sweet Mimì ─ could easily be mimicked with the blue chambray dress in my mother’s closet.

A staple from my mother’s closet ─ her blue dotted chambray dress with lace

But it needed more…

The original dress, which is from the 1970’s or 80’s, hit at the mid-calf level, but this was too short for the floor length skirts of the 1830’s. I remedied my malady with a matching chambray ruffle, which I attached to the bottom hem of the dress.

Now I needed the shawl… Mimì is nothing without her crocheted shawl ! A plethora of images from past Met performances guided me when choosing a pattern…

Here’s the pattern I used: https://shyamanivas.blogspot.com/2017/06/latticed-spider-shawl-1.html

I devised my own border scheme based on the production pictures and with a pair of lace gloves and upswept hairstyle… voilà─ Mimì !

“Yes, they call me Mimì”… at least they did at the theater that day ! It’s always fun to replicate the style of a character to the nth degree and Mimì was a relative breeze. Although I’m not counted among the lovers of La Bohème, I’m certain that Puccini’s tunes will draw me back again someday. But next time, I plan to chart a new course for my costume… look out, Musetta, I’m coming for you !

Susanna Phillips as Musetta / Metropolitan Opera

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Bohème ─ Giacomo Puccini (1896)
Live in HD air date: February 24, 2018

Cast:
Mimì ─ Sonya Yoncheva
Rodolfo ─ Michael Fabiano
Musetta ─ Susanna Phillips
Marcello ─ Lucas Meachem
Schaunard ─ Alexey Lavrov
Colline ─ Matthew Rose
Benoit/Alicindoro ─ Paul Plishka

Credits:
Conductor ─ Marco Armiliato
Production ─ Franco Zeffirelli
Set Designer ─ Franco Zeffirelli
Costume Designer ─ Peter J. Hall
Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler
Revival Stage Director ─Gregory Keller
Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond
Host ─ Kelli O’Hara

La Fille du Régiment

Growing up as an Army brat can be tough. Smelly socks, hardtack rations, itchy wool uniforms─ the works. There’s never a moment’s rest and danger lurks around every corner. But for Marie, nothing compares to being the adopted daughter of France’s 21st Regiment. With a voice of sparkling cut crystal, Pretty Yende charmed as Donizetti’s “Belle of Bel Canto” along with a stratospherically high Javier Camerena as her Tyrolean suitor.

Pretty Yende as Marie and Javier Camarena as Tonio in La Fille du Régiment / Metropolitan Opera

The bel canto style is characterized by dizzying vocal runs at breakneck speeds, which results in a dazzling display of featherweight finesse and outstanding ornamentation. All the singers gave it their all and won raving applause. However, the most notable ─ the most invigorating ─ moment came when Javier Camarena gave an encore of the standout aria, “Ah! Mes amis… Pour mon âme” ─ the first encore ever attempted during a Live in HD broadcast. Eighteen treacherous high C’s were hit with mastered accuracy. The target practice certainly payed off… my ears were delighted !

Javier Camarena sings the encore of “Ah! Mes amis… Pour mon âme” / Metropolitan Opera

As with nearly every opera comedy, the plot lacked any dire conflict. Whatever strife that might have arisen was quickly remedied by a scene of reunion and almost always accompanied by stint of physical comedy. A good belly laugh is standard operating procedure for one of Donizetti’s romps.

  Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena with Alessandro Corbelli in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment / Metropolitan Opera

When I saw this particular opera on the Live in HD schedule more than a year in advance, I knew right off the bat that my outfit would be classified as a ‘Closet’ ensemble where I borrow clothes and accessories from my mother’s closet as well as those of close friends. My intention for Laurent Pelly’s updated World War I setting of The Daughter of the Regiment (as the opera is known in English) was to mix the “daughter” with the “regiment” in my look, blending supple girlish charm with rough militaristic machismo.

For my hairstyle, I envisioned something that was utilitarian for the wartime era, like this:

Thankfully, it didn’t work out. What a dreadful look ! My mother had the idea of braiding my hair in pigtails to convey the girlish character. There’s one for the “daughter/fille” !

The pale blue dotted chambray dress (“fille”) made its second appearance at the theater after taking a turn as part of Mimì’s blue ensemble for La Bohéme in 2018. The buckle boots, perfect for marching off to war (“régiment”), were bought at a bargain at one of my favorite resale stores. As you can tell, I was already putting together my outfit with relative success. But this opera was set in the not-too-far-off World War I era… I needed something really “regimental”…

And so, I reached out to my own military “papa” in Uncle Kim. Boy, did he have a great plan…
Topping my mother’s chambray dress is the original tunic of Signaler Donald B. Smith from when he served in the Canadian Reserve Engineer Regiment in WWI. Yes, it’s over 100 years old and in tiptop shape with only a missing pocket button and a few small moth-eaten holes. The fit wasn’t too bad for my frame either… Thank you, Uncle Kim, for lending me the absolute best garment for this opera, scratchy wool and all !

Replica tunics like this one retail at around $125 online. But Signaler Smith’s is genuine. It’s also priceless.

While a soldier’s profession is as precarious as a floating soap bubble rising in the air, the bel canto brilliance of Donizetti’s charmer (and the dynamic duo of Pretty and Javier) remains a grounded favorite for audiences across the globe. As I left the theater that day, I caught myself humming, “Rataplan, rataplan, rataplan !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Fille du Régiment ─ Gaetano Donizetti (1840)
Live in HD air date: March 2, 2019

Cast:
Marie ─ Pretty Yende
Tonio ─ Javier Camarena
Suplice ─ Maurizio Muraro
Marquise of Berkenfield ─ Stephanie Blythe
Duchess of Krakenthorp ─ Kathleen Turner

Credits:
Conductor ─ Enrique Mazzola
Production ─ Laurent Pelly
Set Designer ─ Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer ─ Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer ─ Joël Adam
Choreographer ─ Laura Scozzi
Asscoiate Director and Dialogue ─ Agathe Mélinand
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Nadine Sierra

Idomeneo

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.

A scene from Mozart’s Idomeneo / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Matthew Polenzani singing an excerpt from “Fuor del mar” from Idomeneo / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Thank you, Aunt Countess !

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,

Mary Martha

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