How much do I love Puccini’s final opera, Turandot ?
I own two complete recordings, which I listen to very often…
…have a poster in my room…
…and it has been rumored to be true that I’ve flown out of my bedroom like a bat when the sound of someone singing “Nessun dorma” on a television in an adjacent room wafted its way to my ear during the early part of slumber.
Yes, I love Turandot ─ the music, the armrest-gripping drama, the fiery passion all wrapped up in a splendid love story for the ages. It never gets old… neither do the chills and goosebumps I inevitably feel whenever listening to the opera. While these factors are not conducive to healing from adrenal fatigue, the liability never stops me from attending a performance, regardless of the cast.
Oddly, Turandot is one of the few operas that is not entirely dependent on the merits of the four principal leads (at least to me, anyway !). Rather, having an exceptionally vibrant chorus and a taut and affecting conductor on the stand makes the real difference. With that in mind, the orchestra and chorus shone as the brightest stars during this run of Franco Zeffirelli’s magnificent production. But a mention should be made of the principal singers… instruction in Acting 101 would have been advisable for most of them. The icy princess was truly frozen and the blind man was discovered to be only intermittently blind as he readily anticipated his steps and conversations before they had begun. Oops ! Despite some hiccups, they were mostly rendered moot: the opera is always a winner !
Zeffirelli’s Turandot production is a landmark. It’s so powerful in its impact on audiences that it’s been in existence at the Met for over 30 years. Why mess with perfection ?! This was the attitude I adopted as I contemplated what I would wear for Turandot 2022. When I created my costume for Turandot 2019, I didn’t think I could top it. It’s glitzy, dramatic, and oh so Chinese. I didn’t see a reason why it shouldn’t be worn again. So that’s just what I did.
One element I tweaked for this particular Turandot was opting to wear my long black wig, which I donned for Madama Butterfly in 2019. With it, I felt even more like ‘la Principessa altera.’
This may have been my third trip to the theater to see Puccini’s posthumous piece, but I highly doubt I will ever become jaded by the opera. Festive excitement builds as the 100th anniversary of its premiere approaches in 2026. And I already have plans for a poster-inspired outfit to celebrate !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits
Turandot ─ Giacomo Puccini (1926) Live in HD air date: May 7, 2022
Cast: Turandot ─ Liudmyla Monastyrska Calàf ─ Yonghoon Lee Liù ─ Ermonela Jaho Timur ─ Ferruccio Furlanetto
Credits: Conductor ─ Marco Armiliato Production ─ Franco Zeffirelli Set Designer ─ Franco Zeffirelli Costume Designers ─ Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler Choreographer ─ Chiang Ching Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Nadine Sierra
My pastor once referred to the plot of La Bohème as “the hippies in Paris.” And after catching a past Met performance of La Bohème on TV one evening, I had to agree. Rebellion against authority, communal living, and starving artists flood the stage with the modes of their free-spirit culture. While one of the most popular operatic works, which has influenced a host of artistic projects outside of opera houses (i.e Rent), I was not initially won over by the loose morals of “The Bohemians”. However, my indifferent attitude did not prevent me from taking the trip to the theater when a fresh cast mounted the open garret of Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic 1981 production. “I’ll give it another chance…” I reasoned.
The pairing of Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabiano felt like an old photograph stuffed into an album presently displaced. They looked familiar, but where had I seen them…? Oh, yes─ in La Traviata just a year earlier. However, their wigs and wardrobes had changed drastically from the days of suits and satin sundresses.
Did my second viewing of La Bohème transform my opinion of Puccini’s lovable opera ? Not particularly. While anticipating my favorite melodies (I judge a soprano by the number of goosebumps on my body when listening to “Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì”) was an entertaining highlight, I still wasn’t as emotionally moved by the plot as I had hoped. Perhaps the third time will be the charm…
There are times when an opera costume should be interpretive. This was not one of those occasions. No, I knew from the instant I decided to make plans for attending La Bohème that I would dress head to toe as either Mimì or Musetta. Since the more recognizable of the two is the former, and since masquerading as the latter would throw me into a mid-season panic of having to sew something from scratch, I threw in my chips for Mimì. The dishwater blue frock ─ so iconic to Zeffirelli’s sickly sweet Mimì ─ could easily be mimicked with the blue chambray dress in my mother’s closet.
