Long before I ever started dressing up in costume for the operas, I spent much of my Septembers and Octobers surreptitiously slaving away in my small bedroom on my Halloween costume for the year. Unsurprisingly, Halloween is my favorite holiday ─ not because of witches and ghouls and black and orange décor, but simply because I have always loved dressing up.
In the spirit of the season, I thought I would share some of my past outfits.
Before learning to sew on a machine, I had to rely on tape, garbage bags, and old sheets to create costumes. In 2013, newspaper was my material of choice…
I went as “Old News” ─ quite literally since all the newspaper used was out of date before the 31st dawned. This costume was well worn: in all, I slipped on the tiered skirt and laced up the “corset” bodice 7-8 times during the season. Thankfully, it never rained.
I love history. It’s an engaging escape for my antiquarian imagination. I also love to learn about the famous (and infamous) characters in history. Not knowing exactly what inspired it, I chose to be Marie Antoinette in 2014. The peruke and panniers were a crafting feat; both were constructed from plastic grocery bags and toilet paper rolls, but that’s where the similarities ended. Long stretches of white cotton were carefully hot glued to the cardboard “curlers” of the wig and then given a misting of watered gray paint. I crocheted the hairy tendrils. For years I kept the safety pinned skirt of tulle and sheets in a desolate drawer… until I realized that I was never going to wear flimsy cardboard panniers again and my mother wanted her sheets back. “Let them eat cake !”
In the same month that I was introduced to my first opera, my family went on a cruise ! Who would have thought that that cruise would wipe out 2½ months of social activities ? Yes, I came down with a horrible illness during the tail end of the trip that caused me to miss Tannhäuser in HD and Halloween 2015…
A Gold Rush Girl by day, Cleopatra’s doppelgänger by night… it was a whirlwind Halloween.
Brünnhilde the Valkyrie… Is there anything spookier than a mythical being whose primary purpose is to decide who lives and dies in battle and gathers up the fallen heroes to haul them to Valhalla ???
And just in case you’re wondering, I left my axe at home for the evening…
In all my years of dressing up, I don’t think I ever disguised myself as a princess; maybe a witch in a long, black gown or Miss America, but never a princess. The plush pink 1890’s ball gown from Manonwas my outlet for elegance and grace, living out every little girl’s fantasy.
Clearly my long-time love of dressing up has played a starring role in my life. The only question left is… what will I wear this Halloween ?
Tragedies have always attracted me. Fully aware that the ending will be sad and the experience will most likely cause some degree of physical and emotional depletion, I still find myself being drawn to the most dramatic literary form like a batty moth to a glaring light. And when one of opera’s most famous tragedies is set to some of the most beautiful, heart-soaring music, the call to attend is heeded without question.
Intriguingly, Madama Butterfly could have been my first opera: glancing over the 2015-2016 Live in HD schedule, I thought it would be a perfect “first-timer” opera since its title is readily on the lips of laymen. But other decisions were made and now stepping into the theater in early April 2016, my opera attendances had now totaled beyond what could be counted on one hand.
So what did I think of Madama Butterfly ? I loved it ! The music was thematic and stunning while the costumes were colorful and imaginative. Also appropriately mimicking the clean, Japanese aesthetic were the sets designed by the late director, Anthony Minghella. Of course, there was heartbreak, but the unwavering balance created by the supporting characters of Suzuki and Sharpless added stability to an otherwise distressing story.
However, my winner of the day goes to Kristine Opolais, who sang Butterfly. What a sublime actress ! Her ability to convey both tenderness and frustration as the unfortunate geisha was unmatched, even though her voice sounds a bit too “hollow” for my liking. If only she and Roberto Alagna (Pinkerton) could have swapped heights… Too many times did I notice Opolais purposefully stooping as she pattered on stage in order to diminish the deficit between her head and that of her leading man’s.
“Now, what to wear…?” Hitherto, I had been able to furnish themed costumes out of accessories in my closets with limited issues. Butterfly was a different story. Not knowing anything about the opera beforehand, I first toyed with the idea of draping a long skirt in a scarf printed with bright butterflies and donning a pair of child’s dress-up butterfly wings… Just as Pinkerton abandoned Butterfly, so I also jettisoned that silly notion.
