Otello

It was an easy decision. After my spellbinding first opera experience with Il Trovatore, I couldn’t wait to shell out another $24 at the ticket booth for a following Verdi tragedy 2 weeks later, Otello. Intriguingly, it was Otello that jumped out at me the most when viewing the Live in HD schedule in the summer of 2015: the drama based on Shakespeare’s play could have easily been my first opera. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Aleksandrs Antonenko in a promotional photo for Verdi’s Otello / Metropolitan Opera

Bartlett Sher’s production, with frosted Lucite walls that were supposed to be a spoof from a quote by Verdi’s librettist about enclosing Otello in a glass house, mimicked frozen blocks of ice rather than the intended domicile of transparency. They were cold, lifeless, and ineffective from my point of view.

Željko Lučić as Iago in Otello / Metropolitan Opera

The cast was decent with a liquid Željko Lučić and a piercingly chill Sonya Yoncheva (fitting for the icy production), but I felt Otello suffered from an identity crisis: with his clothing and styling (not to mention his lack of blackface) just as drab as all the secondary characters and chorus, there was nothing to distinguish him among the throngs of people on stage. Shouldn’t he have looked more… Moorish ?

Dmitri Pittas (far right) as Cassio and Aleksandrs Antonenko (center) as Otello / Metropolitan Opera

While Desdemona’s final “Muoio innocente” was moving, I was left underwhelmed by the overall performance. Still, my exuberant, newfound interest in opera was undeterred by this small nick in the grand scheme of things.

Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Otello / Metropolitan Opera

Dressing up for my first opera was almost as much fun as seeing the performance itself. There’s something vicarious and invigorating about feeling fancy as if you, yourself, are a part of the opera by the clothes you choose to wear. To my second opera, however, I wanted to “theme” my outfit for the sunny Venetian locale of Otello and Desdemona’s spotless disposition. “Something golden, something demure…” I mused.

Othello Relating His Adventures to Desdemona

The scarves and skirts of my closet were paraded in breezy seaside style as I toyed with layering and softly blending color schemes. I used my standby gold tank top, which I wore to Il Trovatore, and slipped on a long white linen skirt. Then the fun began. A metallic gold thread woven through the pinky-peach and cream striped scarf gave glints of gentility and coastal charm. When I tied its fringed ends together into a loose side knot, the effect was just right… at least for an outfit made from scarves and skirts !

A pair of lace gloves (thank you, Aunt Countess !), antique gold rings (such a faux pas when worn with gloves ─ fie, me !), and just the right assortment of necklaces and earrings helped me feel right at home as Desdemona. Do I look as if I’m about to be strangled ?

I styled my hair in a “twisted sections pinned up and back” sort of style. Nothing fancy, but very elegant when clipped together with a gold flower hair accessory.

An outfit for free, a better-than-front-row-seat ticket for $24… Enjoying the thrills of opera and the emulation of one of Shakespeare’s most virtuous heroines doesn’t have to be a ship-sinking occasion. If only the production of Otello had fared better…

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Otello ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1887)
Live in HD air date: October 17, 2015

Cast:
Otello ─ Aleksandrs Antonenko
Desdemona ─ Sonya Yoncheva
Iago ─ Željko Lučić
Emilia ─ Jennifer Johnson Cano
Cassio ─ Dmitri Pittas
Roderigo ─ Chad Shelton
Lodovico ─ Günther Groissböck
Montano ─ Jeff Mattsey
A herald ─ Tyler Duncan

Credits:
Conductor ─ Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production ─ Bartlett Sher
Set Designer ─ Es Devlin
Costume Designer ─ Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer ─ Donald Holder
Projection Designer ─ Luke Halls
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Eric Owens

La Bohème ─ Mimì

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.

Matthew Rose as Colline, Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard, and Lucas Meacham as Marcello in La Bohème / Metropolitan Opera

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…

A scene from La Bohème / Metropolitan Opera

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.

A staple from my mother’s closet ─ her blue dotted chambray dress with lace

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…

Here’s the pattern I used: https://shyamanivas.blogspot.com/2017/06/latticed-spider-shawl-1.html

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 !

Susanna Phillips as Musetta / Metropolitan Opera

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

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

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

Tosca

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.

A scene from Act III of Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Vittorio Grigolo as Mario Cavaradossi and Sonya Yoncheva as Floria Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Željko Lučić as Scarpia (far right) during the Te Deum of Tosca / Metropolitan Opera

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.

Butterick 6074

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.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca and Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi / Metropolitan Opera

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 ?

Regency chemise and short stays

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,

Mary Martha

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