Saturday, April 21, 2012

Opera Idol Update: Ricardo Rivera

I just received an update from our National Council Semi-Finalist Ricardo Rivera.

Ricardo won Third Prize in the 2012 Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition.  Congratulations!

Also, if you want to see Ricardo perform, you will have the chance to see him on May 5th in the title role of Don Giovanni with the Mannes Opera and Orchestra.

The performance will start at 7.30pm and will take place at the Kaye Playhouse, Hunter College.

For tickets, please call the Kaye Playhouse at 212-772-4448.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Operatic Fashions Part 2

Strewn across the Opera House are costumes
from the Met's past, now focused on Manon.
This costume was worn by Geraldine Farrar at
the beginning of the 20th Century.  
There are moments at the opera which one will never forget, moments that just take one's breath away.  Most often it is the singing which starts the barrage of bravos, applause and banging on walls.  Sometimes, though, the audience gasps and applauds as soon as the curtain opens, even before one note is sung.  One such aha moment is when the curtain pulls back to reveal the Café Momus scene in Zeffirelli's La Bohème.  As soon as it pulls back you see a big market scene which fills the whole stage with at least one hundred people, all in the most splendid costumes. 

All these costumes are made in the Costume Shop of the Metropolitan Opera, located in one of the winding hallways behind, below and above the stage of the Met.  If you get a chance to take a backstage tour of the Opera House, you will visit the Costume Shop and see with your own eyes the hundreds of racks filled with clothes.  It is like taking a step back in time.  All the outfits have tags hanging on them, describing what production the costume is from, what scene and who has worn it before.  Imagine making your debut at the Met in a costume worn by Pavarotti, Domingo, or Fleming.

Costumes are made to last for years, and it definitely justifies the cost to make them.  They not only have to last for the life of a production (with some minor adjustments and repairs along the way), but they also need to be able to accommodate different singers performing the same role over the course of sometimes ten years, regardless of their physical stature.  This is accomplished by incorporating snaps and strings into the clothes so they can easily be let out or taken in depending on the singer.  None of the clothes ever have zippers because they make it too hard to make adjustments.

The Costume Shop creates almost all of the garments for the Met's productions.  This means that over the course of one season, which typically includes about six new productions and fifteen revivals, the Shop will create about 1600 pieces of clothes.  Some operas only have a handful of performers, but when the chorus is involved the number of required costumes can go up fast.  The shop created 650 costumes for last season's new production of Boris Godunov alone.

Of course, becoming someone else takes more than just a costume.  The Costume Shop works in collaboration with several other departments.  The Scenic Shop can alter any costume to look old, dirty, bloodied... They achieve this by using paint, brushes, scrapers, sanders and any other means necessary to make the outfits look distressed.  They also work together with the Wardrobe Department.  They make sure all the clothes get taken out of storage, make it to the singers' dressing room and on to the stage.  About fifteen to sixty minutes before a performance, the Makeup Department will help the principal singers put on their makeup, if they wish.  The chorus and many of the singers will put on their own makeup, especially if no special 'face' is required.  However, the Makeup Department also prepares beards, scars and bald caps.

The most fascinating department to me is the Wig Shop.  Almost every singer on stage wears a wig, even if their own hair(style) suits the role they are singing.  The reason for this is that the hair goes through a lot before it is ready to go on to the Met stage.  Sometimes it needs to be braided, shaved or put into a chignon.  It is much easier for the singers to have this done to a wig which will be waiting in their dressing room.  The stage can be a dangerous place, even for hair.  When Maria Callas was singing the role of Tosca in 1965 at Covent Garden, her hair caught fire on a candle.  The show must go on, so Scarpia, played by Tito Gobbi, inconspiciously extinguished the fire.

Each wig is made from human hair, except for white haired wigs.  White hair is not good for wigs because it is very brittle, so as an alternative the hair from Tibetan Yaks is used.  Each wig requires about thirty-five hours of handwork; almost all hairs are threaded into the skull cap (specifically made for a singer's head) one by one.  This is necessary to make the hair look as natural as possible, which is especially important for a Live in HD performance where audience members can see every detail of a singer's face.