But it needed more…
The original dress, which is from the 1970’s or 80’s, hit at the mid-calf level, but this was too short for the floor length skirts of the 1830’s. I remedied my malady with a matching chambray ruffle, which I attached to the bottom hem of the dress.
Now I needed the shawl… Mimì is nothing without her crocheted shawl ! A plethora of images from past Met performances guided me when choosing a pattern…
I devised my own border scheme based on the production pictures and with a pair of lace gloves and upswept hairstyle… voilà─ Mimì !
“Yes, they call me Mimì”… at least they did at the theater that day ! It’s always fun to replicate the style of a character to the nth degree and Mimì was a relative breeze. Although I’m not counted among the lovers of La Bohème, I’m certain that Puccini’s tunes will draw me back again someday. But next time, I plan to chart a new course for my costume… look out, Musetta, I’m coming for you !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
La Bohème ─ Giacomo Puccini (1896) Live in HD air date: February 24, 2018
Cast: Mimì ─ Sonya Yoncheva Rodolfo ─ Michael Fabiano Musetta ─ Susanna Phillips Marcello ─ Lucas Meachem Schaunard ─ Alexey Lavrov Colline ─ Matthew Rose Benoit/Alicindoro ─ Paul Plishka
Credits: Conductor ─ Marco Armiliato Production ─ Franco Zeffirelli Set Designer ─ Franco Zeffirelli Costume Designer ─ Peter J. Hall Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler Revival Stage Director ─Gregory Keller Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond Host ─ Kelli O’Hara
“The dynamic husband-and-wife duo of tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak give a concert of arias and duets, accompanied by string quintet, from an outdoor terrace in Èze, France, with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean.”
Two for the price of one ? A string quintet ? A château on the French Riviera ? Count me in ! If the description for the third installment of the Met Stars Live in Concert initiative wasn’t appealing already, the set list for Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna’s concert was the icing on the cake. Favorites from Puccini and Verdi seamlessly mixed with adorable folk songs from Mexico and Italy, all richly accompanied by the Vienna Morphing Quintet. Below is an abbreviated video of highlights from the concert:
Aside from being a technical feat, the vistas overlooking the pelagic Mediterranean Sea were arresting. Several times during the concert, I found my eyes floating over the floral garlanded railing to espy sleek motor yachts and nearby barrier islands as Aleksandra and Roberto charmed me with their singing and effortless chemistry. Their intuitive camaraderie led to dynamic and touching duets, which also included an overflowing dose of mirth. In what is rapidly becoming the duo’s calling card, the hilarious “love potion” duet from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore involved a clever prop and crafty English ad libs ─ I was rollicking with laughter watching the two perform !
There were more serious moments as well with Aleksandra singing Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” followed by a melting rendition of the love duet from Otello, in which the darkening sky serendipitously played a role in one of the final lines. Singing “The Pleiades are low in the heavens”, the pair turned to face the azure sky and motioned to the stars just as they were beginning to illuminate. Chills !!!!
The concert locale, above all else, provided the best (and most straightforward) watch party theme: Rolling on the Riviera. Provence, with its uniqueness of sights and senses was the central inspiration behind our small gathering at Chris’s home. Each of us chipped in to make the get-together unforgettable. Jayne knew of a terrific French sparkling rosé wine while I was elated to try out Ina Garten’s Provençal Potato Salad, which was chocked full of Provençal ingredients: black olives, capers, haricot verts, cherry tomatoes, scallions, red onion, lots of fresh herbs, flaked tuna, hard cooked eggs, and anchovies. The freshness was equivalent to lounging on a sun-soaked beach chair with the sea mist brushing across your face. In the words of Ina Garten, “How bad can that be ?” The salad is so gorgeous that it was featured as the cover image on the original Barefoot Contessa cookbook from 1999.
I highly recommend the wine and the niçoise-inspired potato salad for an instant summer getaway.
