Opera is back at the Met for the 2021-2022 season with its Live in HD opener, Boris Godunov, a Pushkin-based Russian opera about a dubious tsar and the haunting of his rise to power. To scale down production, this was the first time that the Met performed the opera in its original 1869 format, which had obvious distinctions: no leading lady, no intermissions.
Due to technical difficulties at the theater, our local audience missed the first 20-30 minutes of the performance and was left to mentally piece together the fragmented story. An inauspicious omen for the opera ? I think so… Truth be told, the opera felt disjointed ─ whether due to the composer’s intentions or the abbreviated simulcast narrative, I can’t be sure. While I was disappointed in the latter, I went for the Russian language experience and René Pape and was duly rewarded by each. And as a bonus, the audience was compensated with free tickets and a free small popcorn for the inconvenience.Nice !
As there was no central female character in this version of Boris Godunov, I had to get creative with my outfit. Intriguingly, it was the Russian people that provided the influx of inspiration. I wanted to be a peasant (or serf) and knew just what I would wear…
The sarafan is a traditional Russian folk dress popularized by peasants, but was also worn by the dignified in the imperialist regime. Typically worn with a loose shirt and apron, the jumper can be made as plain or as fancy as a seamstress wishes. Since my aim was to look poor and deplete on the outstretching Steppes, I left much of the red washed linen and cream double gauze as unadorned as possible.
This was my first time using a Folkwear pattern, which has long been on my sewing wish list. Included in the packet were detailed instructions on how to modify (or modernize) the traditional style of the garment as well as helpful information for embroidering the shoulders of the blouse. I opted to gather the back of my sarafan and stitched matching ribbon to hold the fabric in place.
A scarf from my mother’s dresser drawer transformed into a babushka tied around my head and the single braid trailing down my back.
Although I was thrilled with my authentic creation, someone else was not…“You need to throw that out right after you wear it; it’s AWFUL !!!!!” wailed my mother as I walked out dressed in full costume. She grimaced and turned away after every press of the camera button ─ it’s a wonder I even got any pictures to share !
As (un)flattering as the sarafan may have been, it was the perfect outfit for an opera where the peasantry plays a major role. I just wish I had been able to see the entire opera !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits
Boris Godunov ─ Modest Mussorgsky (1869) Live in HD air date: October 9, 2021
Cast: Boris Godunov ─ René Pape Grigory ─ David Butt Phillip Shuisky ─ Aleksey Bogdanov Pimen ─ Ain Anger Varlaam ─ Ryan Speedo Green
Credits: Conductor ─ Sebastian Weigle Production ─ Stehpen Wadsworth Set Designer ─ Ferdinand Wögerbauer Costume Designer ─ Moidele Bickel Lighting Designer ─ Duane Schuler Fight Director ─ Steve Rankin Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Angel Blue
Dvořák’s opera of a water nymph who desires to be human should be familiar territory to anyone who has read or seen “The Little Mermaid” in any of its contexts. Whether it be the Hans Christian Andersen tale or Disney’s beloved movie, “The Little Mermaid” has had an endearing effect on the public. As someone who grew up watching the Disney film and reading Andersen, Rusalka was a must-see for me during the 2016-2017 Live in HD season. It was now time for the Czech composer to shine in the thalassic classic.
This was a new production for the Met and Mary Zimmerman’s designs were brought to life with forest fauna and frothing watering holes…
This was fitting, but the glaring garishness of the palace where the prince lived was (intentionally) off-putting. Even Rusalka was ready to hightail it back to her pond !
An attractive draw to this performance was the casting of Kristine Opolais as the title character. As an actress, she’s evocative and affecting, yet her voice doesn’t tend to coat my ears in richness. However, my auditory senses were deliciously rewarded when Jamie Barton took the stage as Ježibaba, the cackling, steampunk-esque witch. She stole the show !
Yes, I was eager to attend Rusalka. Even more, I was excited to create a costume for the opera. With the scene set as the rivers and lakes amidst a cool forest, I played around with the thought of building a transitional outfit that started as “water” and gradually turned into a “land” ─ like an ecological ombré effect. Skirts and scarves in blues and greens would resemble the water and an Easter bonnet made of paper plates would have been a crafty representation of the flora above. Here’s my Easter bonnet from years ago:
But no ─ I couldn’t wear my flamboyant fascinator to the theater and cause the folks behind me to become utterly enraged. Farewell to the forest ! Returning to the water theme, a backstage video from the Met threw me a helpful costuming clue…
Just as in the Met costume shop, I fashioned my own lilies for my skirts of “water”… except my lilies were not silk… they were coffee filters !
A stack of basic white coffee filters were snipped and twisted to create fanned water lilies with pale yellow stamens reaching forth. Atop my head was a lily pad, which was a crocheted doily I made for my mother years ago. And the crochet lace halter top ? I bought it at a consignment store. My outfit cost me next to nothing and was a worthy copycat of Kristine Opolais’s Act I gown.