Licia Albanese's Manon dress.  She performed
Manon between 1947 and 1959.
The costumes are also all made from scratch, and the process usually starts with the Costume Shop receiving a sketch from the designer associated with a certain production.  This usually takes place about one year before construction is supposed to begin.  At some point after that there is a meeting with the designer himself to discuss the specifics, and often the singers' are invited as well.  It is very important to get their feedback as they are the ones who will be wearing the costumes.  Different operas have different requirements, but in the end they all have one thing in common: comfort.  This especially has to be the case when it comes to the shoes.  The shoes are usually not made in the Met's workshops, but they are adjusted and broken in by the Costume Shop.  The shoes have to fit well because the singer can not be distracted from the singing.

The costume has to fit the singer, just like the costume has to fit the character.  The designer will work in collaboration with the producer of a new production so they come to a shared vision.  After all, the outfits have to tell a story.  It helps the audience understand the character, but it helps the singer become the character.  It is a way to express what is happening in the story.  One important aspect that helps with this are the fabrics the clothes are made of.  Almost all fabrics are contemporary (except for antique lace), bought in the Garment District here in New York, or at any other place that sells fabrics that speak of the past.  Texture is very important when it comes to picking a fabric, as it will grab and hold the light.

It is amazing to see a design go from paper to a finished garment.  It takes anywhere from two days to two weeks to make the final costume.  Men's costumes are made on one side of the workroom; women's on the other side.  The Costume Shop has drawers filled with every imaginable accessory, from buckles to buttons.  Of the thirty people working there, some have studied costume design, while others have always worked in fashion design.

Because costume design is fashion (yet very different) and many designers love the chance to create for the theater, I wanted to find out first hand what the draw is for a fashion designer.  I decided to have a talk with my friend, fashion designer Luciano A. Vicenti, who received his Bachelor Degree in Fashion Design from FIT last year.  If I can see anyone designing for the stage, it is him.  His designs range from intricate ball gowns to classic pieces, handcrafted here in New York with an impeccable attention to detail.  Luxurious fabrics, opulent designs and a passion for his art; just what an opera requires.  Luciano describes his own design aesthetic as a mix of two of his favorite designers, Valentino and Alexander McQueen.  It is the best of two worlds, where he blends the modernness of McQueen with the classiness of Valentino.

"One has to find a balance between what is wearable and what is edgy.  Valentino is very well made, but can be too safe sometimes, while McQueen creates outlandish pieces of art, but is sometimes not wearable at all."

Worn by Eleanor Steber in the fifties.  
The first opera Luciano attended was Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman, drawn to the theater by the beautiful "Belle nuit, Oh nuit d'amour".  The theater can be a source of inspiration for a Ready-to-Wear collection, but seeing a performance can also be the inspiration for a costume design.  For a modern day La Traviata, Luciano would create a slim and form-fitting dress with a beautiful train.  "I would like to transport the audience to a different time and place," he explains.  "When the curtain opens I want them to be speechless, except for the hushed oohs and aahs."

It is this different time and place that is appealing to a fashion designer when designing for the opera.

"Designers like McQueen can get away with making big and bold designs with no limits, but for designers who are looking to sell wearable pieces to a broader clientele, the opera is an outlet for their creative energies.  Designing for the theater, and even for timepiece movies such as Downton Abbey, allows designers to explore extremes.  You don't have to stick to one idea wondering if it will sell, but you can combine a pool of ideas and be extravagant.  There just is no limit."

It is the way a designer interprets an era or time and place that makes the difference between costume design and fashion design.  "Let's take, for example, the twenties," Luciano says.  "As a fashion designer, you would look at fashions from those days and interpret them in a modern way.  You would change them up to be sellable and wearable in the twenty-first century.  As a costume designer, you would actually create pieces that someone would have worn during that time.  You can create pieces with opulence, including hats, gloves...   These are designs I dream of making, but they would never live past the runway because they are not sellable today.  If an opera calls for it and lends itself to extremes, then I would set no limit to what is possible on stage.  One such opera I think of right away is Madama Butterfly."

Another opera Luciano would love to design for is Aida.  Historical accuracy would be important in his designs, especially as a starting point and a source of inspiration, but modernization would play a key element.  As he explains: "New aspects to a design are very important, otherwise you have a dress that looks like it was borrowed from a museum."

I thought one last question would be to get Luciano's suggestions on what to wear to the opera as a member of the audience.  "I think the way you dress shows how much you care for the opera.  It is a way to show respect, and you owe it to the singers to put some effort into what you wear.  The worst outfit by far I have seen were cargo pants and a T-shirt.  I would definitely say to dress up for Opening Night in a tuxedo for men and a gown for ladies.  During the rest of the season, or if you don't own a tuxedo, at least wear a sports jacket."