Anne sure knows how to arrange a cheese platter ! Roquefort, Boursin, and Brie, oh my ! And of course, my favorite prosciutto…
Even Chris, our gracious hostess, made blackberry sorbet to be accompanied with chocolate covered French cookies. Bon appétit !
Imagine partaking in a leisurely promenade along one of the coastal towns of the Riviera… what would you wear ? For me, the answer was obvious: beach pajamas !
Made popular in the 1930’s, beach pajamas (or pyjamas) were all the rage on the Riviera where the rich and famous would rendezvous. Women would wear flowy fabrics with grace, oftentimes to dressier occasions spanning into the evening hour. Casual and comfortable, while still oh-so chic, I knew I wanted to sew a set of these beloved beach clothes.
Seeking a two piece style, I contemplated designing my own set until I came across a FREE pattern online from Gertie’s Charm Patterns brand. With a complete sew-a-long tutorial on YouTube showing the details of making the pajamas, the pattern was just right for my needs. With this being my very first “Gertie” pattern, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found that the pattern was accurately sized with differing cup sizes for an even better fit.
Using a soft rayon challis I bought in June from Julie’s Picks swatch club mailer, I paired it with an equally sumptuous berry-colored material from Fabric Mart’s gorgeous selection of rayon/nylon shimmer satins. Softness and style united as one.
I loved wearing my 1930’s beach pajamas to what transpired as a joyous afternoon in Provence. From the cliffs of Èze to the rolling hills of central Florida, the pleasures of the French Riviera were abundant ─ an uplifting concert, delicious food, and lively conversation… what could be finer ?
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
Met Stars Live in Concert: Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna Château de la Chèvre d’Or Èze, France Live broadcast date: August 16, 2020 (Date seen: August 20, 2020)
Aleksandra Kurzak ─ soprano Roberto Alagna ─ tenor
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
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.
Is there anyone who doesn’t love Jonas Kaufmann ? He’s handsome, personable, full of charisma, and one of the greatest tenors to date. When it was announced that Jonas would be headlining the Met’s new concert initiative, how could I resist the opportunity to see the spectacular tenor perform ? For the cost of $20, one could be treated to an intimate and breathtaking performance with the craveable comforts of home. It was to my delight when my dear friend, Chris, invited me over to view the event on her mega screen TV, fully equipped with augmented surround sound.
Broadcast live from the historic Polling Abbey in the tenor’s native region of Bavaria, the recital was stunning, as was the sacred setting. With songs ranging from popular Puccini favorites to more obscure operatic selections (like Ponchielli), Kaufmann dazzled with his attention to vocal detail and tempered interpretation of the music. Particularly moving was piano accompanist Helmut Deutsch’s rendition of the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut and the engaging aria “Un dì all’azzuro spazio” from Andrea Chénier. Of course, my favorite has been and will always be “Nessun dorma”, which never ceases to thrill me.
If I could have changed anything about the format of the concert, I would have preferred to have heard more songs and less “filler” that was injected into the program after every couple of numbers ─ it’s not difficult to find and watch snippets of Jonas’s past Met Opera performances on YouTube ! Personally, it would have been more meaningful to me if there had been a series of short, sit down interviews with Kaufmann and Deutsch that had been previously recorded specifically for this concert, giving insight into the songs, the challenges (if any) of performing without an audience, etc. This addition would have made the pay-per-view price well worth the cost in terms of value.
Given the opportunity to dress up, I will take it ! And since I was going to attend a concert for the esteemed Jonas Kaufmann, why shouldn’t I look my best ? Nothing in my closets tickled my fancy and I was coincidentally distraught that a lining material I had ordered for another project was regrettably unusable for its purpose. However, I had an idea. Instead of hording the unfit fabric in a closet for years, crossing my fingers that I would eventually find a use for it at some indeterminable point down the road, I decided to make a “mock-up” dress of the untested pattern for which I originally bought the too-bright lining material.
