My first Puccini opera… what a thrill ! Posthumously premiering in 1926, Turandot feels more like a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale than an Italian opera ─ a haughty princess, arduous riddles, and a mysterious suitor sheltering a life-or-death secret all lead to a storybook outcome. Having heard the praises of Puccini (and the exulting melody of “Nessun dorma”), I was more than ready to attend the encore of Turandot in early 2016. I even unfurled my reproduction poster for the occasion !
Only Franco Zeffirelli could create the spectacular setting of Turandot. Still a Met favorite from when it debuted in 1987, the sets and choreography shine as brightly as the music itself. When the stage darkens during the scene change in Act II, the resulting lapse rewards the spectator with a breathtaking display of an ancient Chinese palace.
Even more exhilarating was the famed Riddle Scene. Although I had read the synopsis and knew the correct answers to the enigmatic questions posed by the tyrannical princess, I still suffered from a classic case of head-to-toe goosebumps as Calàf won the hand of the hitherto unattainable Turandot. The victor’s salivating looks of desire and the fingering of the princess’s silky mantle were too seductive for words. My heart was aflutter !
Here I must opine… As the audience anticipates the much beloved “Nessun dorma” in Act III, I couldn’t help but wish for a supplemental scene prior to the big aria of a frazzled Turandot, pacing in her bedchamber with her servants while racking her brain as to what the stranger’s name could be… I think it would have added another dimension to the desperate drama.
Nevertheless, I adored the opera and everything about it: the treacherous secret (which cost Liù her life), the surrender to love, the happy ending ─ what’s not to like about Turandot ?
“Chinese” is not a style typically engendered by my closets. However, there was something I could manufacture in order to convey the right amount of dynastic imperialism… While Zeffirelli’s sets are extraordinary, the costumes in Turandot are just as jaw-dropping, especially the ostentatious headpieces worn by the titular character. My goal was to create my own unique headpiece that was as visually stunning as it was logistically sound. Browsing ideas for Turandot headpieces, Birgit Nilsson’s ornate costume from 1961 was my favorite and became the inspiration for my own creation.
Before creation could begin, some engineering chicanery needed to occur since there were many obstacles in the way of the perfect head accessory. Just imagine ─ wearing the headpiece in the car on the way to the opera, leaning back on the headrest of the seat in the theater, potentially blocking someone’s view of the screen, etc. Using a basic headband as the foundation for the headpiece, I took measurements of height and width from the top and sides of my head in order to avoid any damages to the headpiece (and theater patrons) while realistically evaluating how tall and wide I could reasonably fashion the accessory. There was also the ‘weight’ component to contemplate: when the entire superstructure is built off a cheap headband, the overall weight of the headpiece needed to be kept to a minimum. Keeping this in mind, I used bamboo skewers for the tall, emanating stakes and was careful to select materials that doubled as both fashionable and functional.
Decorated in sequins, rhinestones, and beads, a healthy spray painting of gold helped turn an ordinary cereal box and plain wooden skewers into a dazzling work of art.
Although my closets lacked chinoise appeal, I still tried my best to create a Chinese-themed outfit: a monochromatic red turtleneck and pants proved a reliable choice for the chilly February evening while the vibrant scarf I bought at the Port Authority in New York was just the right pop of color to match the headpiece’s prismatic brilliance.
The pre-work engineering paid off: I was able to ride to the theater with the finial just barely clearing the headliner of the car. And even though I accidentally bumped into the dark corridor on the way to my seat, no one was injured in the process, including the headpiece.
From Birgit Nilsson to Franco Zeffirelli, Puccini’s final opera is a fountain for artistic pleasure. Turandot may have been my first Puccini opera, but it certainly won’t be my last !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Turandot ─ Giacomo Puccini (1926) Live in HD air date: January 30, 2016 (Encore seen: February 3, 2016)
Cast: Turandot ─ Nina Stemme Calàf ─ Marco Berti Liù ─ Anita Hartig Timur ─ Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Credits: Conductor ─Paolo Carignani Production ─ Franco Zeffirelli Set Designer ─ Franco Zeffirelli Costume Designers ─ Anna Anni, Dada Saligeri Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler Choreographer ─ Chiang Ching Live in HD Director ─ Barbara Willis Sweete Host ─ Renée Fleming
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