Nabucco

Verdi’s breakout hit in 1842, with its themes of captivity and the longing for freedom, was a poignant piece during its debut as Italy battled for its independence amid wars and political reshuffling. Allegorical as it may have been to the Italians of the mid 19th century, I viewed Nabucco at its face value: an early Verdi work of biblical proportions.

A scene from Nabucco / Metropolitan Opera

Nabucco (Italian for “Nebuchadnezzar”) is loosely based on King Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the Israelites. However, it should be plain to anyone who has ever seen only part of Nabucco that the opera is misnamed. The real title should have been Abigaille after Nabucco’s power-hungry, domineering daughter. She had the most scenes, the heftiest arias, and the central “villainess” role. Plácido Domingo, the world-renowned veteran taking on the title baritone role, appeared to be a hapless pushover when shouldered next to Liudmila Monstyrska’s broody Abigaille.

Liudmila Monstyrska as Abigaille and Plácido Domingo as Nabucco / Metropolitan Opera

A lackluster love triangle storyline was almost enough to derail the entire the opera if it hadn’t of been for the true stars of the performance: the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. The one and only scene that rejuvenated the tepid opera was the Hebrew Slaves Chorus in Act III. So breathtaking and enlightening was the rendition that it was encored to great pleasure.

A clip from the Hebrew Slaves Chorus / Metropolitan Opera

Designing costumes for ancient-set operas is something that rarely sends my heart into ecstatics. Whether it be the hot desert dust or the use of ordinary sandals and figure-swallowing robes, I have to take extra measures to become motivated to sew for such settings. Fortunately, the Met’s classic staging of Nabucco offered me a generous hint for my costume. As mentioned above, the Hebrew Slaves Chorus was THE “wait for it” moment of the opera. Why not dress down for a change and become a slave for a day ? This I did.

Some of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco / Metropolitan Opera

My mother had a patchwork chambray dress in her closet that I used for my base. Although not darkened with dirt, the patches symbolized simplicity and frugality to me, which I thought fitting for a slave. Looking over photos from past performances of Nabucco, however, the Hebrew Slaves donned on their heads what seemed like Betsy Ross mop(b) caps from the Colonial times.

Betsy Ross and women sewing the American flag

Okay, I could do that… Actually, it was easier than I thought. All that was needed were two large circles of fabric, elastic, and a sewing machine. There are numerous tutorials online for making a mop/mob cap, but I found this one to be the most helpful, especially since this was to be my second sewing project ever. Just remember to cut larger circles if making one for an adult ! http://pattisoriginals-pattisplace.blogspot.com/2010/12/tutorial-mop-cap.html?m=1

Mop cap from pattisoriginals-pattisplace.blogspot.com

What’s slavery without bondage ? Some lightweight plastic Halloween chains added an obvious denotation to my outfit while a slouchy gray cardigan, grease-stained apron, and socked sandals helped me fit right in with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus.

And yes, dirt was part of the job. Or rather, brown and black eyeshadow brushed onto my face… While I may have looked the part of servitude, I didn’t desire to smell of it !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Nabucco ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1842)
Live in HD air date: January 7, 2017

Cast:
Nabucco ─ Plácido Domingo
Abigaille ─ Liudmila Monstyrska
Fenena ─ Jamie Barton
Ismaele ─ Russell Thomas
Zaccaria ─ Dmitry Belosselskiy

Credits:
Conductor ─ James Levine
Production ─ Elijah Moshinsky
Set Designer ─ John Napier
Costume Designer ─ Andreane Neofitou
Lighting Designer ─ Howard Harrison
Revival Stage Director ─ J. Knighten Smit
Live In HD Director ─ Barbara Sweete
Host ─ Eric Owens

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

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen

Relatively unknown to the world, dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen has been forging a meteoric rise to stardom with her powerful voice that has some critics calling her “the great Wagnerian promise of her generation.” With as much hype (and height ─ Lise is nearly 6’2″ !) surrounding the shy, Norwegian native, my interest in seeing this uncut gem perform was keener than usual.