Pressed for time, I completed the dress in a weekend. Although there were minor fitting issues with the pattern, I was pleased with the final result ! Styled in classy and chic fashion, I paired my new ruched dress with monochromatic stockings and heels and accented the look with gold jewelry. Don’t be deceived by the pictures─ neither the purple material nor the vanda orchid are nearly as blue toned as in the photos.
A new dress for the event was only the start. Chris planned to serve wine and cheese for the gathering and I wanted to bring some “themed” food for the festivities. Since Kaufmann is from Bavaria and the concert was taking place in Bavaria, what better dessert to bring than my great-grandmother’s beloved Bavarian Apple Torte ?
Shingled with sliced almonds to shelter the cinnamon apples and cream cheese filling cohabiting beneath, the torte was a hit ! Another supplement of mine, a chilled bottle of Riesling wine which had been awaiting its moment of glory for many years in the refrigerator, was supple and sweet.
The sliced salami, prosciutto, and capicola were right up my alley ! I’ll never reject dry-aged salted meats !
All that was needed was a smattering of brie on a tangy sourdough rye cracker…
…and the sharing of laughter among friends. Who said classical music was stuffy ? Take me at my word: when Jonas Kaufmann is the subject of conversation and critique, there’s plenty to discuss !
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits
Met Stars Live in Concert: Jonas Kaufmann Polling Abbey Polling, Bavaria Live broadcast date: July 18, 2020 (Date seen: July 27, 2020)
When you think of the American Wild West, what comes to mind…? Cowboys ? Rocky mountains and perilous cliffs ? The California Gold Rush ?
What about Italian opera ?
Puccini’s stirring masterpiece, La Fanciulla del West, wrangled together the landscape and romance of one of America’s greatest periods in history into an absolutely captivating production. The opening score swept with vastness and virility, like the opera’s elusive anti-hero, Dick Johnson, played by an even more elusive Jonas Kaufmann. I had waited years to finally catch Kaufmann in a Live in HD performance (he had previously backed out of both Manon Lescaut and Tosca) and I was ready for my due !
I loved nearly everything about this opera: the wholesome heroine, the realistic production setting, the old-fashioned romance, and the wily game of 5 card draw. I laughed, I didn’t cry, I swooned. In fact, I found the opera and production so endearing that I went to see the encore the following Wednesday !
What struck me as so poignant in this opera was how the librettists wove the theme of the opera around a line of Scripture from Psalm 51: “there isn’t a sinner in the world who can’t find salvation.” Little did I know that that passage would play an enormous role later in the opera as the title heroine, Minnie, saved Dick from being publicly hung. The effect was monumental.
There was no doubt that my outfit for Fanciulla would come direct from my mother’s closet. Wearing an unworn dress my mother bought at the Mast General Store in North Carolina years ago (the tag was still on it), I had a solid foundation for my costume. The diminutive flower print and lace detailing around the collar and sleeves were fitting features to match Minnie’s simplistic and pure character.
Alone, however, it wasn’t enough ─ it needed something extra… something “Little House on the Prairie”… I researched online and found a picture of a pioneer apron that I thought would be perfect for the outfit. Taking measurements, I drafted a quick pattern for a ruffled muslin apron with front pockets just like the one below:
Now I looked the part ! But there was a missing piece to my frontier get-up ─ the addition of Minnie’s favorite companion: her rifle. This was essential to the character and also to my pictures, although you can imagine I left the gun at home while I went to the theater.
Ready, aim, fire !
While it is a known fact that Dick Johnson stole Minnie’s first kiss, it can also be confirmed that the tenderness of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West stole my heart.
Toi, Toi, Toi,
Cast and Credits:
La Fanciulla del West ─ Giacomo Puccini (1910) Live in HD air date: October 27, 2018
Cast: Minnie ─ Eva-Maria Westbroek Dick Johnson ─ Jonas Kaufmann Nick ─ Carlo Bosi Jack Rance ─ Željko Lučić Sonora ─ Michael Todd Simpson Ashby ─ Matthew Rose Jake Wallace ─ Oren Gradus
Credits: Conductor ─ Marco Armiliato Production ─Giancarlo del Monaco Set and Costume Designer ─ Michael Scott Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson Host ─ Susanna Phillips
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
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