Desperate for a solution japonaise, I realized I had no other option but to make my own kimono. But where to begin ?! I didn’t even know how to operate a sewing machine ! Determination, however, was stronger than Doubt. Unearthing the old Singer sewing machine, sheathed in dust, from under my mother’s bed, I sat on the floor of my bedroom trying to understand how the machine worked. Turning the hand wheel and observing how and where the needle fell was a fascinating procedure, but I wasn’t gaining ground on my endeavour. Thank goodness for online articles and YouTube ! After many failed attempts at propelling the needle on its journey, something finally clicked and I sewed my first line of stitches. Eureka ! Now to begin the staggering challenge of sewing a yukata…
Keeping my project a secret, I worked late hours in my bedroom following the instructions for a homemade yukata. Astoundingly, I learned and retained more information about kimonos, yukatas, and Japanese geisha culture than I ever imagined. One of the greatest benefits of sewing costumes is the amount of research needed to facilitate an authentic look and therefore, the knowledge gained in the process. Differentiating the method from textbook learning is the hands-on approach that ensures greater retention even after the project is complete. Even now, I can name off all the parts of a kimono and some of the little intricacies of geisha manners.
Nearly all the design aspects of my cotton yukata are traditional (except the contrasting bachi eri, but that’s only because I ran out of the main fabric !). From the ohashori (pouched fabric beneath the obi) to the left-over-right okumi panels (NEVER right-over-left ─ that’s for corpses only !!!!), my yukata was fit for a Japanese festival. I even made a matching kanzashi chopstick hairpiece to tie into the tropical print of the yukata.
Overall, I was proud of my very first sewing project─ wearing my creation to the theater made me feel as if I had conquered an unimaginable feat ! With Madama Butterfly, my taste for tragedy was well satiated. In matters of sewing, my palate had just been whetted.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Madama Butterfly ─ Giacomo Puccini (1904) Live in HD air date: April 2, 2016
Credits: Conductor ─ Karel Mark Chichon Production ─ Anthony Minghella Director and Choreographer ─ Carolyn Choa Set Designer ─ Michael Levine Costume Designer ─ Han Feng Lighting Director ─ Peter Mumford Puppetry ─ Blind Summit Theatre Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Deborah Voigt*
*Matthew Polenzani originally scheduled to host broadcast.
Madame Butterfly represents a “full-circle moment” for me: it was in 2016 that I taught myself to sew when I didn’t have anything in my closets to wear to the movie theater performance of the opera. Seeking anything that gave the impression of an Asian aesthetic, I wound up sewing a cotton yukata, which was the genesis of my sewing passion. New doors had been flung wide open !
But it wasn’t a cakewalk. Despite the rather traditional manner in which the yukata was fashioned (save the contrasting collar ─ I ran out of tropical fabric !), my interior seams were horrendous ! Because of my previous ignorance of how to properly work a sewing machine, the bobbin threads are bunched and looped into chaotic cocoons, a sign of incorrect tension in hindsight. Although I was ashamed of how slipshod the inside of the yukata turned out, the disappointment was replaced by triumph as I overheard the whispers of a little girl to her mother about the “kimono lady” that silently slipped by in the theater. Priceless !
Over three years later, Puccini’s immortal opera returned to the Live in HD schedule for the 2019-2020 season. I knew I had to go. However, since my sewing skills had improved exponentially, I wanted to create something that was more suited to the Anthony Minghella production’s styling of Cio-Cio-San. A wedding gown was in the works…
More specifically, a wedding kimono. Like a specter rising from the grave, the gossamer veils that clothe Cio-Cio-San in a milky moonglow is breathtaking. Without fail, I’m enchanted by the first appearance of the geisha climbing up the stairs with her wedding party. With the decision easily made, it was time for the research…
And there was plenty of it !
The aforementioned Minghella production has been a crowd-pleasing staple at the Met since 2006 with a plethora of sopranos playing the title role, from Patricia Racette to Kristine Opolais (who sung the part in 2016), to Hui He, singing in the 2019 Live in HD performance. A simple image search provided up close detailing of the white satin kimono and its sash.