In “The Little Mermaid” as well as Rusalka, the price for becoming a human being is the seeker’s own voice and immortality. And while the ending in the opera was not a “happily ever after” scenario, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the result of my costume ─ all the fun of a water nymph for the day with no remote danger of losing my voice or life.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Rusalka ─ Antonín Dvořák (1901) Live in HD air date: February 25, 2017
Cast: Rusalka ─ Kristine Opolais The Prince ─ Brandon Jovanovich Ježibaba ─ Jamie Barton The Foreign Princess ─ Katarina Dalayman Vodník, the Water Gnome ─ Eric Owens
Credits: Conductor ─ Sir Mark Elder Production ─ Mary Zimmerman Set Designer ─ Daniel Ostling Costume Designer ─ Mara Blumenfeld Lighting Designer ─ T.J. Gerckens Choreographer ─ Austin McCormick Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Matthew Polenzani
If you have a penchant for fairy tales like I do, you’ll find genuine delight in Mozart’s final opera, Die Zauberflöte. Centered around a quest for truth and knowledge (and a damsel in distress), the opera is as noble as its hero, Tamino. Between stipulated testing and bravery of self-determination, I willingly succumbed to the dashing chivalry of the prince on a mission to rescue the princess, Pamina.
If the pursuit of true love doesn’t tickle your fancy, the spectacular production by Julie Taymor (of “The Lion King” on Broadway fame) will surely elicit at least one or two gasps of wonder and amazement. The uniqueness of the costumes and puppetry fits seamlessly with the whimsical roots of the opera. There’s even creative comedy for those still unpersuaded.
Still not convinced ? Perhaps a fearsome villain is more appealing to you and luckily Die Zauberflöte showcases one of the most despised in the bewitching Queen of the Night. While the name sounds like a beacon among the stars and moon, the wicked queen is far from harmonious and caused me a slight shiver, partially due to the most unattractive styling of the character’s costume and make-up. If there was any doubt as to whether the Queen could make a face turn later in the opera, her appearance alone body slammed those speculations onto the floor.
With the Queen of the Night singing the most famous aria in the opera (and I’m sure you’ve heard it, too), it was without question that I would disguise myself as this otherworldly being for my outing to the opera. While the Julie Taymor costumes are original and ostentatious, I didn’t necessarily feel they best embodied the title of “Queen of the Night” so I imagined my own vision of the character.
I had a long black velvet dress in my closet ─ that was a running start ─ and now I needed to accessorize the pitch black gown to fully realize its nocturnally regal potential. A queen needs a crown, right ? I thought so, too, and cut a pattern out of a corrugated cardboard box, spray painted it silver, and glued on separately cut star and moon shapes (spray painted and glittered) to the tiara. Silky black ribbons were used as the fastener. The Queen had her crown !
“But what else ?” I pondered. The idea of wearing various accessories whisked through my mind, but when I spotted a shimmery black organza printed with silver stars online, I knew I had found my answer. What could be more stunning than a floating veil of the night sky ? Using 2 yards of fabric, I gathered one widthwise edge and sewed it onto a hair comb. To the opposite widthwise edge, I drew arced lines creating a circular perimeter around what became the bottom of the veil. All raw edges and selvedges were finished and voilà ─ a veil ! Just look at how it sparkles in the evening breeze…
With all the articles combined together (including my long black gloves and jewelry), the outfit’s celestial beauty belied the cruelty of the Queen.
Psst ! This outfit also became my Halloween costume for the year. My bedazzled spider bracelet simply begged to be taken trick-or-treating…
As charming as the starry night, Die Zauberflöte goes down as my favorite Mozart opera. The music dazzles and the story is uplifting. But I’m a sucker for fairy tales, after all…
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Die Zauberflöte ─ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791) Live in HD air date: October 14, 2017
Cast: Pamina ─ Golda Schultz Tamino ─ Charles Castronovo Papageno ─ Marcus Werba Queen of the Night ─ Kathryn Lewek Sarastro ─ René Pape Speaker ─ Christian Van Horn
Credits: Conductor ─ James Levine Production ─ Julie Taymor Set Designer ─ George Tsypin Costume Designer ─ Julie Taymor Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder Puppet Designers ─ Julie Taymor, Michael Curry Choreographer ─ Mark Dendy Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Nadine Sierra
Folk tale. Sing-a-long staple. Twentieth century masterpiece. Porgy and Bess is beloved for many reasons, but there’s probably none greater than being America’s opera. The title protagonists ─ lovable cripple, Porgy, and well-meaning drug addict, Bess, offer glimpses of an unlikely love by an even more unlikely pair in the Gershwins’ classic, which features hit tunes like “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty O’Nuttin'”, and “Ain’t Necessarily So”, just to name a few.
This was the first time in over 30 years that Porgy and Bess was making an appearance at the Met. In James Robinson’s new production, a highly skilled ensemble cast sauntered around the planked floor of Catfish Row, a slum in Charleston, South Carolina. Tough-talking matriarch Maria (played by veteran mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves), devoted young parents Clara and Jake, Bible-thumping Serena, slithering Sportin’ Life, and Bess’s brutish ex-lover Crown rounded out the cast of dynamic characters. While intentionally created to be rudimentary in its design, the linear wood slats of the settlement almost looked like a playground jungle gym with its inhabitants hanging out of open window frames and weaving around the pilings below.
