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

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.

Becoming Butterfly: the white satin yo-yo kimono

Madame Butterfly represents a “full-circle moment” for me: it was in 2016 that I taught myself to sew when I didn’t have anything in my closets to wear to the movie theater performance of the opera. Seeking anything that gave the impression of an Asian aesthetic, I wound up sewing a cotton yukata, which was the genesis of my sewing passion. New doors had been flung wide open !

Madama Butterfly (2016)

But it wasn’t a cakewalk. Despite the rather traditional manner in which the yukata was fashioned (save the contrasting collar ─ I ran out of tropical fabric !), my interior seams were horrendous ! Because of my previous ignorance of how to properly work a sewing machine, the bobbin threads are bunched and looped into chaotic cocoons, a sign of incorrect tension in hindsight. Although I was ashamed of how slipshod the inside of the yukata turned out, the disappointment was replaced by triumph as I overheard the whispers of a little girl to her mother about the “kimono lady” that silently slipped by in the theater. Priceless !

The novice’s stitches

Over three years later, Puccini’s immortal opera returned to the Live in HD schedule for the 2019-2020 season. I knew I had to go. However, since my sewing skills had improved exponentially, I wanted to create something that was more suited to the Anthony Minghella production’s styling of Cio-Cio-San. A wedding gown was in the works…

A scene from Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

More specifically, a wedding kimono. Like a specter rising from the grave, the gossamer veils that clothe Cio-Cio-San in a milky moonglow is breathtaking. Without fail, I’m enchanted by the first appearance of the geisha climbing up the stairs with her wedding party. With the decision easily made, it was time for the research…

And there was plenty of it !

The aforementioned Minghella production has been a crowd-pleasing staple at the Met since 2006 with a plethora of sopranos playing the title role, from Patricia Racette to Kristine Opolais (who sung the part in 2016), to Hui He, singing in the 2019 Live in HD performance. A simple image search provided up close detailing of the white satin kimono and its sash.

With the success of my tropical print yukata, I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use the same pattern instructions, which worked so well in 2016. Look no further than this helpful site: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~weyrbrat/Japan/yukata/ I have all the pages printed out and stored in a zip top bag for future uses. The instructions are vivid, realistic, and accurate and equip sewers to create their own authentic yukata (or kimono) from scratch. Since I wasn’t aiming to create a historically/culturally accurate garment, I made my own adjustments to the notes and measurements that I wrote down in 2016.

If there was one thing I learned during my time as a Valkyrie, it’s that polyester linings can act as saunas to my skin. Nobody wants sweat rolling down their back and besides, the silvery white charmeuse satin I bought was just a bit too see-through for my liking. It needed a lining ─ and a cotton one at that ! Cotton voile was the perfect choice.

Cotton voile lining and charmeuse satin serged together
The inside of the kimono ─ much cleaner seams than last time !

The construction of the kimono was easy enough, following the instructions as before, and now it was time to focus on the more thought-provoking elements of the costume… the sash and decorations !

The Belt

Theater costumes fascinate me. Not only are they beautiful to look upon, but they also possess the most ingenious tricks for rapid removal without compromising the overall style. Surely, there must be staunchly guarded secrets on how best to employ the illusion.
Instead of cutting a 30′ long strip of fabric and folding it over and over again, I imagined the belt being like a corset with the folded “knot” at the back being analogous to a modesty panel. And so I cut two wide rectangles and fused the the face layer with strips of double sided interfacing since there would be gathered drapes applied to the front.

The lower half of the front of the belt ironed in place while the top half remains unfinished

Have you ever wondered how random drapes are made ? It’s simple and a lot of fun ! Cut a strip of fabric that is at least twice the height of the area that needs to be draped. For example, each horizontal half of my belt measured about 15 cm (for a total width of ~30 cm, top to bottom) so I cut pieces of fabric that were over 30 cm each and stretched the swath side to side, placing pins where the folds and creases looked appealing to me.

Once satisfied, it was time to steam press the folds that were pinned to the fusible web and then, voilà ! Secured drapes ! “Ah, but what are those round starburst “gears” peeking out from beneath the folds ?” you question. Those are called yo-yos, commonly made by quilters and used for handicrafts and decorations.

While they may not be the exact folded form of origami used on costume designer Han Feng’s stunning wedding kimono, I thought the shapes looked very similar to the humble yo-yo and therefore, I began the long and fiddly process of hot knife cutting and hand sewing the yo-yos into their recognized shape. I made hundreds of them !

Pillowy chiffon, shiny satin, bright broadcloth ─ from tiny to giant ─ mingled in a colorful array worthy of the distinction of ‘art’ on their own.

But back to the belt…

With the front portion complete, the lined belt needed to be stuffed with a stiffener so that it wouldn’t crease when sitting. First trying a thick felt, the result was undesirable. What would be stiff, yet pliable…??? Aha ! I remembered the leftover strip of buckram from the ball gown skirt for Manon and raced to find it. It was perfect ! I love when I can reuse materials for different projects.

The leftover buckram from Manon

The thick piece of felt, however, was not without its own fulfillment─ I still needed something stiff for the inside of the faux knot/modesty panel and it was used for this purpose.