A Focus on Costume Design  from Vogue Italia
Inside the Met Backstage Tour Flyer
Performance pictures courtesy of the MetOpera Database

Monday, April 16, 2012

Met Scene: Met Live in HD Landmark

According to the Associated Press, the Met has sold ten million tickets to its Live in HD performances over the course of six years.  You can read the full article at

The broadcasts are an amazing way to make opera accessible to millions of people all around the world.  All Live in HD performances are filmed and send across the globe during the Saturday Matinee performances at the Met.

Even if you have the chance to see a performance live at the Met itself, seeing a production a second time on the big screen (or the small screen if you tune in to PBS) only adds to the enjoyment.  There are so many details you can see that you would miss even if you were sitting in row A of the Orchestra.  Of course, broadcasting a live performance in HD comes with its own set of challenges, including close-ups, make-up, decor, wardrobe... For example, while the singers' gestures must be grand to project all across the opera house, they are not supposed to be that 'big' to be seen by a camera taking a close-up.

As I was volunteering at the Met last year on a Saturday afternoon for the Live in HD performance of 'Le Comte Ory' with Juan Diego Florez, the performance was delayed.  Delays are never good, but they are even worse if viewers all across the globe are sitting in their local movie theaters, waiting for the show to begin.  While we enjoy the show in the afternoon, in Europe and Asia, for example, it is already evening.  The performance started soon after with an introduction by Renée Fleming who announced the reason for the short delay: Juan Diego Florez's wife had just given birth to their first child at 12.25pm.  After holding his son for a few minutes, he rushed over to Lincoln Center so he could become the Count Ory around 1pm.  This is the thrill of live theater; the joy was evident on his face throughout the whole performance.  Luckily, Le Comte Ory is an Opera-Comique.

The program has been going on for six seasons now, and if you have never seen a Live in HD movie, don't forget to check out the Met's website for a list of upcoming encore showings.  In May, an encore will be shown of all 4 parts of Wagner's Ring.  The run will start on May 7th with a new documentary by Susan Froemke, called Wagner's Dream.  She produced and directed The Audition Documentary in 2010, a great documentary on the National Council Auditions.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Operatic Fashions Part 1

Evening Ensemble by Yves Saint Laurent
1983-1984.  Costume Institute at the
Metropolitan Museum
Fashion and the arts have always gone hand in hand.  As a matter of fact, fashion is art.  Just look at the Metropolitan Museum and its Costume Institute.  It houses 35,000 pieces of clothing and accessories, including several opera coats and an opera hat.  Opera coats are still being worn today, as they are merely a long, loose-fitting coat made out of a luxurious fabric which a woman would wear over her evening gown.  I find the opera hat more fascinating, as it is a collapsible hat which would have fit under a gentleman's seat at the opera.

This brings us to the point where opera and fashion can be approached from two standpoints.  First, there is the spectator.  People these days often wonder what they should wear to a night at the opera.  It was easy in the old days, when people just knew you dressed up to go see a performance at Covent Garden or the Paris Opera.  These days, performing a Google search on what to wear to the opera brings up hundreds of threads, including the Met's official answer to that question:
"There is no dress code at the Met. People dress more formally for Galas or openings of new productions, but this is optional. We recommend comfortable clothing appropriate for a professional setting."
On a personal level I disagree with this, especially since people take too much liberty interpreting "comfortable clothing".  The opera is not a place for jeans, sneakers, shorts or flip-flops.  Going to the opera is an opportunity to dress up; the whole setting of the opera house with its red velvet cushions and Swarovski chandeliers begs for a luxurious outfit.  Opening night is the perfect time to wear a gown, and gala evenings are perfect for a (sparkly) cocktail dress.  On regular nights, a nice jacket and skirt is a good option.

This brings us to the second point of view, the fashions on stage.  Everything in opera is big: the voices, the gestures and even the clothes.  One reason for the grand scale of things is so people in the back of the house and all the way up in the Family Circle can see and hear what is going on.  Opera houses are no small place; the Met for example seats 3995 people.

Boris Godunov at the Met -
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Costumes are part of an opera and add to the story.  Unless you are watching an opera-in-concert, the clothes play as much a role in telling the story as the words do.  An opera, as defined in Donald Grout's 'A short history of opera' is after all "a drama in music: a dramatic action, performed on a stage with scenery by actors in costumes, the words conveyed entirely or for the most part by singing, and the whole sustained and amplified by orchestral music."