Also swinging beneath the rafters was Gershwin’s jazzy score, which easily identified itself as a frequenter of non-operatic revues. Because of its atypical approach in music (it’s not your run-of-the-mill bel canto or verismo !), I couldn’t help but think that Porgy and Bess belonged more on Broadway as a musical than it did at the Met as an opera. There was too much talk and jive and not enough singing for my tastes. Nevertheless, the opera made for an enjoyable afternoon of spirited routines and recognizable melodies.
Porgy and Bess takes place during the early 1930’s as the Great Depression doles out its hardships. Along with the coastal Charlestonian locale, where a battalion of reeds stand tall on bordering estuaries, I had plenty of costume ideas swirling in my head… Ultimately, my plan was to blend the two setting features into a feedsack print sundress that would be perfect for a picnic on Kittiwah Island, just as in the opera. Using the past performance pictures from the English National Opera and Dutch National Opera as my inspiration (the Met’s production would be identical), I had my vision set.
Bess’s picnic dress conveyed a myriad of 1930’s details in its design: underbust gathers, a separate waist yoke, and buckle tie bows to embellish the frock. Locating the right material was the first step and boy, did I find it ! I had one uncompromising requisite when shopping and that was that the fabric chosen HAD to match a pair of strappy block heel sandals I had in my closet. No exceptions ! Although I had perused the web and ordered samples in search of my ideal “feedsack floral”, I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the printed patterns and/or the colors… until I opened the newest edition of my swatch club mailer and pointed to a cotton stretch poplin. “That’s it !” I rejoiced.
The fabric matched the shoes almost perfectly and I was (mostly) pleased with my cute 30’s sundress. Too bad the weather was nasty the day of the opera… I had to bundle my bare legs in a blanket at the theater because of the cold, wet February front that had wafted its way across the state. Ick !
The weather may have been less than ideal that day, but the warmth of “Summertime” and the endearment of America’s greatest opera, Porgy and Bess, were enough to hearten the shrillest skies.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Curious about how I fashioned my feedsack frock ? Check out my tutorial post on its creation !
Cast and Credits:
Porgy and Bess ─ George Gershwin (1935) Live in HD air date: February 1, 2020
Cast: Bess ─ Angel Blue Clara ─ Golda Schultz Serena ─ Latonia Moore Maria ─ Denyce Graves Sportin’ Life ─ Frederick Ballantine Porgy ─ Eric Owens Crown ─ Alfred Walker Jake ─ Donovan Singletary
Credits: Conductor ─ David Robertson Production ─ James Robinson Set Designer ─ Michael Yeargan Costume Designer ─ Catherine Zuber Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder Projection Designer ─ Luke Halls Choreographer ─ Camille A. Brown Fight Director ─ David Leong Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Audra McDonald
Relatively unknown to the world, dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen has been forging a meteoric rise to stardom with her powerful voice that has some critics calling her “the great Wagnerian promise of her generation.” With as much hype (and height ─ Lise is nearly 6’2″ !) surrounding the shy, Norwegian native, my interest in seeing this uncut gem perform was keener than usual.
Although lacking the total confidence that accompanies decades of professional stage experience, Lise’s humble, offhanded spirit brought a refreshing genuineness to her performance, which included a weighted set list of Wagnerian arias, Grieg, Verdi, and Strauss. There was a little bit of everything, so much so that the program felt like a potluck dinner party. Britten’s “Johnny” was playful with sultry low notes, Strauss’s Op. 27 was sublime, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” was a sugary charmer with James Baillieu’s scrumptious piano tip-tapping away. Adding to the ambiance was the stately Oscarshall Palace dining room, which easily recalled images of “Beauty and the Beast” to my fairy tale mind.
Known for its simplicity and seafood, catering our escape to Norway brought out new ideas and enticing recipes to attempt. Chris couldn’t resist trying her hand at gravlax and it was a smashing success ! Cured with salt, sugar, peppercorns, and dill, the sliced salmon was flavorful yet subtle.
Pairing marvelously with traditional mustard dill sauce, minced red onion, and a dribbling of capers, the feast was in running order. Please examine the filigreed handle on the spoon: coincidentally, it says ‘Oslo’ ─ how fitting !
Caraway crackers and rye bread were used as the foundation for the salmon and just look at how gorgeous Anne’s cheese tray was next to my platter of homemade cookies !
We do eat well at our little opera watch parties, that’s for certain ! The table was spread with delicacies from “The Land of the Midnight Sun” with a fanfare of ligonberry napkins serving as a makeshift flower arrangement.
Originally planning to bring a rye flour cardamon yeast bread with raisins, I scrapped that endeavour after the initial test run was a complete flop. I then switched my focus to traditional Norwegian Christmas cookies, like sirupsnippers and coconut macaroons…
Because of my dietary restrictions, I made the cookies with rye flour, coconut sugar, and maple syrup ─ no white flour, no white sugar ! The macaroons were especially artistic with their torched tips of flaked coconut.
When the concert location was announced, there was no hesitation as to what I would wear. Earlier in the year, I had sewn a Norwegian bunad costume for The Flying Dutchman that never was and so I’ve had a skirt and vest laying around the nether regions of my bedroom for months. Now with the perfect opportunity, I wore one of my mother’s blouses (swooping collar turned right side in for greater authenticity) under my sewn additions, which were based off a German dirndl pattern.