Lise Davidsen performing at Oscarshall Palace with James Baillieu accompanying / Metropolitan Opera

Although lacking the total confidence that accompanies decades of professional stage experience, Lise’s humble, offhanded spirit brought a refreshing genuineness to her performance, which included a weighted set list of Wagnerian arias, Grieg, Verdi, and Strauss. There was a little bit of everything, so much so that the program felt like a potluck dinner party. Britten’s “Johnny” was playful with sultry low notes, Strauss’s Op. 27 was sublime, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” was a sugary charmer with James Baillieu’s scrumptious piano tip-tapping away. Adding to the ambiance was the stately Oscarshall Palace dining room, which easily recalled images of “Beauty and the Beast” to my fairy tale mind.

Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu performing at Oscarshall Palace in Oslo, Norway / Metropolitan Opera

The Cuisine

Known for its simplicity and seafood, catering our escape to Norway brought out new ideas and enticing recipes to attempt. Chris couldn’t resist trying her hand at gravlax and it was a smashing success ! Cured with salt, sugar, peppercorns, and dill, the sliced salmon was flavorful yet subtle.

Pairing marvelously with traditional mustard dill sauce, minced red onion, and a dribbling of capers, the feast was in running order. Please examine the filigreed handle on the spoon: coincidentally, it says ‘Oslo’ ─ how fitting !

Caraway crackers and rye bread were used as the foundation for the salmon and just look at how gorgeous Anne’s cheese tray was next to my platter of homemade cookies !

From left to right: Danish blue, Jarlsberg, and Havarti with dill

We do eat well at our little opera watch parties, that’s for certain ! The table was spread with delicacies from “The Land of the Midnight Sun” with a fanfare of ligonberry napkins serving as a makeshift flower arrangement.

You wish you were here with me !

Originally planning to bring a rye flour cardamon yeast bread with raisins, I scrapped that endeavour after the initial test run was a complete flop. I then switched my focus to traditional Norwegian Christmas cookies, like sirupsnippers and coconut macaroons…

Because of my dietary restrictions, I made the cookies with rye flour, coconut sugar, and maple syrup ─ no white flour, no white sugar ! The macaroons were especially artistic with their torched tips of flaked coconut.

The Clothes

When the concert location was announced, there was no hesitation as to what I would wear. Earlier in the year, I had sewn a Norwegian bunad costume for The Flying Dutchman that never was and so I’ve had a skirt and vest laying around the nether regions of my bedroom for months. Now with the perfect opportunity, I wore one of my mother’s blouses (swooping collar turned right side in for greater authenticity) under my sewn additions, which were based off a German dirndl pattern.

The palm trees in the background certainly don’t match the sub-arctic Norwegian landscape, but at least my outfit resembled the North Country. Mission accomplished !

Told by the cut caricatures of the sirupsnipper cookies, the fourth Met Stars Live In Concert event could be summed up as such:

From the forests of Norway…

…rising star Lise Davidsen brought her talents to a concert…

…broadcast around the world…

…where she won our hearts !

Hopefully, Lise Davidsen’s return to the Met will be soon; her voice (in addition to her country’s culinary specialties) were delectable !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen
Oscarshall Palace
Oslo, Norway
Live broadcast date: August 29, 2020
(Date seen: September 2, 2020)

Lise Davidsen ─ soprano
James Baillieu ─ piano

La Traviata ─ the Red Dress Disaster

At last ─ a new production of La Traviata ! If you recall, I was not a fan of the previous Met production of Verdi’s timeless tale. A gender fluid mob of tuxedoed chorus members and a bald-faced clock certainly didn’t fit within my perceptions of the glittering Parisian world of Violetta Valéry.

Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Thankfully, that production is now old news. With Michael Mayer stepping in to create a new Traviata, I was more than enthused to supplant a fresh image in my mind of how La Traviata should be staged. The released promotional design concepts seemed promising for an enchanting, whimsical production.

Design concept for Michael Mayer’s production of La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

While living up to my expectations of a more traditional Traviata, I wouldn’t call it a hands-down winner. Christine Jones’s sets were beautiful, as were Susan Hilferty’s costumes, but the brightness of the colors and the curly embroidery detailing on Alfredo’s jacket (and the chorus members’ attire) could only summon to mind a Disney musical on Broadway.
All things considered, I was pleased by this production of La Traviata and how it partially fulfilled what had been my initial hope: to see a traditionally set performance of opera’s immortal tragedy.

Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo Germont and Diana Damrau as Violetta Valéry in La Traviata / Metropolitan Opera

Costuming possibilities are rich for Traviata ! Voluminous skirts, statement bodices, and historical implications all play a part in most mainstream performances. Since Michael Mayer’s production was making its world debut at the Met, I had no past performance pictures to reference for designing my costume. All that was available was one promotional sketch released by the Met.

Ambiguously lost between the 18th and 19th centuries, the image lacked the clarity I needed to carry out my design plans. My struggles with coming to a creative solution reached near delirium as I fiddled with different gown styles and ornamentation to no avail…

Eventually, I e-mailed Susan Hilferty, the costume designer for the opera, fishing for possible details. Unsurprisingly, the bait remained on the hook.
With time running out, I resignedly choose a similar style as the promotional sketch. And since the Live in HD broadcast was scheduled just 10 days before Christmas, how could I go wrong with a stylish scarlet gown ?

I categorized this dress under ‘Couture’ because of its showstopping grandeur and formality. But don’t be fooled─ its interior was a mess ! In preparation for draping the outside of the bodice, I sewed the lining only. Multiple fittings promised a success.

Less than a week before the opera, I carefully began folding and manipulating strips of my red matte satin and pinning them to the bodice, arranging them attractively as I went. Once the drapes were secured, I steam pressed them and was ready to try on the gown for the final fitting…

However, when I slipped into the gown, it swallowed me like an engulfing wave ! The dress was HUGE and I didn’t know why… It fit perfectly before I applied the drapes. Panic struck as it was the day before the opera and I didn’t have a dress to wear ! The rest of the day was spent taking in the central back seams and resewing the zipper innumerable times. Each alteration led to another problem and now I was seriously contemplating a Plan B. Finally, at 8:30 p.m., I finished altering the dress to where I felt confident that it wouldn’t fall to the floor as I wore it to the opera. What a close call !

Oh, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet… Throughout the day at the theater, I felt the dress becoming larger and looser with every movement. Fear of a ebbing gown pressed against the forefront of my mind as I consciously made efforts to prevent an embarrassing situation from occurring.
Unzipping the gown in the evening was an utter relief ─ I made it through the opera without a wardrobe malfunction !

Pretty on the outside, tragic on the inside… It’s almost as if the dress had been Violetta herself. And also like Violetta, the long red dress was permanently retired.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

La Traviata ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1853)
Live in HD air date: December 15, 2018

Cast:
Violetta Valéry ─ Diana Damrau
Alfredo Germont ─ Juan Diego Flórez
Giorgio Germont ─ Quinn Kelsey

Credits:
Conductor ─ Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production ─ Michael Mayer
Set Designer ─ Christine Jones
Costume Designer ─ Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer ─ Kevin Adams
Choreographer ─ Lorin Latarro
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Anita Rachvelishvili

Rolling on the Riviera ─ Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna in Concert

“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 !

Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna singing “Caro Elisir” from L’Elisir d’Amore in concert / Metropolitan Opera

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 !!!!

Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna singing the love duet from Otello in concert

The Cuisine

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.

The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook and Jayne’s sparkling rosé

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 !

The Clothes

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,

Mary Martha

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

Vienna Morphing Quintet

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

Amneris ─ from broadcloth to Egyptian glamour in less than a month

Oftentimes it is the lead female character of an opera which I try to portray in my costumes. Front and center, they usually have all the great arias while dressed in the most beautiful clothes. Although not necessarily a soprano, the prima donna is a personal delight to play. But sometimes it is the supporting actress, the seconda donna, who intrigues me more. Such was the case with Verdi’s Aida.

Anna Netrebko as Aida and Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris in Aida / Metropolitan Opera

Egyptian princess. Heir to the throne. Most eligible woman in all the land. Seemingly, Amneris has it all. Yet her one desire ─ the love of the Egyptian warrior, Radamès ─ is denied. Jealousy flames and anger rages towards her slave, Aida, who has ensnared the heart of the princess’s beloved. Because of the meaty musical and acting material given to the mezzo-soprano singing the role, I knew playing Amneris would prove to be lots of fun. Now to plan my costume… but first, a note ─

Typically, I don’t feel comfortable creating a complex opera costume unless my deadline is at least two months in advance. But because of a serious fitting flaw with my gown for Samson et Dalila, my start time for Aida was enormously delayed. So with just a little over three weeks before the October 6th broadcast, I commenced work on my Egyptian ensemble.

