It may be apparent by now that I am an alliteration advocate. As much as I try to suppress my affection, there’s just something about starting a succession of words with the same alphabetical letter that tickles my fancy. Inadvertently, my new summer creation was an alliterative delight: a striped seersucker shirtdress !
Here’s how it began…
Originally purchasing this pattern to sew for a new Met production of Die Zauberflöte (which was subsequently canceled), it sat shelved, along with the yards of white chambray linen I bought for the project, without a hope except for the fact that I did very much like the pattern.
The idea of sewing a shirtdress never strayed too far from my mind, but it wasn’t until an issue of “Julie’s Picks” swatch club popped in the mail that the romanticized idea rose to the forefront as a planned reality. Could it have been a coincidence that the pattern suggestion for a dandy red stripe cream seersucker be none other than the McCall’s (reprinted as Butterick) shirtdress pattern I bought for the scrapped Met project ? Whether you believe in coincidences or not, I had my sign: I was making the dress !
With this pattern being a Palmer and Pletsch design with extensive fitting instructions, I spent a good week perfecting the fit with the adjustment lines on the pattern tissue. My only substantial tweak was taking out ½ inch at the shoulder blade level to eliminate a gaping armhole in the back.
I wish there would have been more fitting tips besides the most common ones because I then needed to alter the sleeve pieces to compensate for the reduced armhole length. The attempt was in vain. As a result, my sleeve cap was gathered more than I had intentioned…
But, no matter !
The dress (a combination of Views C and D) turned out in tip top fashion and gave me the feel of a 1950’s waitress/housewife. I especially love the red “jelly” buttons that appear like hard candies on the peppermint stripe cotton.
I loved nearly everything about this dress: the American made fabric, the fit, the retro vibe, the color scheme… the list goes on. And while it wasn’t imperative that its descriptors start with the same letter, the fact that my striped seersucker shirtdress was an alliterative creation was just the icing on the cake.
Devilish and cunning, the rakish Don Giovanni swept into town. His words beguiling and gestures disarming, his reputation carried more than a frown. And now with his fellow, by name, Leporello, he made his latest attempt. For poor Donna Anna, betrothed to Don Ottavio, could offer only contempt. It was her elderly father of nobility’s blood that came to her rescue at once, But “too little, too late” was the defense and at sword’s jab the man fell like a dunce.
With conquests left to behold, the Don ran after the rustling skirt. If only he knew that the scorned Elvira would turn his life into trodden dirt; A crusade and mission urged her on and from town to town she flew, Warning the women (and most likely victims) of what they unknowingly knew. From peasant to princess, no one was safe from Giovanni’s philandering curse. Now to the banquet of happiest couple, shouldn’t I try to keep this terse ?
Zerlina succumbed; Masetto enraged, he gathered together a mob, To pluck from the earth the sly and brazen cad of unholy, calamitous job. Backed in a corner, his person in peril, the man of misbehavior in doubt; He swapped into clothes of his hapless friend (turned foe) and escaped without a shout. His pursuits still vulgar, his actions unchanged, could the villain ever be stopped ? A walk in the graveyard, perhaps the evening repast, could render the charges be dropped.
Remember the man, called “Commendatore”, who departed with last breath spent ? His ghost revived in chiseled stone with the dire last call of “Repent !” But the obstinate rake refused to relinquish his grips on feminine flesh, With no other choice, the floors agape, the hellish flames swallowed his body afresh. The vermin extinguished, the story could end, but here’s the final sitch ─ When Mozart’s to blame, one should expect a lesson for both the poor and rich.
What should I wear, I asked myself, to an opera of class shown about ? For distinctions are clear between master and slave, the truest of nobles and the notable lout. Mozart’s maidens are timeless and fair regardless of rank or style of their hair; From Anna, Elvira (both Donnas, you see), to lowly Zerlina, her dress with a tear. Baffled and miffed, I wrestled with such: for whom to portray, which one of the doves ? A closet of merit should cater to all, but given the choice, pass me the gloves !
A lady who’s worth her virtue at all must harbor her secrets from the presence of all, But since I’ve managed to rhyme thus far, why not divulge both big and small ? The golden tank of consignment birth, resurfaced from outings of drawer-bound dearth; Yes, it’s true how much it is used, from Indian sari to Desdemona’s innocent mirth. Demure was the purse, deluxe the skirt (whose waist was pinned after a bout of torque), And best of all, this I confess, a velvet shawl from the Port Authority in New York.
What are those dots, which catch the eye, and bring to sight a glimmering shine ? To keep at bay the disheveling wind, a thought ─ an act ─ must supplant the crowning line. When a lady needs to look her best, she never leaves home with her hair in a mess; Aristocracy gave need for address, for women of rank needn’t accept anything less. And now with my hooks and needles aflight, a snood I fashioned with all of my might─ Yarn of alpaca to match the hue of my hair and beads of pearl knotted on tight.