The palm trees in the background certainly don’t match the sub-arctic Norwegian landscape, but at least my outfit resembled the North Country. Mission accomplished !
Told by the cut caricatures of the sirupsnipper cookies, the fourth Met Stars Live In Concert event could be summed up as such:
“From the forests of Norway…
…rising star Lise Davidsen brought her talents to a concert…
…broadcast around the world…
…where she won our hearts !“
Hopefully, Lise Davidsen’s return to the Met will be soon; her voice (in addition to her country’s culinary specialties) were delectable !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits
Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen Oscarshall Palace Oslo, Norway Live broadcast date: August 29, 2020 (Date seen: September 2, 2020)
Tragedies have always attracted me. Fully aware that the ending will be sad and the experience will most likely cause some degree of physical and emotional depletion, I still find myself being drawn to the most dramatic literary form like a batty moth to a glaring light. And when one of opera’s most famous tragedies is set to some of the most beautiful, heart-soaring music, the call to attend is heeded without question.
Intriguingly, Madama Butterfly could have been my first opera: glancing over the 2015-2016 Live in HD schedule, I thought it would be a perfect “first-timer” opera since its title is readily on the lips of laymen. But other decisions were made and now stepping into the theater in early April 2016, my opera attendances had now totaled beyond what could be counted on one hand.
So what did I think of Madama Butterfly ? I loved it ! The music was thematic and stunning while the costumes were colorful and imaginative. Also appropriately mimicking the clean, Japanese aesthetic were the sets designed by the late director, Anthony Minghella. Of course, there was heartbreak, but the unwavering balance created by the supporting characters of Suzuki and Sharpless added stability to an otherwise distressing story.
However, my winner of the day goes to Kristine Opolais, who sang Butterfly. What a sublime actress ! Her ability to convey both tenderness and frustration as the unfortunate geisha was unmatched, even though her voice sounds a bit too “hollow” for my liking. If only she and Roberto Alagna (Pinkerton) could have swapped heights… Too many times did I notice Opolais purposefully stooping as she pattered on stage in order to diminish the deficit between her head and that of her leading man’s.
“Now, what to wear…?” Hitherto, I had been able to furnish themed costumes out of accessories in my closets with limited issues. Butterfly was a different story. Not knowing anything about the opera beforehand, I first toyed with the idea of draping a long skirt in a scarf printed with bright butterflies and donning a pair of child’s dress-up butterfly wings… Just as Pinkerton abandoned Butterfly, so I also jettisoned that silly notion.
Desperate for a solution japonaise, I realized I had no other option but to make my own kimono. But where to begin ?! I didn’t even know how to operate a sewing machine ! Determination, however, was stronger than Doubt. Unearthing the old Singer sewing machine, sheathed in dust, from under my mother’s bed, I sat on the floor of my bedroom trying to understand how the machine worked. Turning the hand wheel and observing how and where the needle fell was a fascinating procedure, but I wasn’t gaining ground on my endeavour. Thank goodness for online articles and YouTube ! After many failed attempts at propelling the needle on its journey, something finally clicked and I sewed my first line of stitches. Eureka ! Now to begin the staggering challenge of sewing a yukata…
Keeping my project a secret, I worked late hours in my bedroom following the instructions for a homemade yukata. Astoundingly, I learned and retained more information about kimonos, yukatas, and Japanese geisha culture than I ever imagined. One of the greatest benefits of sewing costumes is the amount of research needed to facilitate an authentic look and therefore, the knowledge gained in the process. Differentiating the method from textbook learning is the hands-on approach that ensures greater retention even after the project is complete. Even now, I can name off all the parts of a kimono and some of the little intricacies of geisha manners.
Nearly all the design aspects of my cotton yukata are traditional (except the contrasting bachi eri, but that’s only because I ran out of the main fabric !). From the ohashori (pouched fabric beneath the obi) to the left-over-right okumi panels (NEVER right-over-left ─ that’s for corpses only !!!!), my yukata was fit for a Japanese festival. I even made a matching kanzashi chopstick hairpiece to tie into the tropical print of the yukata.
Overall, I was proud of my very first sewing project─ wearing my creation to the theater made me feel as if I had conquered an unimaginable feat ! With Madama Butterfly, my taste for tragedy was well satiated. In matters of sewing, my palate had just been whetted.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Madama Butterfly ─ Giacomo Puccini (1904) Live in HD air date: April 2, 2016
Credits: Conductor ─ Karel Mark Chichon Production ─ Anthony Minghella Director and Choreographer ─ Carolyn Choa Set Designer ─ Michael Levine Costume Designer ─ Han Feng Lighting Director ─ Peter Mumford Puppetry ─ Blind Summit Theatre Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Deborah Voigt*
*Matthew Polenzani originally scheduled to host broadcast.
I couldn’t have asked for a better opera for my first outing of Wagner: from Bugs Bunny to WWE wrestler walk-up music, Die Walküre‘s fame and legacy permeates all realms of music and culture. Who hasn’t heard the irresistibly iconic “Ride of the Valkyries” or been amused by the warrior women with braids and Viking helmets ?