With the success of my tropical print yukata, I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t use the same pattern instructions, which worked so well in 2016. Look no further than this helpful site: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~weyrbrat/Japan/yukata/ I have all the pages printed out and stored in a zip top bag for future uses. The instructions are vivid, realistic, and accurate and equip sewers to create their own authentic yukata (or kimono) from scratch. Since I wasn’t aiming to create a historically/culturally accurate garment, I made my own adjustments to the notes and measurements that I wrote down in 2016.
If there was one thing I learned during my time as a Valkyrie, it’s that polyester linings can act as saunas to my skin. Nobody wants sweat rolling down their back and besides, the silvery white charmeuse satin I bought was just a bit too see-through for my liking. It needed a lining ─ and a cotton one at that ! Cotton voile was the perfect choice.
The construction of the kimono was easy enough, following the instructions as before, and now it was time to focus on the more thought-provoking elements of the costume… the sash and decorations !
Theater costumes fascinate me. Not only are they beautiful to look upon, but they also possess the most ingenious tricks for rapid removal without compromising the overall style. Surely, there must be staunchly guarded secrets on how best to employ the illusion. Instead of cutting a 30′ long strip of fabric and folding it over and over again, I imagined the belt being like a corset with the folded “knot” at the back being analogous to a modesty panel. And so I cut two wide rectangles and fused the the face layer with strips of double sided interfacing since there would be gathered drapes applied to the front.
Have you ever wondered how random drapes are made ? It’s simple and a lot of fun ! Cut a strip of fabric that is at least twice the height of the area that needs to be draped. For example, each horizontal half of my belt measured about 15 cm (for a total width of ~30 cm, top to bottom) so I cut pieces of fabric that were over 30 cm each and stretched the swath side to side, placing pins where the folds and creases looked appealing to me.
Once satisfied, it was time to steam press the folds that were pinned to the fusible web and then, voilà ! Secured drapes ! “Ah, but what are those round starburst “gears” peeking out from beneath the folds ?” you question. Those are called yo-yos, commonly made by quilters and used for handicrafts and decorations.
While they may not be the exact folded form of origami used on costume designer Han Feng’s stunning wedding kimono, I thought the shapes looked very similar to the humble yo-yo and therefore, I began the long and fiddly process of hot knife cutting and hand sewing the yo-yos into their recognized shape. I made hundreds of them !
Pillowy chiffon, shiny satin, bright broadcloth ─ from tiny to giant ─ mingled in a colorful array worthy of the distinction of ‘art’ on their own.
But back to the belt…
With the front portion complete, the lined belt needed to be stuffed with a stiffener so that it wouldn’t crease when sitting. First trying a thick felt, the result was undesirable. What would be stiff, yet pliable…??? Aha ! I remembered the leftover strip of buckram from the ball gown skirt for Manon and raced to find it. It was perfect ! I love when I can reuse materials for different projects.
The thick piece of felt, however, was not without its own fulfillment─ I still needed something stiff for the inside of the faux knot/modesty panel and it was used for this purpose.
Two additional panels were made as part of the belt’s meeting closure; their back edges were stitched with Rigilene boning…
…then folded over and stitched in between the bones.
And here’s what the face side looked like afterwards:
Time to punch the grommets ! The belt was nearly complete !
My deadline nearing, the wearisome work had begun. While I find it appalling to glue fabric onto clothes, Time sometimes forces me to bend on my tenets. There were many detailed photos on the web of Butterfly’s kimono and belt, but this picture was my guiding diagram when deciding how to arrange the yo-yos:
And so, I glued, and glued, and glued some more… I used two bottles of craft glue on those yo-yos and finally adhered the last one early Friday evening ─ the night before the opera ! Whew !
The glue dried with not a moment to spare and the following morning, I suited up in my silky kimono, applied a waxy whiteface, donned a long black wig, and clipped on a red poppy.
I just love that little wooden fan ! Its intricately cut panels remind me of ancient Far East traditionalism… Thank you, Aunt Countess !
The back of the belt held up well despite the futility of the sewn snaps I added onto the overhang. Never doubt the power of a few safety pins, my friends !
I bought the wig and the poppy clip from sellers on eBay and Etsy, respectively…
As much as I desired for the length of the sleeves to be much longer (and therefore, traditional, in that sense), there comes a point of practicality and whether or not I would be comfortable with the ends of my sleeves dragging in the dirt… grazing the dusty pavement of the parking lot… trailing along in the bathroom… NO !!!! Measurements are critical, and determining an appropriate length for the sleeves was no different.
