Designing a Diva: Dress Inspired by Anna Netrebko

Anna Netrebko is a bona fide diva. She has the pipes to blast the roof off a building, the meticulous technique and luster a good singer could only wish to achieve, and the histrionic ability that could put any Hollywood A-lister to shame. She’s also very beautiful. Aside talent and looks, one of the greatest semblances of a diva is a wardrobe of couture designer gowns and shoes. And Anna Netrebko is no exception !

As the concert for Anna Netrebko neared last summer, my mind was set on creating a true “diva” gown─ something that was as stunning as Anna herself. But where to begin ? Firstly, I browsed online and then on Anna Netrebko’s Instagram account in search of clues. Although she has worn many different styles of dresses, I noticed a reoccurrence of strapless gowns in bold colors and patterns.

Even for her wedding to Yusif Eyvazov in December 2015 Anna chose to wear a strapless gown…

Strapless it is. Now for the colors…

Interestingly, a post on Anna’s Instagram account pointed to the reasoning behind her selection of bright colors for concert and gala gowns: she rarely wears black on stage since it blends in with the orchestra’s attire and the audience wouldn’t be able to see her from afar. Brilliant ! As for me, I had a different motive for choosing colors. I wanted to use up a portion of my fabric “stash” and recalled the bright fuchsia satin I used for my Dalila gown in 2018. The remnants of the hot pink satin totaled to less than 2 yards. A sheath style with high thigh slit seemed inevitable. But what else ? Reaching for other fabrics in my stash, I tested different color combinations until I hit the mark: fuchsia and royal blue ! Since the duo made a mesmerizing pair, the idea of a dramatic lace overlay tickled my fancy. Grab your sunglasses before you read any further !

I purchased 2 yards of both lace and stretch charmeuse satin for the lining (yes, I wanted to use up my stash and not add to it, but sometimes it’s not always possible) and cut my patterns for the strapless sheath with not an inch to spare !

Constructing the lining was straightforward: I interfaced the pieces, sewed on Rigilene boning, added interior lacing panels for the corset, and padded the bust. Time for a fitting !

Enormous, just right, skin tight ─ the dress was a mess ! After all, what’s dressmaking without some mishaps along the way ? Alterations were made and the slit jettisoned: a new silhouette had to created to compensate for the unwalkable bottom half of the dress. A triangular gore was inserted into the back of the dress, but for the lining only ! The idea of a chiffon train floated in my mind…

After tweaking the bodice, it was time for the lace application. I pinned the zipperless gown on my dress form and began the process of manipulating the lace, especially in the bust dart area.

Sew far, sew good ! No, really ─ there was A LOT of sewing with this dress because of the lace. I spent days securing the majority of the motifs onto the pink satin, first “stitched in the ditch” along the princess seams and then elsewhere. Thankfully, I had a great slanted zigzag stitch to use on my Baby Lock machine.
With the upper portion of the dress complete, I repeated the lace application on the lower half of the gown ─ more sewing…!

The wrong side of the face after sewing on the lace

A week later, I sewed on a ruched sash with the help of this tutorial: https://mamamadeit.blogspot.com/2011/03/ruched-satin-taffeta-sash.html Thank you, Mama !
The gathered ends were capped with a folded strip of satin and hooks and eyes were sewn on the underside.

During the last stages of sewing and fitting, I realized the train was unrealistic. For one, I couldn’t squeeze myself into the dress during the final fitting and had to rework the back gore, slashing it into two. Fortunately, I was able to scrounge up enough fuchsia satin in the scrap bag to cut two identical gores. Once they were sewn onto the dress, the fit was better. However, the light and sheer chiffon just didn’t seem like a cohesive match when placed next to the adjacent sturdy and thick guipure lace; elegance is best personified in simplicity.

Despite the rescheduled concert date (February instead of October) the dress was perfectly suited for the mild weather and everything I had hoped for it to be, especially when accessorized with an abundance of pink organza. It was a diva’s dream !

I knew white rhinestones would be my accent color and the shoes were one of my main inspirations. They were last worn to the Pavarotti documentary in 2019. Bling, bling !