Part of an epic tetralogy know formally as “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, Die Walküre explodes with mythological drama and some of the most involving music ever written. Ever since I began attending operas, I’ve always heard mentions of Wagner’s “engrossing” music and how spectators loose track of time while taking in a performance, despite the harrowing length of most of Wagner’s works. Knowing this, I was a little apprehensive about how I would fare at my first Ring opera.
I shouldn’t have been worried ─ I loved Die Walküre and was hooked on the Ring Cycle ! While the layered story dipped into several previous arcs that occurred in Das Rhinegold (the first opera in the tetralogy), I found I was able to keep pace with the action and inevitably slipped into that intoxicating Wagner “trance”. Brutish warriors and incestuous twins aside, there were greatly tender moments as well. The final farewell between Wotan, the flawed God of Valhalla, and his disobedient Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, nearly sent my mascara running !
What is a ‘Valkyrie’ anyway ? In reading up on Norse mythology, I learned how Valkyries were immortal female fighters who aided in the battles among men on earth and safely carried the fallen heroes to Valhalla where they would live and serve Wotan in happiness. Although generally styled as Viking women with horned helmets and long braided pigtails, the Met’s Robert Lepage production has altered the women’s accoutrements to have filigreed chrome wings mounted to diadems and textured skirts of a metallic mylar material. As a costume that would unmistakably smack of cosplay, I set out to replicate the shiny scaled armor bodices and flashy skirts of the Met’s fearless Valkyries.
Sourcing the materials was the first step. Initially, I thought of using a spangle sequin fabric for the chain mail bodice, but decided against it in favor of hand cutting my “scales” out of versatile silver pleather for a more authentic look. In order to use my hot knife on the pleather, I needed a stencil and a sturdy one at that ! A branding pen devours paper like the flames of Brünnhilde’s bridal fire ─ I transferred my paper patterns onto an empty soda can and burned both pleather and black matte satin using their forms.
With long lengths of scalloped scales simultaneously cut and sealed, I sewed them alternately onto a princess bodice I drafted to fit my figure using patterns from the Corset Academy. Wax paper was the saving grace while stitching sticky, scrunching pleather…
Just a note─ I don’t suggest making a lining out of heavy polyester satin, especially if you live in hot and humid climates like I do. While I could quell my mascara from running down my cheek, the sweat down my spine I could not. The bodice was a polyester sauna !
One of the most distinguishing features of the costume was the lofty pair of wings, glinting in the flashes of battle. Using pictorial resources available on the web (particularly, Deborah Voigt’s portrayal), I drew a freehand version of the openwork wing on paper and transferred it onto a thin cardboard cereal box to be spray painted later.
Once the wings were painted, they were affixed to a pleather covered foam diadem. Wrist cuffs out of the same foam/pleather combination anchored the tapered ends of the fishnet mesh sleeves. All that remained was the skirt, which was created from steely stretch taffeta by a series of angled half circles formed into a wrap style. The costume was finished and I was ready to take flight as a Valkyrie !
In spite of the poor choice of lining material, wearing this costume was a thrill ! After all, how many people can claim that they’ve been a Valkyrie ? This outfit also doubled as my Halloween costume for the year and just as at the theater, it sparked otherworldly interest.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Die Walküre ─ Richard Wagner (1870) Live in HD air date: March 30, 2019
Credits: Conductor ─ Philippe Jordan Production ─ Robert Lepage Associate Director ─ Neilson Vignola Set Designer ─ Carl Fillion Costume Designer ─ François St-Aubin Lighting Designer ─ Etienne Boucher Video Image Artist ─ Boris Firquet Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Deborah Voigt
Oftentimes it is the lead female character of an opera which I try to portray in my costumes. Front and center, they usually have all the great arias while dressed in the most beautiful clothes. Although not necessarily a soprano, the prima donna is a personal delight to play. But sometimes it is the supporting actress, the seconda donna, who intrigues me more. Such was the case with Verdi’s Aida.
Egyptian princess. Heir to the throne. Most eligible woman in all the land. Seemingly, Amneris has it all. Yet her one desire ─ the love of the Egyptian warrior, Radamès ─ is denied. Jealousy flames and anger rages towards her slave, Aida, who has ensnared the heart of the princess’s beloved. Because of the meaty musical and acting material given to the mezzo-soprano singing the role, I knew playing Amneris would prove to be lots of fun. Now to plan my costume… but first, a note ─
Typically, I don’t feel comfortable creating a complex opera costume unless my deadline is at least two months in advance. But because of a serious fitting flaw with my gown for Samson et Dalila, my start time for Aida was enormously delayed. So with just a little over three weeks before the October 6th broadcast, I commenced work on my Egyptian ensemble.
Now back to the clothes…
It was a no-brainer. Now was not the occasion for interpretive gowns or my own conjuring of the character. With the Met’s current production spanning in existence for well over 30 years, there was little question as to what I would wear since the production’s costumes are as well-known as the opera itself. A doppelgänger I must be, more specifically, Anita Rachvelishvili’s twin.