Now back to the clothes…

It was a no-brainer. Now was not the occasion for interpretive gowns or my own conjuring of the character. With the Met’s current production spanning in existence for well over 30 years, there was little question as to what I would wear since the production’s costumes are as well-known as the opera itself. A doppelgänger I must be, more specifically, Anita Rachvelishvili’s twin.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris / Metropolitan Opera

Opting to recreate the second of the character’s two outfits, an assessment needed to be made of each component of the costume:

  • Dress
  • Cape
  • Belt and Sash
  • Collar and Wrist Cuffs
  • Headband
  • Wig

The plain white cotton shift I could handle. The wonderful historical clothing and costuming website, Fashion-Era, provided helpful diagrams on how to map out my gown pattern, which was nothing more than a large length of broadcloth (double my height) folded in half at the shoulder level (crosswise) and then cut downward at a slant from each side of the shoulder to the corresponding selvedges, like a trapezoid, making sure to allow enough room at the bust and hip levels. Of course, I had a slight miscalculation and had to add gussets to widen the bust area after the first fitting.

Triangular gusset added to the side seams of the dress under the sleeve

The dress was hemmed at the bottom and a decorative Greek Key ribbon, leftover from my gown for Tosca, was sewn onto the sleeve openings to finish the garment.

Next came the piece that would turn the most heads and lower the most jaws: the accordion pleated cape, which was essential to Amneris’s second costume in the opera. Glimmering gold and fragile like paper, I knew tissue lamé would be the perfect material to use for the cape. But how to make a pattern for a pleated cape ? It sounded complicated. I was at a loss… until I stumbled across a children’s sewing pattern for Egyptian costumes on the web…

Simplicity 2329

I know, I know ! It sounds far-fetched and ridiculous to think that a kid’s pattern would be of any personal benefit to a grown adult. Although not the size of a child, I believed this pattern would afford me an excellent advantage in gaining a head start on my cape. No serious math equations for calculating width or number of pleats ─ all that was needed was to extend and enlarge the outlines that were already in place. An ingenious plan had been born. Acting upon the flicker of the figurative mental light bulb, I bought the pattern (in the smaller size set, no less !).

I confess, the steps I took to alter this pattern are blurred in my memory. There were some frustrations during the process, such as the bobbin repeatedly running out of thread during the endless basting, but the finished result was far more potent than expected as I attached the steam-pressed lamé cape with snaps onto the back of the white frock.

The baste stitching left small pinprick holes along the edges of each pleat.

Look how the cape falls in a shimmery waterfall down the back ! The sheen is as lustrous as the sun-flecked Nile.

Psst ! How many opera costumes can you spot and name in this picture ? Hint: there are 8 costumes in total.

With the cape and the shift under my belt, it was time to move onto the real belt and the standout symbolic sash.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris in Aida / Metropolitan Opera

The Belt and Sash

Scrutinizing images like the one above, faux leather seemed to be the obvious choice to create the belt. However, finding it reasonably priced online was a bit difficult due to minimums per order, shipping costs, and negative reviews about the color tinges for some of my favorite options. But while perusing the aisles of Hobby Lobby, I spotted a bolt of bright gold upholstery faux leather, which was perfect for the project. I bought 12 inches and drafted a relatively straight band that arched slightly at the center front. Velcro was used to secure the belt in place. Easy on, easy off !

Some say that I’m “overkill” ─ the costume belt was lined and serged like a semi-couture garment.

The sash required more attention.

Hieroglyphic in their composure, the characters on the sash and belt present a story in their design. Thinking at first that I would paint these figures onto more of the broadcloth, I decided against that approach after realizing the appendage’s outcome would be much more effective if I snipped the characters out of scraps of the gold lamé used for the cape. Muted paint is no match for glaring metallic foil fabric ! Carefully studying the symbols, I sketched onto paper each figure and used them as a stencil. Then, after cutting the lamé, the pieces were glued onto the broadcloth sash in replica fashion.

Lamé frays ─ badly ! You can see below how the edges of the cut caricatures are splintering.

