Boris Godunov

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.

A scene from Boris Godunov / Metropolitan Opera

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…

Folkwear 128 Russian Settlers’ Dress

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,

Mary Martha

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

Rusalka

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…

The forest sprites in Rusalka / Metropolitan Opera

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 !

Kristine Opolais (center) in a scene from Act II of Rusalka / Metropolitan Opera

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 !

Kristine Opolais as Rusalka and Jamie Barton as Ježibaba / Metropolitan Opera

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:

Remember this, Aunt Countess ?

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…

Rusalka costume discussion / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Kristine Opolais in Act I of Rusalka / Metropolitan Opera

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,

Mary Martha

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

Die Zauberflöte ─ The Queen of the Night

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.

Charles Castronovo as Tamino and Golda Schultz as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Marcus Werba as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte / Metropolitan Opera

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,

Mary Martha

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

Porgy and Bess

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.

Angel Blue as Bess and Eric Owens as Porgy in Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

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.

A scene from Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

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.

A scene from Porgy and Bess / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Nicole Campbell as Bess and Nmon Ford as Crown in English National Opera’s Porgy and Bess

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.

Cotton stretch poplin and coordinating pocket lining material with block heel sandals

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,

Mary Martha


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

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen

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.

Lise Davidsen performing at Oscarshall Palace with James Baillieu accompanying / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu performing at Oscarshall Palace in Oslo, Norway / Metropolitan Opera

The Cuisine

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 !

From left to right: Danish blue, Jarlsberg, and Havarti with dill

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.

You wish you were here with me !

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.

The Clothes

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,

Mary Martha

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)

Lise Davidsen ─ soprano
James Baillieu ─ piano

Madama Butterfly (2016)

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.

The opening pantomime from Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

“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.

Madame Butterfly ? Not quite…

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…

Inspiration while working on my yukata: cruise line travel brochures !

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.

Kanzashi hairpiece and obi tied into a bow

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,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Madama Butterfly ─ Giacomo Puccini (1904)
Live in HD air date: April 2, 2016

Cast:
Cio-Cio-San ─ Kristine Opolais
Pinkerton ─ Roberto Alagna
Suzuki ─ Maria Zifchak
Sharpless ─ Dwayne Croft

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.

Die Walküre

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.

Jamie Barton as Fricka, Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre / Metropolitan 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 !

Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre / Metropolitan Opera

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.

A scene with the Valkyries: Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Eva-Maria Westbroek as the Wälsung, Sieglinde / Metropolitan Opera

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…

Wax paper stitched on top of the 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 !

Bodice lined, boned, and topstitched along seams

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.

Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde / Metropolitan Opera
The paper wing stencil

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.

“Hojotoho !”

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Die Walküre ─ Richard Wagner (1870)
Live in HD air date: March 30, 2019

Cast:
Brünnhilde ─ Christine Goerke
Sieglinde ─ Eva-Maria Westbroek
Fricka ─ Jamie Barton
Siegmund ─ Stuart Skelton
Wotan ─ Greer Grimsley
Hunding ─ Günter Groissböck

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

Amneris ─ from broadcloth to Egyptian glamour in less than a month

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.

Anna Netrebko as Aida and Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris in Aida / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris / Metropolitan Opera

Opting to recreate the second of the character’s two outfits, an assessment needed to be made of each component of the costume:

  • Dress
  • Cape
  • Belt and Sash
  • Collar and Wrist Cuffs
  • Headband
  • Wig

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.

Triangular gusset added to the side seams of the dress under the sleeve

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…

Simplicity 2329

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.

The baste stitching left small pinprick holes along the edges of each pleat.

Look how the cape falls in a shimmery waterfall down the back ! The sheen is as lustrous as the sun-flecked Nile.

Psst ! How many opera costumes can you spot and name in this picture ? Hint: there are 8 costumes in total.

With the cape and the shift under my belt, it was time to move onto the real belt and the standout symbolic sash.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris in Aida / Metropolitan Opera

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 !

Some say that I’m “overkill” ─ the costume belt was lined and serged like a semi-couture garment.

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 !

The front of the collar
Up close detailing of the collar

While Velcro was used on the belt, I preferred hooks and eyes for the collar closure.

Whoops ! One of the hooks snagged my serging !
The back of the collar. The lamé reflects the light brilliantly !

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.

Again ! Simplicity 2329

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.

Yarn stretches. I learned this during the opera when I found the wig sliding off my head ! A band of elastic needed to be sewn around the inside of the bottom edge of the cap.

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 !”

Paper beads ? Check ! Hot glue strings ? Check !

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.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Turandot (2019)

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 !


Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun dorma” (video: MeastroPava4Ever)

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.

Christine Goerke and Yusif Eyvazov in Turandot / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Yusif Eyvazov and Christine Goerke in Turandot / Metropolitan Opera

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.

The headpiece worn to Turandot in 2016

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 Turandot “death stare”… Thank you, Judy !

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.

Drafting the cloud collar

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.

Pattern cut from newspaper

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.

Finalized Mandarin collar pattern

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 !

Thank you for the fan, Faith !

My Chinese robe on the cheap made me feel 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,

Mary Martha

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

Tosca

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.

A scene from Act III of Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Vittorio Grigolo as Mario Cavaradossi and Sonya Yoncheva as Floria Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Željko Lučić as Scarpia (far right) during the Te Deum of Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Butterick 6074

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.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca and Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi / Metropolitan Opera

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 ?

Regency chemise and short stays

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,

Mary Martha

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