Costumes are very important in opera because they form the link to a certain time and place in history.  They distinguish between kings, queens, peasants, soldiers, witches, ghosts... There are historical characters that need to be portrayed, such as Napoleon in War and Peace and Boris Godunov in the namesake opera.

Last week I saw the new production (by Laurent Pelly) of Massenet's Manon at the Met, and the opera is a fashionable piece.  Anna Netrebko, in the role of Manon, has no less than 6 costume changes.  For some, she had only four minutes to change, but singers often have a dresser waiting in the wings to help them with their costume changes.  It is not very different from helping models dress at a fashion show: you only have a few minutes to get it right.  Manon's life story is told in those six costumes, and you can follow her evolution in life through what she is wearing.

Act I - Manon is a 15 year old girl
on her way to the convent -
 Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

Act III Scene 1 - Manon is the toast of Paris, strolling
along the Cours-la-Reine on a public holiday -
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Act V - Manon being send to exile in America -
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Franco Zeffirelli was a master at creating time-piece operas.  His sets were elaborate recreations of palaces and Parisian scenes, and his clothes were grand.  Most costumes for his productions were designed by legendary costume designer Peter J. Hall.  You can just imagine yourself in the Peking of old days in Turandot or at the Café Momus with Rodolfo and Mimi in La Bohème.  Costumes also give a good indication of what is to come.  When the new season is being announced, people's interests are often piqued by seeing the sketches of the costumes and a single shot of the main character in an elaborate and defining costume and pose.

A scene from Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met -
MetOpera Website
Current productions often don't take the story and settings as literal as they used to, and therefore often take place in a different time setting while being scaled down.  Most of the time it is the sets that get scaled down, but not the clothes.  One production that used the full potential of costume was the Met's 2007 production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice by Mark Morris.  The story only has 3 main characters, but the chorus plays an important role in this opera.  The 100 member chorus is on stage throughout most of the opera, dressed as historic figures.  They are there to mirror Orfeo's story, but they also show that the Orfeo myth has been a timeless classic which has appealed to people throughout the ages.  Just by their costumes, the audience is able to distinguish each character, from Evita to Marie Antoinette and from Henry VIII to Julius Caesar.  All the costumes were designed by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, and this was not the first time that a fashion designer collaborated with an opera house to design the clothes for a new production.

Opera is heaven for fashion designers as they can use all their imagination when designing clothes for the show.  Some of the clothes can be compared to haute couture: vivid imagination, luxurious fabrics, hand-made pieces and elaborate designs.  It is not for nothing that haute couture fashion shows are often described as theatrical.  Costume designers specialize in making clothes for the theater, opera and movies; but fashion designers also like to dabble into the forays of costume design because it takes away all the constraints a regular collection would put on them.  Of course, opera and the arts also inspire designers, so to me it is no surprise that New York Fashion Week is held in Damrosch Park, right next to the Met.

Collaborations between designers and opera productions have been going on for generations, and all over the world:
A sketch from Attila courtesy of Prada -
MetOpera Website
  • In 2010, Miuccia Prada collaborated with the Met on its production of Attila and designed the costumes for the very first Attila production at the Met.  
  • In the 2008-2009 season, Christian Lacroix designed Renée Fleming's costumes for her role in Thaïs.   
  • The Opening Night Gala of the 2008-2009 season at the Met was a fashionable affair as Renée Fleming's costumes were designed by three world-renown fashion designers.  She performed three roles; Act II of La Traviata in the role of Violetta with an outfit by Christian Lacroix, Act III of Manon as Manon with costumes by Karl Lagerfeld, and the Countess in the final scene of Capriccio with clothes by John Galliano.
  • Rodarte is designing costumes for the May premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Los Angeles Philarmonic.
  • In the eighties, Karl Lagerfeld designed costumes for a production of Les Contes d'Hoffman.
  • In 1991, Gianni Versace designed the dresses for the Royal Opera House's production of Capriccio.
  • After retiring from fashion design, Valentino decided to create the clothes for his favorite opera, La Traviata.
  • Yves Saint Laurent designed many costumes for the ballet and the opera, as far back as 1964 he created the designs for Le Nozze di Figaro, followed by many more collaborations.
Collaborations are quite common.  Often, they come about because the designers love opera as well.  If you would like to find out more about opera and fashion, check out Helena Matheopoulos's book 'Fashion Designers at the Opera'.