But I shouldn’t gripe too much; it is just a costume, after all. I bordered the sash with a long, folded strip of lamé sewn between the face and the lining of the sash. Teal paint added a pop of color to the cotton fabric and then, I was done !

Now that all the accompanying accessories for the base dress were completed, I was ready to take on the more elaborate portions of the costume, mainly the tedious tasks of decoration.

The Collar and the Cuffs

I knew that there would be numerous little trinkets and accouterments to this costume as it needed to resemble the full regalia of ancient Egyptian royalty. But I dreaded the teensy-weensy elaborations to follow. It’s true ─ when much time is spent on one or two dizzying details, I never feel like I’m making progress towards my goals. However, particulars matter, especially when recreating Amneris’s attire and signature style.

While it’s apparent that the gaudy, ostentatious collar worn by the mezzo-soprano in the opera largely consists of strung beads in all shapes and sizes, I did not have the time, resources, or budget to take on such a mammoth job. And so, I did my best to mimic the model piece using more broadcloth, paint, seed beads, and yes ─ lamé !

The front of the collar
Up close detailing of the collar

While Velcro was used on the belt, I preferred hooks and eyes for the collar closure.

Whoops ! One of the hooks snagged my serging !
The back of the collar. The lamé reflects the light brilliantly !

Similarly matching were the wrist cuffs, sans lamé. Please notice the eye sewn near the serged edge. Its importance will play a part later…

The Wig and Headband

Initially, my plan to create the hair for the wig was to knit a plethora of black yarn i-cords to attach to some sort of beanie cap. I knitted, and knitted, and knitted ─ both day and night almost ceaselessly. But with time running out faster than Arctic daylight in the winter, I began to seriously rethink my method. Troubled, I grasped for ideas. Then, coming to the rescue once again was the Simplicity child’s costume pattern.

Again ! Simplicity 2329

See those wigs ? They were included in the pattern envelope as well. Simply explained, the strands of “hair” were large rectangles of cotton jersey knit fabric, cut into measured strips from both lengthwise sides of the rectangle (but not all the way to the middle !). And then with a tug of each strip… voilà! Deftly furled locks of hair.
It was the Monday before the opera and with only 5 days left to complete my heretofore unfinished outfit, I jettisoned the i-cords in favor of the expedient children’s pattern. While the pattern had particular blocks for constructing the wig, I bypassed these since I knew they would be too short for my desired hair length. Haphazardly, I stitched segments of the pulled cotton jersey onto a crocheted cap I had formed earlier.

Yarn stretches. I learned this during the opera when I found the wig sliding off my head ! A band of elastic needed to be sewn around the inside of the bottom edge of the cap.

The gold “beads”, which were dynamic in their effect, were fashioned out of… scrapbook paper ! Who would have guessed ? Thinking logistically of the potential weight of the wig, I reasoned that nearly anything heavier than a feather would be too excessive when multiplied by the number of “beads” needed for the strands of hair. Real beads ─ wooden or plastic ─ were out of the question. Paper seemed the likely solution. So when I chanced upon a gilted crosshatch patterned paper at Hobby Lobby, I said, “Bingo !”

Paper beads ? Check ! Hot glue strings ? Check !

My only regret about the scrapbook paper is that I didn’t buy enough ! Two 12″ x 12″ sheets sliced into ½” strips were not sufficient to wrap the entire mass of coiled knit locks. But alas, it had to suffice.

A latent cobra, poised and ready to strike, was the concluding element to an ensemble crammed full of indispensable details. Would you like to guess where I found its pattern ? Why, yes ! The same children’s pattern that already served me so gallantly on more than one occasion. This time, I only used the head portion of the pattern and slid a wire into its pleather skull along with a small wad muslin for added dimension. With the cobra head completed, it was hot glued to a band of the same faux leather where it sat looking down as ruler and judge.

While most might believe that I finished my costume with plenty of time to spare, such sentiment was untrue. It was late Friday afternoon, the day before the opera, when I unplugged the hot glue gun once and for all, resigning myself to a completed job. A close call, indeed !
All that was needed was exotic make-up and gold sandals whereupon I became Amneris, ancient Egyptian princess, for a cinematic Saturday afternoon.

Remember the eyes on the wrist cuffs ? They were used in conjunction with the hook counterparts attached to the edges of the cape to lift its shiny crimped folds into the sun. Marvelous was its impression.

