On March 18, I decided to give the Metropolitan Opera's "Fridays Under 40" a go, enticing me as they did with the promise of an intimate interview with Met Opera costume specialists. Fridays Under 40 is a social gathering hosted by the Met for patrons under the age of 40 to meet and mingle. The instant I walked in I was drawn to the person wearing the immaculate violet dress pictured above. I learned this person was Justin Vivian Bond, a celebrated transgender performance artist, who would conduct the ensuing interview with Robert Bulla, Assistant Head of Costumes. After enjoying my complimentary flute of Prosecco and chatting with new acquaintances, among whom was Yuka, a stylish and gregarious milliner, I made my way into a swanky room to listen to the interview.
Robert Bulla (pictured above) has worked at the Met for 16 years. He explained that the violet dress (also pictured above) Justin Vivian Bond was wearing that night was worn by Renée Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier, and it took 150 hours to make. Its style is meant to form a silhouette rather than enhance the natural body. First, came the artist sketch, followed by a fitting which ultimately reveals what is destined to remain of the artist's original idea. Met costumes are made to last, and they are constructed so that they can be worn by various singers and body types over the span of multiple productions. The final costume will essentially give a nod to the designer's intent, but above all, it must be comfortable and practical enough for the performer to move and sing in it.
Once a costume is "retired" from the Met, it is usually donated to TDF (Theatre Development Fund), which will in turn rent it to nonprofits for little or no money. Some costumes are kept and archived for posterity, however. Since the next Rosenkavalier will be set in the 1920-30s, this violet dress will be retired.
The Met employs internationally acclaimed artists and painters to make their costumes - William Ivey Long, Prada, Isaac Mizrahi, to name just a few. The goal now is to find a balance between casting someone based on how they look in a role and how they sound in a role. Sometimes, in order to enhance a female figure, the costume team will add lines or spray to contour a body and create the illusion of curve in the torso. Male singers, on the other hand, sometimes even wear corsets to "breathe against" while performing.
The Met interviews their performers before making costumes and wigs in order to garner ideas about the singers' vision for their characters. According to Bulla, the costume department tries never to say "no," but to instead find a way around something. For instance, did you know singers don't usually like hats around their ears and will often take them off as soon as they get on stage? -- I witnessed this phenomenon various times that very night during Don Pasquale, but somehow had never noticed it before. The hat Justin was wearing for the Rosenkavalier dress is "singer friendly" because it is rather small and does not go near the ears.
The interview was fun and engaging, with Justin Vivian entertaining us all with her quick wit and probing questions. Robert Bulla was a charm to meet and speak with. He divulged that the costume department's budget fluctuates for each production, because every show is different and has its own demands. Consequently, there is no "average costume budget" for a show at the Met. After the interview, I made my way to the Grand Tier for a night of Donizetti's Don Pasquale.
And now on to the show: Donizetti's Don Pasquale premiered in 1843. Of the composer's 65 completed operas, it stands as one of his enduring comedies. It's about an old man, Pasquale, who in order to disinherit his nephew, wants to force him to marry a woman of Pasquale's choosing, and ends up himself marrying a young woman who he believes to be a modest, quiet creature. Alas, Pasquale is caught in a trap, for unbeknownst to him, his new wife is actually his nephew's clever love interest in disguise, who begins spending all his money and driving him crazy. Ultimately, the two young lovers succeed in getting Pasquale to accept their love, and he blesses their intention to marry each other. Pasquale discovers his marriage to Norina was fraudulent, and he comes to the conclusion that marriage is best suited for the young rather than for old, foolish men.
Apart from its vibrant bel canto writing, Don Pasquale made novel use of string rather than traditional harpsichord accompaniment in the recitatives. On March 18th, 2016, I saw Maurizio Benini conduct Otto Schenk's production, with Ambrogio Maestri playing Pasquale, Alexey Lavrov as Malatesta, Javier Camarena as Ernesto, and Eleonora Buratto as Norina. Comically, all the actors did their jobs well, but Ambrogio Maestri's big, bumbling Pasquale stood out as memorable. Javier Camarena's sweet tenor voice was especially loved by the audience, and he was even called back to do an encore - something I have never seen before at the Met. This performance was the last one of the season, and Alexey Lavrov and Maestri also performed an encore of their Act III duet.
My favorite line of the night was Norina's: "Husbands are meant to be seen, not heard," which drew out ample laughs from everyone - but especially the attached women in the house. Buratto did a charming representation of a witty, self-assured seductress. Her first-act aria was quite entrancing, as she slipped on pink thigh high stockings while singing about Norina's ability to enchant men.
This comedy left everyone in a light-hearted mood. The cast and orchestra received a long, standing ovation.