Sliding the stiff white felt into the long stretch of fabric for the back “knot”

Two additional panels were made as part of the belt’s meeting closure; their back edges were stitched with Rigilene boning…

…then folded over and stitched in between the bones.

And here’s what the face side looked like afterwards:

Time to punch the grommets ! The belt was nearly complete !

Decoration

My deadline nearing, the wearisome work had begun. While I find it appalling to glue fabric onto clothes, Time sometimes forces me to bend on my tenets. There were many detailed photos on the web of Butterfly’s kimono and belt, but this picture was my guiding diagram when deciding how to arrange the yo-yos:

Maria Zichak as Suzuki and Ana María Martínez as Madame Butterfly / Metropolitan Opera

And so, I glued, and glued, and glued some more… I used two bottles of craft glue on those yo-yos and finally adhered the last one early Friday evening ─ the night before the opera ! Whew !

Progress made, but a mounded pile of yo-yos still to go…

The glue dried with not a moment to spare and the following morning, I suited up in my silky kimono, applied a waxy whiteface, donned a long black wig, and clipped on a red poppy.

I just love that little wooden fan ! Its intricately cut panels remind me of ancient Far East traditionalism… Thank you, Aunt Countess !

The back of the belt held up well despite the futility of the sewn snaps I added onto the overhang. Never doubt the power of a few safety pins, my friends !

I bought the wig and the poppy clip from sellers on eBay and Etsy, respectively…

As much as I desired for the length of the sleeves to be much longer (and therefore, traditional, in that sense), there comes a point of practicality and whether or not I would be comfortable with the ends of my sleeves dragging in the dirt… grazing the dusty pavement of the parking lot… trailing along in the bathroom… NO !!!! Measurements are critical, and determining an appropriate length for the sleeves was no different.

Spreading my “wings”

Who would have guessed that the simple yukata I endeavoured to sew with nothing but gumption and the will to succeed would have bloomed into a passion of sewing costumes for cinematic opera productions ? For all the memories I’ve accrued over the years, I have Madame Butterfly to thank.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Manon Lescaut

With an updated setting of occupied Paris during WWII, the Met’s volatile new production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut brought out the glamour, darkness, and moral ambiguity of film noir. And just as with most Hollywood movies of the 1940’s, drama mottled every facet of Abbé Prevost’s salacious story.
But the most unforeseen action occurred off stage when Roberto Alagna stepped into the leading role of des Grieux with only 16 days to learn the part by memory. His alacrity paid off; he sounded terrific ! He also paired well with the statuesque Kristine Opolais, who, being of an above average height, exchanged her pumps for flats to better suit the abbreviated height of her fill-in des Grieux. How strange it felt to my eye to see a woman in flats in the 1940’s…

Roberto Alagna as des Grieux and Kristine Opolais as Manon Lescaut / Metropolitan Opera

Also confounding my visual perceptions were the distorted sets of Richard Eyre’s production. The swooping stairs that spanned across the stage made me fearful for the chorus members having to maneuver them. However, practice makes perfect and no false steps were made. Whew !

A scene from Sir Richard Eyre’s Manon Lescaut / Metropolitan Opera

While glamour is always a good thing, the overwhelming theme of illicit sex in Manon Lescaut was rather repugnant to me: the throngs of much older men scheming to entrap a young, innocent woman was not my idea of romance. Coupled by the dark overtones of the tumultuous setting, the feeling I had while watching Manon Lescaut was that of bitter cold and dampness ─ I wanted to crawl into a corner and wait for things to pass over ! As such, the opera ended in shambles.

The final scene of Manon Lescaut / Metropolitan Opera

No, I didn’t care for Manon Lescaut. However, there was a silver lining to the new production and that was the swishy skirts and tilted millinery of 1940’s fashion ! If there’s one thing I enjoy more than others, it’s historical fashion and having the chance to experience a different period of clothing and mannerism. Of course, much research goes into my outfits when there’s a specific look I need to emulate, but fortunately I found just the ticket in one of my mother’s old dresses. Since I was a child, I have loved the pink and cream striped dress that has hung in the closet for years and one day when I plucked up the nerve to try it on for size, it fit ! The button loop closures at the waist are my favorite detail.

Pearls were a must as well as an elegant chignon, but I needed something more to aid in the cause… a hat was the likely choice. Thankfully, I was able to borrow a darling fascinator complete with birdcage veil ─ it was perfect for my desired look ! Without it, I wouldn’t have felt near the woman of the 40’s as I did while peeking through its tiny mesh windows. Now if only I had had a decent pair of pumps…

Thank you, Aunt Belinda !

I may not care whether I see Manon Lescaut ever again, but I do wish another occasion would arise for feminine fashion of the Forties !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Manon Lescaut ─ Giacomo Puccini (1893)
Live in HD air date: March 5, 2016

Cast:
Manon Lescaut ─ Kristine Opolais
Des Grieux ─ Roberto Alagna
Lescaut ─ Massimo Cavalletti
Geronte ─ Brindley Sherratt

Credits:
Conductor ─ Fabio Luisi
Production ─ Sir Richard Eyre
Set Designer ─ Rob Howell
Costume Designer ─ Fotini Dimou
Lighting Designer ─ Peter Mumford
Choreographer ─ Sara Erde
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Deborah Voigt