Although the costume was completed in time for the opera, I have no desire to ever be so pressed to meet a deadline as I was for this project. Talk about stressful ! But there is great moral to this story and that is to never count out a pattern that doesn’t fit the bill at first glance. Deeper inspection and a dose of imagination were all that were needed to turn a child’s costume into an adult’s deliverance.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Aida

Aida is a grand opera. There are horses. There are ballet numbers. There are massive sets and ornate costumes. And what could be grander than having Anna Netrebko headline the Met’s 2018-2019 Live in HD season opener ?

A scene from Verdi’s Aida / Metropolitan Opera

I’ll be the first one to admit that Aida has never interested me. Whether it be the mercilessly hot desert locale of Egypt or the tension of two women fighting over one man (I infinitely prefer two disparate, but equally impassioned, suitors sparring over one fair maiden in my ideal operatic amorous affair), the opera has never been a very important “must see” for me except for its fame alone.

But this was Anna Netrebko’s Met role debut as Aida… how was I to miss that ????

Anna Netrebko as Aida / Metropolitan Opera

We all knew that Netrebko would be lauded as the star of this opera. More surprisingly, she had arguably one of the toughest battles of her career up against her mezzo-soprano rival, Anita Rachvelishvili’s fearsome Amneris. Hailing from Georgia (and I don’t mean the state), Rachvelishvili prowled the stage like a lioness eyeing her prey. Gripped and enraged, her stentorian voice roared during the showdown scene with Netrebko upon learning of her slave’s concealed love for the warrior, Radamès. I ate it up like a meaty dish of stew, salivating for more. It was the highlight of the opera for me.

Anna Netrebko as Aida and Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris / Metropolitan Opera

The opera fizzled to a slow burn after the early fireworks between Netrebko and Rachvelishvili. Was my opinion changed after seeing Aida for myself ? Not particularly. Oh, well… There is a possibility of my future attendance, but only if Anna and Anita are cast in the starring roles ! Another toe-to-toe contest of prodigious prowess would be worth the sullen bore of the plot.

Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili in Aida / Metropolitan Opera

Due to a previous project which swallowed up my sewing schedule unexpectedly (ahem, Dalila), I had under a month to conceive, curate, and craft my costume for Aida. I doubt I’ll ever do that again. Since the Met’s production has been around for over 30 years, the pictorial research wasn’t difficult. While the obvious choice would have been to masquerade as the titular Ethiopian slave/princess, I was more drawn to her glitzy Egyptian rival, Amneris, and began my work on mimicking the character’s garb, almost as if I was to be her doppelgänger.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris in Aida / Metropolitan Opera

The outfit came together in the nick of time and was a fun way to immerse myself in the ancient Egyptian culture. Though I based my costume off of pictures from the opera, I still engaged in my usual research for historically-based operas.

The lamé cape was my favorite part… as well as the patrons of the theater ! I was repeatedly asked to spread its golden folds to reveal its full glamour.

Later in the month, I wore this same costume for Halloween as it was perfectly acceptable for Cleopatra. While the flocks and droves easily recognized me as the most famous Queen of the Nile, I wonder how many of them knew of the other great Egyptian Royal… the one in Verdi’s grand opera… Amneris !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Curious about how I crafted my Egyptian ensemble in such a hasty dash ? Read my tutorial post detailing the creation of my lookalike costume ! http://costumeclosetcouture.com/2020/06/16/amneris-%e2%94%80-from-broadcloth-to-egyptian-glamour-in-under-a-month/

Cast and Credits:

Aida ─ Giuseppe Verdi (1871)
Live in HD air date: October 6, 2018

Cast:
Aida ─ Anna Netrebko
Amneris ─ Anita Rachvelishvili
Radamès ─ Aleksandrs Antonenko
Amonasro ─ Quinn Kelsey
Ramfis ─ Dmitry Belosselskiy
The King ─ Ryan Speedo Green

Credits:
Conductor ─ Nicola Luisotti
Production ─ Sonja Frisell
Set Designer ─ Gianni Quaranta
Costume Designer ─ Dada Saligeri
Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler
Choreographer ─ Alexei Ratmansky
Live in HD Director ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Isabel Leonard