A Fitting End to Opera Star's Gowns


One diva. One opera. One gown.

The diva? Soprano Maria Ewing. The opera? L.A. Opera's production of Umberto Giordano's "Fedora." The gown? A glittery midnight blue number, en train, worn by Princess Fedora Romazoff to an 1882 soiree at her Paris apartment--an event that becomes entangled in romance and intrigue.

Months before the opera opened last week at the Music Center, the complex and exacting work of costuming the characters began, the glamorous heroine a key figure.

A year ago sketches arrived from Milan's La Scala, from which L.A. Opera and the Washington Opera jointly bought the production. The costumes were part of the package, but L.A. Opera opted to design and make Ewing's three gowns in its downtown costume shop. Costume director Kristine Haugan explained: "It's just a different look we're going for," one designed to reflect Ewing's elegance and flatter her figure (a slender 5 feet, 7 inches).

The Italian sketches--from which the costumers would take inspiration--were tucked into "the bible," a thick book that tells workers everything they need to know about the production, including Ewing's measurements. ("That's a secret," Haugan said.)

Costumers knew by the book that the "Fedora" cast requires 200 pairs of shoes. Some of them would come from the costume shop's huge inventory; others were made to specifications by a shoemaker in Nova Scotia, Canada; still others were bought locally (including a pair of $340 white satin Peter Fox slippers worn with another of Ewing's gowns.) The book also stipulates that in Act I Ewing would wear a braid-trimmed "ermine" cape purchased from La Scala. "It's probably rabbit," observed Haugan, adding: "The rumor is, Maria Callas once wore it."

Haugan and cutter-draper Sarah Skinner discussed the sketches and their concept for the gown. Skinner knew Ewing's style and body from her performances at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, where Skinner stitched and cut for 11 years before joining L.A. Opera two years ago. Haugan knew the diva's style and preferences, having costumed her for L.A. Opera's "Tosca" in 1992.

They discussed which fabrics would work, which wouldn't. Later, Haugan scoured fabric shops from Lyons to London to Los Angeles. Natural fabrics are preferable for their cleanability and because they breathe better and reflect stage lights better than synthetics. At a 40th Street shop in New York, a rag trade haunt, Haugan found a fabulous beaded dark blue fabric for the Act II gown. The tab: $160 a yard.

"We bought two [yards]," Haugan said. The plan: To snip it up and use it as applique on a less costly blue lace fabric. In the end, though, the costly fabric was never used. "It was too dense and it didn't have any life," Skinner explained. "It happens a lot." A local shopping excursion produced the gold and bronze and blue fabrics from which the gown would be fashioned.

In early August, Skinner cut out a muslin pattern to fit a dressmaker's dummy that is close to Ewing's measurements--or so she hoped. "We had three sets of measurements, all different," noted Haugan. From the pattern, she fashioned a mock-up of the gown on the dummy, using leftover fabrics.

Skinner and Haugan wouldn't know for several weeks--until the first of two fittings--whether Ewing liked the gown or the fit. Sometimes a soprano has to be persuaded that it's perfect. "Some singers like really tight bodices," Skinner said. "They like bones. They say they like to sing against it. Some like their gowns loose, almost hanging off them." This gown would have bones built into the seams.

"First hand" Janice Kidwell was waiting in the wings at the costume shop. Using the pattern Skinner fashioned on the dummy, she cut the gold underskirt, which would be fitted on Ewing. Skinner made a fake bodice for the fitting; the real bodice, and the blue overskirt, would be cut later. The fittings, in mid-August, went well.

Now the gown was ready to go to the stitchers for basting, then sewing on industrial strength machines. "We build [the costumes] so they will last 15 to 30 years," Skinner said--during which time they'll be worn by many another diva.

Haugan, a New York-based freelance designer for opera and theater before joining L.A. Opera nine years ago, is quick to say, "I don't sew." Rather, her role is that of supervisor--and psychologist. She attends fittings, intent on "making everybody thrilled and happy." Sopranos know all eyes are on them when they're onstage--and sopranos have their eccentricities. Haugan recalled one who wanted to wear her tennies with a Greek gown. She was dissuaded. A great idea, Haugan told her, "until she hit the stairs" and lifted her skirt.

The first of three dress rehearsals, a week before opening night: The gown--low-cut with fringe and bugle bead draping over the upper arms (British-born Skinner described the adornments as "twiddlies")--was a success. Skinner flitted back and forth from backstage to the darkened theater, attending to last-minute adjustments.

There was one major glitch: Ewing found that when she sang, the waistband--to which was stitched eight yards of skirt--was too heavy. Skinner reattached the skirt to the bodice at a lower point. During rehearsal, Ewing played a dramatic scene with her character's lover--Count Loris Ipanov (Placido Domingo)--with the back of her gown flapping open. "She didn't feel like she had enough breathing room," Skinner said.

Skinner made final tweaks to fastenings (hooks and eyes, not zippers, which can snag during quick costume changes). Overall, she was pleased. "A really pretty dress," she said, watching Ewing sweep regally across the stage. But breathing room would continue to be a problem. And fitting a diva can be tricky--Ewing told Skinner she loses several pounds during a performance.

After the final dress rehearsal, the gown was still not quite right. Skinner repinned the side seams to give the singer more room. Ewing told her, "It's so beautiful, but I have to breathe."

Opening night. Skinner was not panicked. Ewing would try the altered Act II gown on before the performance. "If she's still not happy, I have Act I to do something."

After tonight, Haugan said, "We hand the show over to the wardrobe department and say goodbye." There is another opera, "Florencia en El Amazonas," opening in October, to be costumed.

The gown--with the sets and the other costumes from "Fedora"--will be returned to Los Angeles after the Washington Opera production and made available to other companies. The blue Act II gown will be passed on from diva to diva, Haugan said, "until the show dies of old age."

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