Opting to recreate the second of the character’s two outfits, an assessment needed to be made of each component of the costume:
Belt and Sash
Collar and Wrist Cuffs
The plain white cotton shift I could handle. The wonderful historical clothing and costuming website, Fashion-Era, provided helpful diagrams on how to map out my gown pattern, which was nothing more than a large length of broadcloth (double my height) folded in half at the shoulder level (crosswise) and then cut downward at a slant from each side of the shoulder to the corresponding selvedges, like a trapezoid, making sure to allow enough room at the bust and hip levels. Of course, I had a slight miscalculation and had to add gussets to widen the bust area after the first fitting.
The dress was hemmed at the bottom and a decorative Greek Key ribbon, leftover from my gown for Tosca, was sewn onto the sleeve openings to finish the garment.
Next came the piece that would turn the most heads and lower the most jaws: the accordion pleated cape, which was essential to Amneris’s second costume in the opera. Glimmering gold and fragile like paper, I knew tissue lamé would be the perfect material to use for the cape. But how to make a pattern for a pleated cape ? It sounded complicated. I was at a loss… until I stumbled across a children’s sewing pattern for Egyptian costumes on the web…
I know, I know ! It sounds far-fetched and ridiculous to think that a kid’s pattern would be of any personal benefit to a grown adult. Although not the size of a child, I believed this pattern would afford me an excellent advantage in gaining a head start on my cape. No serious math equations for calculating width or number of pleats ─ all that was needed was to extend and enlarge the outlines that were already in place. An ingenious plan had been born. Acting upon the flicker of the figurative mental light bulb, I bought the pattern (in the smaller size set, no less !).
I confess, the steps I took to alter this pattern are blurred in my memory. There were some frustrations during the process, such as the bobbin repeatedly running out of thread during the endless basting, but the finished result was far more potent than expected as I attached the steam-pressed lamé cape with snaps onto the back of the white frock.
Look how the cape falls in a shimmery waterfall down the back ! The sheen is as lustrous as the sun-flecked Nile.
With the cape and the shift under my belt, it was time to move onto the real belt and the standout symbolic sash.
The Belt and Sash
Scrutinizing images like the one above, faux leather seemed to be the obvious choice to create the belt. However, finding it reasonably priced online was a bit difficult due to minimums per order, shipping costs, and negative reviews about the color tinges for some of my favorite options. But while perusing the aisles of Hobby Lobby, I spotted a bolt of bright gold upholstery faux leather, which was perfect for the project. I bought 12 inches and drafted a relatively straight band that arched slightly at the center front. Velcro was used to secure the belt in place. Easy on, easy off !
The sash required more attention.
Hieroglyphic in their composure, the characters on the sash and belt present a story in their design. Thinking at first that I would paint these figures onto more of the broadcloth, I decided against that approach after realizing the appendage’s outcome would be much more effective if I snipped the characters out of scraps of the gold lamé used for the cape. Muted paint is no match for glaring metallic foil fabric ! Carefully studying the symbols, I sketched onto paper each figure and used them as a stencil. Then, after cutting the lamé, the pieces were glued onto the broadcloth sash in replica fashion.
Lamé frays ─ badly ! You can see below how the edges of the cut caricatures are splintering.
But I shouldn’t gripe too much; it is just a costume, after all. I bordered the sash with a long, folded strip of lamé sewn between the face and the lining of the sash. Teal paint added a pop of color to the cotton fabric and then, I was done !
Now that all the accompanying accessories for the base dress were completed, I was ready to take on the more elaborate portions of the costume, mainly the tedious tasks of decoration.
The Collar and the Cuffs
I knew that there would be numerous little trinkets and accouterments to this costume as it needed to resemble the full regalia of ancient Egyptian royalty. But I dreaded the teensy-weensy elaborations to follow. It’s true ─ when much time is spent on one or two dizzying details, I never feel like I’m making progress towards my goals. However, particulars matter, especially when recreating Amneris’s attire and signature style.
While it’s apparent that the gaudy, ostentatious collar worn by the mezzo-soprano in the opera largely consists of strung beads in all shapes and sizes, I did not have the time, resources, or budget to take on such a mammoth job. And so, I did my best to mimic the model piece using more broadcloth, paint, seed beads, and yes ─ lamé !
While Velcro was used on the belt, I preferred hooks and eyes for the collar closure.
Similarly matching were the wrist cuffs, sans lamé. Please notice the eye sewn near the serged edge. Its importance will play a part later…
The Wig and Headband
Initially, my plan to create the hair for the wig was to knit a plethora of black yarn i-cords to attach to some sort of beanie cap. I knitted, and knitted, and knitted ─ both day and night almost ceaselessly. But with time running out faster than Arctic daylight in the winter, I began to seriously rethink my method. Troubled, I grasped for ideas. Then, coming to the rescue once again was the Simplicity child’s costume pattern.
See those wigs ? They were included in the pattern envelope as well. Simply explained, the strands of “hair” were large rectangles of cotton jersey knit fabric, cut into measured strips from both lengthwise sides of the rectangle (but not all the way to the middle !). And then with a tug of each strip… voilà! Deftly furled locks of hair. It was the Monday before the opera and with only 5 days left to complete my heretofore unfinished outfit, I jettisoned the i-cords in favor of the expedient children’s pattern. While the pattern had particular blocks for constructing the wig, I bypassed these since I knew they would be too short for my desired hair length. Haphazardly, I stitched segments of the pulled cotton jersey onto a crocheted cap I had formed earlier.
