Behind the scenes at the San Francisco Opera Costume Shop
by Sura Wood
Juliet standing on her balcony in a bubble dress? Romeo navigating the streets of Verona in a slick, distressed lambskin, motorcycle jacket? You thought you'd never live to see this day, but it has arrived courtesy of French haute couturier Christian Lacroix's costumes for San Francisco Opera's The Capulets and the Montagues. The Vincenzo Bellini opera, based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, is a co-production with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, where it premiered last year.
Lacroix is not the first or only fashion icon to heed opera's siren call. Versace, Lagerfeld, Prada, Armani, Zandra Rhodes, and of course, Bob Mackie, who brought old Hollywood glitz to SFO's 1998 production of Lulu, are among the famous fashionistas who have plunged into the storied world of divas and spear-carriers.
The 61-year-old Lacroix was a hot property on Parisian runways in the 1980s, when the bubble skirt catapulted him to stardom, and later, in the 1990s, when the British television series Absolutely Fabulous made him a household name. But after closing his couture house three years ago, he became fully engaged in designing for theater, opera and the ballet, enraptured with the grand stage those arenas afford; since 2003, he has created costumes for over 15 opera productions. "One of the great things about him is that he never thought about fashion or clothing, he always thought about costume and history, which is evident in his own collections," says Christopher Verdosci, assistant costume director for the San Francisco Opera. "This was a natural progression for him."
Drawn to antique textiles, Lacroix is partial to layered, clashing fabrics; a distinctive asymmetry; and bold, in-your-face colors like teal, fuchsia, turquoise and yellow. All these proclivities converge in the courtesans' costumes he dreamed up for Capuleti. He was allowed to plunder Munich's archive of vintage, turn-of-the century costumes, scavenging fragments like a red-striped sleeve that looks like a refugee from The Barber of Seville, and a skirt which may have had a previous life in Don Carlo. He recycled these and other materials from old garments to construct 28 unique, mix-and-match creations with exposed, partially-laced corsets, bodices and sleeves that fall off the body – the quicker to disrobe, my pretty – and billowing patchwork skirts done in jeweled gold-and-black brocades, sequins, intricate hand-sewn laces, and contrasting tulle crinolines. And then there are the accessories: one costume comes with a rhinestone leash, another with single lavender glove that might be wrapped around the neck or stitched to an underskirt. It seems Lacroix has taken a walk on the wild side, elevating expertly-crafted tackiness to new heights. Imagine Madonna's "Material Girl" on steroids and heading her own atelier.
For this particular version of Romeo and Juliet, Verdosci and his team developed a hyper-masculine universe in which women have no voice or role in society other than as adornment. The courtesans, for instance, look spectacular, but their lack of status is expressed by bunches of flowers stuffed into their mouths (Fortunately, they're non-singing extras.)
Juliet wears a white strapless pouf dress – the taffeta was custom-woven with a cross-thread of metal – loosely laced up the back, and tinged with bluish pink watercolor, evoking a budding rose about to be plucked, although not by Romeo if her parents can help it. The men are outfitted in slim dark pants, rakish scarves, top hats of varying heights, rear bump-pads that lend them an Oscar Wilde silhouette, and jackets that borrow from the street while suggesting morning frock coats. They're made from sheer lightweight, non-traditional materials like Tyvek that come alive in the light. Romeo gets a Euro, uber-cool look that rivals Rick Owens' sleek upscale leathers.
On my recent visit to the opera's costume shop, seamstresses, as busy as Santa's helpers a week before Christmas, were applying finishing touches and altering some of the 120 Lacroix costumes. Suffice it to say there were no size 2 mannequins in sight. "We do well with Germany because the Bavarians are tall and broad-shouldered, but with the Italian shows, it's a lot harder," sighs Verdosci.
The costume warehouse occupies three floors of a building that stretches nearly half-a-block on Ninth Street, and it's filled with goodies. The facility houses more than 300,000 individual costume pieces, including over 3,000 pairs of shoes, materials to build costumes, and over 1,800 yards of fabric. But the shop is where the magic happens – if it weren't for the highly skilled artisans toiling there, it might be a kindergarten playroom. There are models and remnants of past productions like a portion of the angel's wing from the sublime San Francois d'Assise that has been retired to a perch above a cubicle. (The wing is Yves Klein blue, an excruciatingly vibrant hue residing somewhere between cerulean and lapis, named for the "New Realism" monochrome painter.) The walls of the so-called dye room are splattered with "blood" and unruly experiments with metallic spray paint, while in the craft workshop, a test dummy that has seen better days is slung over the rafters, and an ominous, generously proportioned, structured red corset lays face down on an unattended table. Most of the available space is crammed with all manner of breastplates, belts, helmets and body armor forged to resemble metal. The transformation process starts with a piece of felt molded into a human form that's sized, made rigid, covered with leather, steamed and then hand-painted with the imperfections of battle-worn metal – rust, mud, cracks and dents. And voila! It's show time.
"Creating illusions and magic is one of the most challenging and exciting parts of this job," says Verdosci, who remembers with special fondness a scene from Cunning Little Vixen that's a long way from couture and Lacroix. "A dozen chorus ladies playing chickens were laying eggs on stage through a large pipe system," he recalls. "After the fox blocked the pipeline, the chickens' inflatable bellies grew and grew and grew until they all exploded in a shower of feathers."
Ah, the wonder of theater!
I Capuleti e I Montecchi, starring soprano Nicole Cabell as Juliet, and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the role of Romeo, will be performed at the War Memorial Opera House, Oct. 11, 14 (at 2 p.m.), 16 & 19. For info, go to www.sfopera.com or call (415) 864-3330. If you're interested in the synergy of opera and high fashion, the contributions of famous couturiers have been profiled in a new book by Helena Matheopoulos, Fashion Designers at the Opera.