Prim and proper, my hair was corralled like a breath-beaten filly who’s had it with crowds. Accented with jewelry and earrings of gold (and let’s not forget the gloves of renown), The outfit was ready to make its debut for all of them who bought tickets to view, The opera, a gem for Mozart’s raptly devote, which escapes the feelings of only a few; It’s part of that limited group to which I submit: with Mozart, I’m often not “over the moon”, But the Don was persuasive, unscrupulous, too; no lady immune: all I could do was swoon !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Don Giovanni ─ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1787) Live in HD air date: October 22, 2016
Cast: Donna Anna ─ Hibla Gerzmava Donna Elvira ─ Malin Byström Zerlina ─ Serena Malfi Don Ottavio ─ Paul Appleby Don Giovanni ─ Simon Keenlyside Leoporello ─ Adam Plachetka Masetto ─ Matthew Rose The Commendatore ─ Kwangchul Youn
Credits: Conductor ─ Fabio Luisi Production ─ Michael Grandage Set and Costume Designer ─ Christopher Oram Lighting Designer ─ Paule Constable Choreographer ─ Ben Wright Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond Host ─ Joyce DiDonato
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…
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 !
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.
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…
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,
Cast and Credits:
Manon Lescaut ─ Giacomo Puccini (1893) Live in HD air date: March 5, 2016
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
“All women are like that…” so says the cynical Don Alfonso to his naïve friends as he demonstrates the fickleness of the fair sex… But is the assumption ─ that women are bound to stray from their lovers if given the chance ─ an accurate claim ?
While sometimes considered outdated for modern society, Mozart’s piquant comedy about the test of fidelity through trickery was nothing but a delight to me. Lesley Koenig’s picturesque production was understated and elegant and the cast was just as pretty, especially the two lovestruck sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, played by Susanna Phillips and Isabel Leonard. With their dark brown hair and fair complexions, it wasn’t a stretch to believe them to be blood relatives.
Their fiancés were adorable. Ferrando and Guglielmo (such strange names in this opera ─ Fiordiligi, Guglielmo…) were so smitten with the sisters that their giggles and giddiness reminded me of teenage boys with their first crush. Even while disguised as Arab sheikhs their bubbling enthusiasm for their sweethearts couldn’t be stifled.
The thalassic score accompanied the harmonious singing like a sigh floating on a breeze and the lighthearted moments of comedy were balanced with some introspective seriousness. If I had one complaint about Così, it’s that it’s a tad too long: I walked out of the theater just after 11 p.m. from a 7 p.m. start time. However, the decision to travel over an hour and a half to catch the summer encore of Così fan tutte was well worth the late evening drive.
Since Così is a cute, zany opera, I thought a dress of a similar description would be the perfect outfit for the summer encore. Best of all, I didn’t have to look beyond my mother’s closet for the answer. Like me, my mother used to sew many of her clothes and thankfully she has kept nearly all of her dresses and jumpers from the 1970’s and 80’s. One of my favorites is the black and white polka dot dress with dropped waist and puff sleeves that fits me well. I even found the original pattern in the worn, bulging cardboard pattern box… Dress #2 at the bottom of the envelope was obviously the intended look my mother desired…
Keeping it classy with pearls, long gloves, and a ladylike chignon, I was decked out for the escapades of Mozart’s Battle of the Sexes.
The opera’s finale was a happy one and the men married their betrothed. But back to the all important question: were the women faithful to their fiancés ? No. Did I care ? Hardly ! All’s well that ends well ─ the opera was too charming not to forgive and forget.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Così fan tutte ─ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1790) Live in HD air date: April 26, 2014 (Encore seen: July 21, 2016)
Cast: Ferrando ─ Matthew Polenzani Guglielmo ─ Rodion Pogossov Fiordiligi ─ Susanna Phillips Dorabella ─ Isabel Leonard Don Alfonso ─ Maurizio Muraro Despina ─ Danielle de Niese
Credits: Conductor ─ James Levine Production ─ Lesley Koenig Set and Costume Designer ─ Michael Yeargan Lighting Designer ─ Duane Schuler Stage Director ─ Robin Guarino Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Renée Fleming
The opera that catapulted Handel to stardom in 1709 certainly didn’t appear to possess any of the typical semblances of its Ancient Rome setting. TV news reporters, business suits, smartphones, and rather raunchy physical comedy could all be taken in during the Live in HD performance of Sir David McVicar’s staging of Agrippina.
So why did I decide to attend ? After all, I don’t like modern productions… or do I ?