The gold “beads”, which were dynamic in their effect, were fashioned out of… scrapbook paper ! Who would have guessed ? Thinking logistically of the potential weight of the wig, I reasoned that nearly anything heavier than a feather would be too excessive when multiplied by the number of “beads” needed for the strands of hair. Real beads ─ wooden or plastic ─ were out of the question. Paper seemed the likely solution. So when I chanced upon a gilted crosshatch patterned paper at Hobby Lobby, I said, “Bingo !”
My only regret about the scrapbook paper is that I didn’t buy enough ! Two 12″ x 12″ sheets sliced into ½” strips were not sufficient to wrap the entire mass of coiled knit locks. But alas, it had to suffice.
A latent cobra, poised and ready to strike, was the concluding element to an ensemble crammed full of indispensable details. Would you like to guess where I found its pattern ? Why, yes ! The same children’s pattern that already served me so gallantly on more than one occasion. This time, I only used the head portion of the pattern and slid a wire into its pleather skull along with a small wad muslin for added dimension. With the cobra head completed, it was hot glued to a band of the same faux leather where it sat looking down as ruler and judge.
While most might believe that I finished my costume with plenty of time to spare, such sentiment was untrue. It was late Friday afternoon, the day before the opera, when I unplugged the hot glue gun once and for all, resigning myself to a completed job. A close call, indeed ! All that was needed was exotic make-up and gold sandals whereupon I became Amneris, ancient Egyptian princess, for a cinematic Saturday afternoon.
Remember the eyes on the wrist cuffs ? They were used in conjunction with the hook counterparts attached to the edges of the cape to lift its shiny crimped folds into the sun. Marvelous was its impression.
Although the costume was completed in time for the opera, I have no desire to ever be so pressed to meet a deadline as I was for this project. Talk about stressful ! But there is great moral to this story and that is to never count out a pattern that doesn’t fit the bill at first glance. Deeper inspection and a dose of imagination were all that were needed to turn a child’s costume into an adult’s deliverance.
Hope. Blood. Turandot ! If my first brush with opera in 2015 hadn’t of been so life-altering, Puccini’s grandest spectacle (and final opera) would be the undisputed favorite of my heart. I remember when I first saw the opera in theaters in early 2016: it was the encore showing the following Wednesday evening since I was out of town for the live Saturday matinee broadcast. So monumental was the feeling I had while witnessing the story unfold on stage that when the Met announced that Turandot would be returning to theaters in 2019, I jumped on the affirmative decision faster than a Ferrari at top speed.
Turandot has everything. There’s drama, romance, passion, mystery, sacrifice, joy, and best of all, some of the most heart-pounding, resplendent music your ears will ever hear. The emotional power behind the fearless and triumphant aria, “Nessun dorma”, sends me to the brink of tears while elevating me from my terrestrial state. There are many renditions on the web, but I am especially moved by the English/Italian translation of the Pavarotti performance below. Divine !
As much as I adore the greatest tenor aria ever written (and that is not an exaggeration), my favorite moment in the opera comes during the high-stakes Riddle Scene showdown. Regardless of how many times I’ve seen the opera and know its plot inside and out, I can’t help but think I’ve missed something and fear a fatal slip-up by Calàf. Thankfully, my trepidation is always unfounded.
While this performance of Turandot had its plusses (Eleonora Buratto’s Liù) and minuses (an overly sensitive Calàf), the reigning winner is still Franco Zeffirelli’s magnificent production. Everything from the sets and costumes to the choreography of the chorus is perfectly enacted for an otherworldly experience. The feeling is magical. Your breath is taken away.
Heavily influenced by traditional Beijing Opera, the characters in Zeffirelli’s extant 1987 staging of Turandot are loaded with symbolic make-up, ornate robes, symmetrical cloud collars, and other brightly colored embellishments. As I contemplated the design of my costume for the 2019 Turandot, I had one prerequisite: whatever I wished to make HAD to coordinate with the headpiece I created for my 2016 outing since I was pressed for time (ahem, Manon) and didn’t want to fiddle with the engineering logistics of building a new headpiece from scratch.
With guidelines established, I fashioned my outfit entirely around the color scheme of the headpiece: predominantly gold with LOTS of colorful jewels ! My friend, Judy, snapped this picture during the intermission at the theater:
The brocade robe was self-drafted using only the measurements of the shoulder width and hem diameter. The sleeves were long rectangles folded in half out of the pillowy metallic material and sewn together at the bottom edge.
Creating the cloud collar was not as straightforward. Studying the specimen from the opera, I fiddled with drawing a quartered pattern using a compass as well as freehand curves.
With just a few tweaks, the finalized pattern, which I copied onto newspaper, turned out great ! The full 4 quadrant newspaper replica was then taped to a sheet of thin foam, leftover from my Valkyrie days, and cut from its pliable surface as well as two layers of mustard colored stretch taffeta.
Through trial and error, the separate pattern for the pop-up mandarin collar was finally completed to my satisfaction and applied the foam and taffeta in the same manner.
