Even if you’ve never seen the opera Rigoletto, you are most likely familiar with the Verdi work by its famous, hummable aria, “La donna è mobile,” heard everywhere from TV commercials to Italian restaurants. While I had the chance of watching a Rat Pack, neon-bedecked, “Vegas” Rigoletto during the Met’s free streaming at the time of their shutdown, I still felt the need to see the opera “in person” at the theater, this time set in the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s. Talk about a departure from 16th century Mantua !
What struck me the most about the new Bartlett Sher Rigoletto were the parallels to Sher’s Met production of Otello: blocky sets that felt closed off to the audience and gave the appearance of hazardous movement among the singers (watch out for the columns !). Another exasperating comparison was the inability to distinguish the lead characters from the rest of the crowd. Both the Duke in Rigoletto and Otello wore the clothes of their compatriots, with little, insufficient distinction. The costumes for the men looked to be the same in both productions ─ perhaps the budget was snug ? Overall, I felt the Weimar production was too garish and dark and was left questioning…“What’s wrong with 16th century Mantua ?!”
I always knew what I would wear before I ever had a 20’s themed opera to attend. A few years back, a friend gave me a vintage black cashmere sweater with a cream fur collar and rhinestone buckle at the waist. The tag indicated its pedigree: “100% Cashmere, Made in Scotland.” It was an instant love affair. Musing over the garment brought to mind the Silent Film era and its actresses I had seen in movies. My vision of a pale pink charmeuse gown and a black wool cloche was the surest way to bring the sweater’s former glory back into the limelight. A flapper would agree…
Since I knew that I was going to wear a cashmere sweater, the last thing I wanted was a long sleeve dress. That narrowed down the field of patterns. Ultimately, Folkwear’s Tango Dress fit the bill of a sleeveless, Art Deco design for my Silent Film Star look. Mary Pickford, here I come !
Silk charmeuse and a gorgeous wool suiting tangoed their way to 1920’s perfection ! This was my first time making a real hat, not one out of cardboard or headbands, and Elsewhen Millinery’s pattern was just perfect. A silk taffeta band decorated the supple cloche. With expensive fabrics and elegant finishes, these garments and accessories definitely classified themselves as ‘Couture’ pieces.
The hardest part was working on my 1920’s “slouch.” (Ouch !)
Bundled in the warmth of the sweater, I was set for the cold January day. Only my feet were chilled. To fashion a Mary Jane style shoe, I safety pinned sewn strips of black linen to the inside of my regular black pumps. Effective, cheap, and temporary ─ no need to buy new shoes !
Nearly everyone I meet fawns over the fan purse I crocheted specifically for this opera. And the best part ? The cotton lining material is printed with opera glasses ! How neat is that ?!
An Art Deco Rigoletto allowed me to venture into a decade that has never suited my fashion tastes. But as with most bouts of historical costuming, I gained an appreciation and greater attraction to the bias-cut drop waist dresses of the time. I can’t say that the same treatment applied to Rigoletto was as appealing.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Rigoletto ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1851) Live in HD air date: January 29, 2022
Cast: Rigoletto ─ Quinn Kelsey Gilda ─ Rosa Feola Duke of Mantua ─ Piotr Beczała Maddalena ─ Varduhi Abrahamyan Sparafucile ─ Andrea Mastroni
Credits: Conductor ─ Daniele Rustioni Production ─ Bartlett Sher Set Designer ─ Michael Yeargan Costume Designer ─Catherine Zuber Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Isabel Leonard
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.