A course taken on 18th-Century Opera from edX the previous summer softened my ossified resolve on the idea of attending a Baroque opera in a Y2K setting. It was worth a shot… and that shot was fired with poignant accuracy─ I laughed harder than I have ever laughed at any opera, nearly falling out of my seat on innumerable occasions ! The antics were well-timed, especially from Joyce DiDonato’s saucy Agrippina and her hellion son, Nerone, played to utmost perfection by a tattooed, skinny jean wearing, cocaine snorting Kate Lindsey in a trouser role.
As a scintillating counterpart to the opera’s R-rated comedy, the singing was sublime. With many scenes being accompanied only by the deft strings of maestro Harry Bicket’s harpsichord, the singers were exploited for their talent and technique alone, which was all the more appreciated after the insightful edX course.
The question remains to be asked: was the radical redux of the Met’s oldest opera in the repertoire worthy of my stalwart traditionalism ? Resoundingly, yes ! Call it sacrilege if you please, but if Agrippina had been staged in its original setting of the infancy of A.D. history, I think it would have been an absolute snoozefest ! Sorry, Handel.
Realizing the modern-dress style of the opera could very well lead into a fashionable sewing project, I envisioned a specific mode ─ an overall perceived attitude ─ for the styling of my outfit: Italian couture. Fittingly, Agrippina is centralized in Rome and while Ancient Rome is a completely different entity from the country of Italy in existence today, I still couldn’t resist aligning the two nations in my quest for haute couture. Perusing pictures and watching video clips from previous renditions of the same McVicar production (extant since 2000), I chose to model my outfit after the Agrippina standing on the stairs in the picture below.
Up close, the blazer was not just one solid color; it was subtlety patterned in a diamond motif. Satin first popped into my mind until I spotted the perfect fabric, which arrived in one of my monthly swatch club mailers from Fabric Mart Fabrics.
To sew my very first blazer, I used a PDF pattern from Lekala. Although not without flaws, I learned in strides how coat construction comes together. Styled with a “business bun”, Whiting and Davis purse (my mother’s), cat eye sunglasses, and gobstopper pearls (thank you, Aunt Countess !), I was poised to take on the world in sleek, corporate couture fashion.
The classic, Chanel-esque cocktail dress, which employed pattern and alteration techniques from the Corset Academy, was the perfect base garment for my “cutthroat corporate” ideal. Here was my inspiration dress:
The ponte knit dress was customized with a mesh upper lining and built-in underwire bra…
Did I mention this was an Italian couture outfit ? Everything, from the damask weave crepe challis wool of the blazer to the black ponte knit of the cocktail dress, was sourced from Italy.
Italian couture and a ruthless Roman matriarch… a match made in heaven ? You be the judge ! The taste for high-end fashion and the delicious vocalities of Handel’s breakout opera left me as hungry as the titular Empress herself, salivating over her next scheme.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Agrippina ─ George Frideric Handel (1709) Live in HD air date: February 29, 2020
Cast: Agrippina ─ Joyce DiDonato Nerone ─ Kate Lindsey Poppea ─ Brenda Rae Ottone ─ Iestyn Davies Pallante ─ Ducan Rock Claudio ─ Matthew Rose
Credits: Conductor ─ Harry Bicket Production ─ Sir David McVicar Set and Costume Designer ─ John Macfarlane Lighting Designer ─ Paule Constable Choreographer ─ Andrew George Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Deborah Voigt
With a static setting of June 17-18, 1800, how does a stage director erect an enlivened production of Puccini’s Tosca ? When tasked to the capable hands of Sir David McVicar, the opera, no matter the setting, is bound to be a hit. That prediction held true: the Met’s enthralling new production of Tosca was bold and dramatic, pious and perilous.
Although the McVicar production was a huge success, it’s almost unfathomable to believe that the entire principal cast and conductor originally slated to perform bowed out before the first curtain ever ascended. However, the new players were arguably just as effective with tempestuous Sonya Yoncheva and swarthy Vittorio Grigolo igniting passion as the lovers Floria Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi.
Everyone loves a good romance. But for me, the highlight of Tosca is the riveting Te Deum, a processional of hallowed majesty and lascivious scheming. If I had to choose a small handful of favorite lines from all the operas ever written, Scarpia’s blasphemous and ironic pronouncement (“Tosca, you make me forget God !”) would be ranked in the top three. The sacrilegious statement simultaneously occurs with the conclusion of the chorus’ magnanimous hymn of praise… In the middle of a cathedral. During High Mass. Priceless.
Previously mentioned, Tosca is set in 1800, often referred to as the Regency/Napoleonic era in history. I’ll be frank ─ never have I thought the extremely elevated waistlines of empire gowns to be flattering on any woman. The style invariably reminds me of two things: nightgowns and maternity clothes. But, alas ! It was the required look for the opera so I began to contemplate my own gown. While there are a multitude of commercial sewing patterns for Empire/Regency gowns on the market, I chose Butterick 6074 because it appeared more historically accurate and brought the added value of five different pattern options in one envelope. I made a variation of version A.
