Devil horns and diva dresses fly off the rack at L.A. Opera costume sale

 Devil horns and diva dresses fly off the rack at L.A. Opera costume sale
Christina Jesenski, 13, tries on a dress during the Los Angeles Opera's costume sale in downtown L.A. (Jenna Schoenefeld, For The Times)

At Burning Man, people wear a lot of weird stuff — ski goggles, fairy wings, neon body paint. But some of the festival-goers who journey to Nevada's Black Rock Desert this summer may be sporting outfits with an even more bizarre origin: the Los Angeles Opera.

On Saturday, L.A. Opera wheeled 90 racks holding more than 1,000 of its costumes into a downtown parking lot for a rare public sale. Before the gates opened at 10:30 a.m., hundreds of shoppers queued up around the block for the chance to pick up petticoats, devil horns, hoop skirts and military jackets.


Rae Gross, a 33-year-old social media consultant and self-proclaimed "Burner," was one of the first to be let in. She and her husband had left their home in Leimert Park around 6 a.m. in anticipation of the sale, where they hoped to secure eccentric costumes for Burning Man.

"I heard about this on NPR and thought I'd be able to find stuff with a circus-y vibe that'd be perfect for the Carnival of Mirrors theme this year," she said, as recorded music from "Carmen" blared in the background.

When Gross finally set foot in the parking lot, she ran immediately toward a cape she'd been eyeing and swooped it into her arms without even trying it on. An hour later, she and her husband checked out with $519 worth of clothing.

The L.A. Opera has had two smaller sales in past years, but this one was different. The company is cleaning house before it relocates its 31,000-square foot costume shop in the Garment District to a 27,000-square foot spot 10 blocks away in June.

"We've been looking to move for some time, but it's quite an undertaking to move an operation like this," said Rupert Hemmings, the company's senior director of production. "When it became clear our new space was a little smaller, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to downsize."

The company's costume director and a staff of about 30 have spent the last few weeks sifting through outfits in storage, first eliminating stock from productions that will probably never return to Los Angeles. Each production requires an average of 100 ensembles, Hemmings said, and the L.A. Opera's costumers usually create entirely new wardrobes for about two shows each season.

The most expensive items up for sale included an ensemble worn by Placido Domingo as the King of Crete for Mozart's "Idomeneo" and a gown used by Frederica von Stade during "The Grand Duchess" by Offenbach.

Displayed on the "diva rack," each costume was priced at $1,500. Anne Russell, a Pacific Palisades real estate agent who had turned up to volunteer at the event, was taken with the elaborate bustle on Von Stade's dress and decided to try it on.

"I'll need to pull it out a couple of inches, because I'm a little bustier than her," she said, eyeing the way the black silk corset fit her in a mirror. "I thought I'd spend a couple hundred bucks, but I love the fact that it was Flicka's. I guess I'm sold."

It was one of the few "diva" items to move quickly, as most shoppers were preoccupied by the cheaper hats and accessories piled into cardboard boxes. Boater hats for $20 each were gone within an hour, as were faux floral crowns that also looked like appropriate festival wear.

Meanwhile, a trio of disturbing latex masks (at $350 a pop) worn in "The Fly" weren't attracting much interest.

Aleta Braxton, who appeared in that 2008 production (and more than 120 others since 1986), was busy hunting for a dress she'd worn in the same show. She found it.

"Look at what my waist was then," the veteran performer said, holding up her $60 find. She ended up buying three of her once-worn costumes and said she planned to display them where she gives voice lessons.

"I also want to show them off to some of my vocal students," she said. "It's cool to be a part of L.A. Opera history."


Twitter: @AmyKinLA