All that was left was the decoration ! The hot glue gun and I have an on again/off again relationship, but for Turandot, we were most definitely on !
My Chinese robe on the cheap made mefeel like a citizen of Peking attending the riddle ceremony ! Careful, Calàf !
One mention of my shoes… those ballet flats ? Well, they’re not really gold. They’re white. And I bought them specifically to wear with my Empire gown to Tosca in 2018… certainly not Chinese ! But dousing dollars on new shoes for a one-time occasion is not really my style. The level of the flat was right ─ the hem of my robe wouldn’t allow for any height of heel ─ and so I changed their appearance temporarily with gold colored duct tape.
Without question, Zeffirelli’s majestic Turandot is my favorite opera in which to introduce a complete newcomer. Maybe the next time Turandot returns to the Live in HD schedule, you’ll be my first-timer and the spell of Puccini’s score will bewitch you with its undeniable magic.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Turandot ─ Giacomo Puccini (1926) Live in HD air date: October 12, 2019
Cast: Turandot ─ Christine Goerke Calàf ─ Yusif Eyvazov Liù ─ Eleonora Buratto Timur ─ James Morris
Credits: Conductor ─ Yannick Nézet-Séguin Production ─ Franco Zeffirelli Set Designer ─ Franco Zeffirelli Costume Designers ─ Anna Anni, Dada Saligeri Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler Choreographer ─ Chiang Ching Live in HD ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Angel Blue
With a static setting of June 17-18, 1800, how does a stage director erect an enlivened production of Puccini’s Tosca ? When tasked to the capable hands of Sir David McVicar, the opera, no matter the setting, is bound to be a hit. That prediction held true: the Met’s enthralling new production of Tosca was bold and dramatic, pious and perilous.
Although the McVicar production was a huge success, it’s almost unfathomable to believe that the entire principal cast and conductor originally slated to perform bowed out before the first curtain ever ascended. However, the new players were arguably just as effective with tempestuous Sonya Yoncheva and swarthy Vittorio Grigolo igniting passion as the lovers Floria Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi.
Everyone loves a good romance. But for me, the highlight of Tosca is the riveting Te Deum, a processional of hallowed majesty and lascivious scheming. If I had to choose a small handful of favorite lines from all the operas ever written, Scarpia’s blasphemous and ironic pronouncement (“Tosca, you make me forget God !”) would be ranked in the top three. The sacrilegious statement simultaneously occurs with the conclusion of the chorus’ magnanimous hymn of praise… In the middle of a cathedral. During High Mass. Priceless.
Previously mentioned, Tosca is set in 1800, often referred to as the Regency/Napoleonic era in history. I’ll be frank ─ never have I thought the extremely elevated waistlines of empire gowns to be flattering on any woman. The style invariably reminds me of two things: nightgowns and maternity clothes. But, alas ! It was the required look for the opera so I began to contemplate my own gown. While there are a multitude of commercial sewing patterns for Empire/Regency gowns on the market, I chose Butterick 6074 because it appeared more historically accurate and brought the added value of five different pattern options in one envelope. I made a variation of version A.
Nearly every detail of my Empire ensemble was modeled after the simplistic gowns (they must always be called gowns, I learned) worn during the infancy of the 19th century. The sheer train and sleeves, drawstring neckline, and accenting Greek key ribbon at the waistline were all characteristics of the most popular gowns of the day. Pearls and a hair ribbon accessorized my look as well as a shawl from the Orient.
Aiding me in my research were the very helpful articles from Fashion-Era.com and the University of Vermont. These two online resources were invaluable as I often referred to their guidance. Curiously, the gauzy whitework gown worn in Act I of the opera was fairly accurate ─ especially when speaking in terms of theatrical costumes ─ albeit, the short gathered tulle ruffles around the neckline were a mere artistic deviation.
What most people wouldn’t know is that in addition to the floor length gown, I also had to sew a chemise and set of short stays (the corset of the period) to obtain the proper “column” silhouette that was so ubiquitously envied during the Napoleonic Era. In addition to shaping the figure into that of a Grecian statue, the height of the bustline was also raised by the stays. Who would have thought that a few stubby lengths of nylon cable ties and some strategic bust gores could give such heavenly lift ?
Despite my general distaste for women’s clothing of the early 19th century, I gained an… appreciation… for the Empire style and learned the reasoning behind its popularity during the time. Undoubtedly, the greatest advantage to my costuming is the breadth and retention of knowledge that is acquired during my extensive research. While the gowns of early 1800’s were soft and demure, the military battles and civic rivalries during the period made for fiery reading. Perhaps drawing upon history, that same combustible drama was clearly emanated in the verismo verses of Tosca.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Tosca ─ Giacomo Puccini (1900) Live in HD air date: January 27, 2018
Cast: Tosca ─ Sonya Yoncheva Mario Cavaradossi ─ Vittorio Grigolo Scarpia ─ Željko Lučić Sacristan ─ Patrick Carfizzi
Credits: Conductor ─ Emmanuel Villaume Production ─ Sir David McVicar Set and Costume Designer ─ John Macfarlane Lighting Designer ─ David Finn Movement Director ─ Leah Hausman Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Isabel Leonard