Who would have guessed that the simple yukata I endeavoured to sew with nothing but gumption and the will to succeed would have bloomed into a passion of sewing costumes for cinematic opera productions ? For all the memories I’ve accrued over the years, I have Madame Butterfly to thank.
Arguably the most heartbreaking of all operas, Madama Butterfly fully represents one of the key reasons why I love opera so much: it unearths emotions in me that I rarely feel otherwise. One cannot help but be mortally affected by the tragedy of the teenaged geisha as she bestows complete faith in a foreigner she has never laid eyes upon to be her wedded husband. Characteristically of Puccini, the score sweeps with valor and brings forth some of opera’s most emblazoned moments, culminating in the painfully hopeful aria “Un bel dì”, which nearly brings tears to my eyes.
Although I had seen this same Anthony Minghella production in 2016, I couldn’t resist going back a second time when it returned to theaters. In a dramatic twist, a relatively unknown tenor, Bruce Sledge, jumped into the leading role of Pinkerton with just 2 days notice and stunned ─ at least, vocally. His acting was heinous, but it was to be expected with hardly any rehearsal time. I would love to see him again when he has more time to prepare. His potential was tremendous !
One of the fundamentals of the much-adored Minghella production is the use of traditional Japanese Bunraku puppets, most notably as Butterfly’s 3-year-old son. While it’s mesmerizing to watch three veiled men in the shadows maneuver the head, hands, and feet of the wooden child, I felt that some of the attention to detail in regards to the physicality of the puppet had diminished since seeing the 2016 performance: the child toddled not as often as before and relied more frequently on being held by his mother.
This was just one detail that aided in the feeling of something being amiss. Although I can’t quite put my finger on it, this particular performance lacked a chemistry and fire that is so needed for a convincing Butterfly. Still, I enjoyed the opera ─ and the visually stunning production ─ nonetheless. It is Puccini, after all.
She’s a geisha, yes. But more significantly, Cio-Cio-San is Madame Butterfly─ as in, a married woman. The centrifugal moment of the opera, which triggers all the dominoes to fall, is the marriage ceremony between Butterfly and Pinkerton. Climbing up the glossy stage while accompanied by her wedding party in bright regalia and corrugated fans, the silken white figure of Cio-Cio-San is a breathtaking sight to behold. This was exactly the look I wished to emulate with my costume.
With exactly a month before the opera, I commenced work on a replica kimono that I hoped would give credence to the character. An abounding bevy of varying satin “yo-yos” were cut and hand sewn together as the key ornamentation of the robe, which was quite comfortable since it was lined in a thin cotton voile. The logistical challenge of creating the obi (sash) and faux drum knot was another story, but for now we’ll just say it was adequate for its brief stint at the theater. My lovely friend, Judy, captured a photo of the back of the outfit during intermission.
Raven black wig, red poppy affixed, and yards of silvery white satin summoned to mind the ancestral artistry of the Met’s Minghella Madame…
With properly applied white face, a dab of rouge, and ruby red lipstick, I felt every bit the geisha for Cio-Cio-San’s wedding day. The pantomime was complete !
While the marriage between Butterfly and Pinkerton resulted in undue catastrophe, the afternoon at the opera was a carefree delight. Should you ever be proposed with the choice of attending a heartrending performance of Madama Butterfly, there should be only one reply in return… I do !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
For more information on how I created Cio-Cio-San’s signature wedding kimono, please check out my tutorial post !
Cast and Credits:
Madama Butterfly ─ Giacomo Puccini (1904) Live in HD air date: November 9, 2019
Cast: Cio-Cio-San ─ Hui He Pinkerton ─ Bruce Sledge* Suzuki ─ Elizabeth DeShong Sharpless ─ Paulo Szot
*Replaced Andrea Carè
Credits: Conductor ─ Pier Giorgio Morandi Production ─ Anthony Minghella Director/Choreographer ─ Carolyn Choa Set Designer ─ Michael Levine Costume Designer ─ Han Feng Lighting Designer ─ Peter Mumford Puppetry ─ Blind Summit Theatre Live in HD Director ─ Habib Azar Host ─ Christine Goerke