The lace was so pretty with its edges peeking above the neckline of the dress. Now, if I only had a big, sparkly diamond necklace to show off…

…like Anna !

Anna Netrebko is a muse for generations to come. And while I cannot compare myself to the caliber of a world-class soprano, my couture concert dress certainly gave me a taste of the fame and fashion of a true diva.

Toi, Toi, Toi,
Mary Martha

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

La Traviata ─ the little red dress

Everyone knows La Traviata. Whether you’re an exuberant opera fan or not, the tuneful music that sets the story of the consumptive courtesan, Violetta, is as recognizable as the Ten Commandments are to a man without Faith. From countless television commercials, to the iconic chick flick, “Pretty Woman”, it’s hardly a secret that Verdi’s 1853 hit left an indelible stamp on the opera world as well as in pop culture.

Going to the opera ─ a scene from “Pretty Woman”

Typically, I strongly prefer to experience an opera set traditionally before ever dipping my toe into the pool of a modern interpretation. But although an abstract production, I still wanted to see La Traviata when it came to theaters. Willy Decker’s stark sets and tuxedoed chorus members stripped the scenes to minimalist proportions. Languoring in a curve of the corrugated circular stage sat an enormous face clock with a latent theme. Was the intent ─ to allegorize Violetta’s time running out ─ effective ? That’s debatable. Unless previously enlightened, the concept was rather abstruse to grasp ─ at least it was for me. However, there was one upside to the bare bones production and that was the adorable little red dress worn by Violetta during the vibrancy of the opera.

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in Willy Decker’s La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Since debuting at the prestigious Salzburg Music Festival in 2005, the production’s scarlet flouncy floral brocade dress has been worn by leading sopranos around the world. From Anna Netrebko to Natalie Dessay, the pictorial research was readily available. Hitherto, my only sewing projects amounted to a yukata sewn for Madama Butterfly and a mop cap for my Hebrew slave costume for Nabucco. To take on a complex dress, I needed a real pattern. And after months of scouring and rumination, I found it !

It’s even red ! McCall’s 6834

With a full pleated skirt and the promise of Palmer and Pletsch fitting, I was elated to begin sewing McCall’s 6834 as my Traviata pattern. But obviously, some alterations needed to be made to elevate the style to the Violetta Valéry standard.

Michael Fabiano as Alfredo and Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

First adjustment ─ the front and back neckline. My goal was a “rounded square scoop” neckline for the front and so I fiddled with whittling down the existing pattern to how I intended it to look. But I needed help, especially with the curve of the back, so I pulled out an old sleeveless dress pattern from my mother’s bulging pattern box and used its pieces for the design of the straps and necklines. So far, so good !

See & Sew by Butterick 6398 / Circa 1988

The dress was a near replica of the one worn in the opera. So uncanny was the resemblance that a nearsighted lady, slowly forging her way towards the concession stand during intermission, came close to bumping into me where she halted and gasped, “You look just like Violetta !” The greatest of all compliments was received.

Because this was my first commercial sewing pattern project, I made many mistakes. My sizing was off and goodness, the rosy polyester satin frayed terribly ! The fibers continued to shed and tickled my bare legs with every step. Carefully, I toddled around the theater in my shiny crimson pumps, allowing a twirl every now and then.

Pondering life’s toughest questions: which party to attend next and with whom ?

The evening encore outing was a moderate success, however I look forward to seeing a more traditional Traviata in the not-too-distant future. Whether in a flouncy red cocktail dress or a grand antebellum ball gown, one thing remains constant: the emotional power and beloved recognition of Verdi’s timeless opera, La Traviata.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Traviata ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1853)
Live in HD air date: March 11, 2017
(Encore seen: March 15, 2017)

Cast:
Violetta Valéry ─ Sonya Yoncheva
Alfredo Germont ─ Michael Fabiano
Giorgio Germont ─ Thomas Hampson

Credits:
Conductor ─ Nicola Luisotti
Production ─ Willy Decker
Set and Costume Designer ─ Wolfgang Gussmann
Associate Costume Designer ─ Susana Mendoza
Lighting Director ─ Hans Toelstede
Choreographer ─ Athol Farmer
Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond
Host ─ Isabel Leonard