Nearly every detail of my Empire ensemble was modeled after the simplistic gowns (they must always be called gowns, I learned) worn during the infancy of the 19th century. The sheer train and sleeves, drawstring neckline, and accenting Greek key ribbon at the waistline were all characteristics of the most popular gowns of the day. Pearls and a hair ribbon accessorized my look as well as a shawl from the Orient.
Aiding me in my research were the very helpful articles from Fashion-Era.com and the University of Vermont. These two online resources were invaluable as I often referred to their guidance. Curiously, the gauzy whitework gown worn in Act I of the opera was fairly accurate ─ especially when speaking in terms of theatrical costumes ─ albeit, the short gathered tulle ruffles around the neckline were a mere artistic deviation.
What most people wouldn’t know is that in addition to the floor length gown, I also had to sew a chemise and set of short stays (the corset of the period) to obtain the proper “column” silhouette that was so ubiquitously envied during the Napoleonic Era. In addition to shaping the figure into that of a Grecian statue, the height of the bustline was also raised by the stays. Who would have thought that a few stubby lengths of nylon cable ties and some strategic bust gores could give such heavenly lift ?
Despite my general distaste for women’s clothing of the early 19th century, I gained an… appreciation… for the Empire style and learned the reasoning behind its popularity during the time. Undoubtedly, the greatest advantage to my costuming is the breadth and retention of knowledge that is acquired during my extensive research. While the gowns of early 1800’s were soft and demure, the military battles and civic rivalries during the period made for fiery reading. Perhaps drawing upon history, that same combustible drama was clearly emanated in the verismo verses of Tosca.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Tosca ─ Giacomo Puccini (1900) Live in HD air date: January 27, 2018
Cast: Tosca ─ Sonya Yoncheva Mario Cavaradossi ─ Vittorio Grigolo Scarpia ─ Željko Lučić Sacristan ─ Patrick Carfizzi
Credits: Conductor ─ Emmanuel Villaume Production ─ Sir David McVicar Set and Costume Designer ─ John Macfarlane Lighting Designer ─ David Finn Movement Director ─ Leah Hausman Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Isabel Leonard
Set in a modern day Ceylon, the Met’s new revival of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles was a delightfully exotic romance of uncharacteristic story standards. Penny Woolcock’s production perfectly mingled the secular with the sacred, the grime with the gilt, and enchanted me from start to finish. The shanty fishing village with its rickety cardboard and tin hovels added a realistic element to the production as did the mix of costumes on the chorus members: while some were dressed in filthy baseball caps and torn overshirts, others bedecked themselves in saris and turbans, just as Southeast Asian tradition dictates.
This opera was a beautiful escape from start to finish. The music perfumed the theater and left a trailing scent as the curtain descended. I especially loved the enchanting tenor/baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint”.
While the romance of The Pearl Fishers may have started as a typical opera love triangle, the ending was anything but conventional: the man who kept his promise and was faithful to his honor lost everything and the traitorous one, escaping death with the defiled priestess, made out like a bandit. All elements combined, I loved this opera so much that I went to see the encore showing the following Wednesday.
My outfit is one crafted from my closet. Modeling in front of my bedroom mirror, I experimented with different scarves and skirts to come up with an Indian subcontinent look. Layer upon layer the outfit built itself into a makeshift “sari” that was instantly recognizable by its onlookers. (Weeks after The Pearl Fishers encore, I once again stepped into the far off theater location for the encore showing of Turandot. There I was greeted with inquisitive queries from strangers of vague familiarity: “Were you the one dressed as the Indian the last time ?”)
Of course, I knew I needed to accessorize with gobs of pearls in every shape and size, but also rings of topaz and bangles of gold. The crowning touch was my matha patti headpiece, which was reworked from a cheap, broken necklace.
I think my favorite aspects of this outfit are the ones that came from far away lands ─ the teal and aqua fringed pashmina wrap was bartered at a local market in Afghanistan while the cowrie shell necklace traveled from Tanzania (thank you, Uncle Kim, for the precious gifts !). Just think ─ the shells around my neck came from the Indian Ocean, just like the pearls in the opera !
Toi, Toi, Toi, Mary Martha
Cast and Credits:
Les Pêcheurs de Perles ─ Georges Bizet (1863) Live in HD air date: January 16, 2016
Cast: Leïla ─ Diana Damrau Nadir ─ Matthew Polenzani Zurga ─ Mariusz Kwiecien Nourabad ─ Nicolas Testé
Credits: Conductor ─ Gianandrea Noseda Production ─ Penny Woolcock Set Designer ─ David Bird Costume Designer ─ Kevin Pollard Lighting Designer ─ Jen Schriever Projection Design ─ Fifty Nine Productions Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond Host ─ Patricia Racette