No matter how far the imagination of the designers reaches, there are a few things to keep in mind.  Singers need to be able to breathe when wearing the costumes and they need to be able to move around on the treacherous stage.  Often, the stage is slanted to a certain angle, which makes walking and merely standing in front of the audience a difficult task.  The clothes should in no way hinder the singers, but they should be used as props to enhance the story and the acting.  

Check back next week for Operatic Fashions Part 2 when we will take a look at the Costume Department of the Metropolitan Opera and I interview fashion designer Luciano A. Vicenti on his views on opera and design.

Who's who in Orfeo from the MetOpera Website
The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Short History of Opera, Fourth Edition by Donald Grout
Fashion Designers at the Opera from Opera News March 2012
Fashion Designers at the Opera by Helena Matheopoulos
Miuccia Prada's Sketches for Attila from the MetOpera Website

Monday, April 9, 2012

Popera News: Joy in the Congo - A musical miracle on 60 Minutes

What an inspirational story that was featured on 60 Minutes last night.  It just goes to show that music has the ability to bring people together and change people's lives forever.  

You can read the accompanying article here.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Met Scene: Behind the curtain of the Ring

There are things that we take for granted; things we assume have always been this way because it is the only way we can remember it ever being.  Richard Wagner was once quoted as saying:
"Even if I know I shall never change the masses, never transform anything permanent, all I ask is that the good things also have their place, their refuge."*
As it turns out, Wagner did change the masses and made permanent transformations.  Opera houses, theaters and even cinemas today look the way they do because of him.  In the (really) old days, opera houses were build in horse shoe shapes, did not have a raked auditorium and performed with the lights on in the opera house.  It was a social scene, where people looked at each other and gossiped about clothes and jewelry.

Wagner was a difficult man, and he wanted people to only have eyes for his music.  For him there was only one way to do that: build his own perfect opera house.  He changed the shape of the house, raked the auditorium and turned off the lights during the performance.  This wooden structure stands to this day in Bayreuth, even though his first idea was to burn it down after the performance of the Ring Cycle.

I have always felt that the Ring is not a great choice for a first opera, but I changed my mind after listening to a lecture by William Berger.  The lecture was held in one of the rehearsal rooms at the Met for members of the Young Associates, and Mr. Berger spun a riveting tale.

He seems to know all the things about opera I wish I knew.  He has written several books on the subject, writes articles for the Playbill and is the producer of the Met Radio Broadcast.  I love taking notes, so I had a great time taking in all he had to say this morning.

Mr. Berger thinks the story of the Ring is quite simple and can be explained in just one minute.  I would not have believed this, but he did make me realize it is possible.  Wagner was an amazing story teller, and the reason the Ring is fifteen hours long is not because he had no idea how to tell the story, but simply because that is how long the story takes to be told.

Wagner got his inspiration for the Ring from two sources: old Germanic myths and Icelandic myths.  He started with the ending (Götterdämmerung) based on the Germanic myths and worked his way backwards.  When you finish watching the Ring it all makes sense, and you can tell he knew all along where he wanted the story to go.  Even though the Ring is made up of four different operas, if you see them all they will become one whole.  They are after all the largest single piece of music performed today.

The slow development of the story is actually an advantage, and is just what Wagner wanted to achieve.  He did not intend this opera to be performed the way it is today, with people rushing over to the opera house after work and expecting this to be a piece of entertainment.  You need to be swept away by this (and believe me, you will).  The advantage of the slow story is that you perceive all the subtleties and nuances you would only discover in Puccini's work after having seen it thirty times, just because it moves along so fast.

Wagner had a vision for the Ring, one that took him twenty-seven years to achieve (both in funding and writing).  He wanted to re-recreate the reason that opera came about in the first place: to recreate the great drama of Greek theater.  This idea started during the Italian Renaissance, but since no one knows what Greek music sounded like, this was open to interpretation.

Wagner is just as relevant today as he was a hundred and fifty years ago.  He changed the way music evolved, how we watch and listen to it and even how we tell the story.  You can find his work in many unexpected places.  Mr. Berger pointed the attention to a Levi's commercial which uses the first two minutes of music from Das Rheingold (and so from the whole Ring).  This first part is an E-flat note which lasts for four minutes, one single note which tells the whole story: the evolution from chaos to culture.