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 ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
“Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame… And if I love you, watch out !”
Act I ─ Carmen
Opera’s most notorious femme fatale finally sashayed her way into the theater after keeping me waiting for years. Truthfully, I have longed to see Carmen for two reasons. First, the bouncing music, which is both tuneful as well as recognizable, is an alluring draw to Bizet’s landmark opera. And then there’s Carmen herself, a meaty role for any mezzo-soprano. Clémentine Margaine, French by birth, slipped into the black dress for this Live in HD performance.
Gritty, but perfumed, Clémentine Margaine balance crude manners with beguiling charm. Watching her sent my mind into vacillations of resolve as to who she really was: a woman who looked attractive at first glance, but on further inspection was nothing more than a broad wearing lipstick and eyeliner. There was a hardness about her ─ an earthiness ─ that befit the role of the tempestuous gypsy well. This baseness was especially noticeable when compared to the sweet and singular Micaëla, played by Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, who also happens to be the real life wife of Roberto Alagna, the opera’s Don José !
While the songs were as exciting as I hoped they would be, I wouldn’t say that Carmen ranks as one of my favorite operas. It’s too long for a story that feels humdrum and predictable. From a personal standpoint, Bizet’s earlier work, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, was much more intriguing in terms of plot and outcome. Nevertheless, I was happy to be able to check Carmen off my list of must-see operas.
Just as the singer who plays Carmen often relishes the chance to live vicariously through the role, so I also wanted to step into the clicking heels of a Spanish gypsy through my portrayal. Although Richard Eyre’s production is set in Seville during the 1930’s, I felt many of the costumes seemed pertinent to the present day and so I decided to model my look after the dancing ensemble worn by Carmen in Act II.
A voluminous bell sleeve blouse and lace skirt swings in time to the rousing Gypsy Song while a black corset exemplifies Carmen’s signature seduction. Planning my version of the outfit was easy, especially when I thought of the coral colored crinkle skirt in my mother’s closet that would be perfect for the part. Marking the tiers with rows of beads, it was destined for bohemian couture. Two yards of Raschel lace, which I bought for a bargain during a Black Friday sale, were draped and pinned on the outside of the skirt like a sarong.
The lower half of the outfit complete, I moved onto the fun parts ─ the corset and the blouse !
Yes, I made a corset. It was easy with the patterns and instructions from the Corset Academy, which I use often when making structured garments. Shaping my figure, the corset was mostly hidden beneath the flouncy tie bottom blouse I sewed using the free wrap blouse pattern from Anke Herrmann’s website for Flamenco Dressmaking. Her advice and support were valuable as I altered the style slightly to suit my needs. Once I found a festive dot crepe fabric on closeout online, I was ready to sew my blouse.
Making the bell sleeves was not as difficult as I anticipated, especially using a circle skirt cutting layout. And I loved using the rolled hem setting on my BabyLock serger ! It made the edges of my bell sleeves frilly and polished.
“But what about your hair ? Is it real ?” Yes and no. Looking over past Met performance pictures, I knew I needed tightly curled locks to match that of the character’s and so I related my plight to my mother (also known as my hairstylist) whereupon she gauged that trying to curl my naturally soft and wavy hair was a futile effort. Ultimately, she suggested I find some hairpieces. Well, I did, but the entirety of that story is not fit for publication. It involved a shady shop on the wrong side of town and a man who tried to convince me that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Che Guevara. Fearful for my life ? Just a smidge. Doing her best, my mother mingled my hair with the newly bought hairpieces to capture the Spanish vibe I was seeking.
Steeped in Sevillian style, I thoroughly delighted in playing opera’s most infamous gypsy, especially when twirling around in the theater on the way back to my seat. Olé !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Casts and Credits:
Carmen ─ Georges Bizet (1875) Live in HD air date: February 2, 2019
Cast: Carmen ─ Clémentine Margaine Don José ─ Roberto Alagna Micaëla ─ Aleksandra Kurzak Escamillo ─ Alexander Vinogradov
Credits: Conductor ─ Louis Langrée Production ─ Sir Richard Eyre Set and Costume Designer ─ Rob Howell Lighting Designer ─ Peter Mumford Choreographer ─ Christopher Wheeldon Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Ailyn Pérez
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.
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. ForManon, 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 BelleÉpoque 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:
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.)
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.
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:
interfaced crepe back satin
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.
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…