Coda: Dress Up Games
It was a true performer's nightmare. "I was in Pasadena doing a concert and wearing a magnificent Renato Balestra dress," recalls soprano Aprile Millo. "And during the first half, the zipper broke." Millo made it to the intermission without incident. As it happened, her friend Elizabeth Taylor — a big opera fan — was in the audience with some of her entourage. The actress came to Millo's dressing room during the interval, and Millo turned to her in desperation. "I said, 'Elizabeth, is there someone in your group who could help me?'" There was, and the soprano was able to continue with her dress decently closed. "Now I always travel to concerts with more than two or three dresses, just in case," Millo says.
For opera singers, the challenge of the concert hall can be stark, because they must dispense with costumes, sets and a full orchestra — not to mention dressers, wigmakers and makeup artists. There will be no other place for the audience to look but at them; the threat of a fashion disaster is always there.
Many divas want entrance-making statements that provoke a delighted gasp from the audience. Far more elaborate than a normal evening gown, concert finery is dramatic, often with a big skirt or train that is supposed to trail gracefully. Gowns need to be well constructed from sturdy fabrics that look good under stage lights. Singers consider these garments their work clothes and want them just as hardy as any mechanic's overalls. Alas, the dresses are also much bigger and heavier, with the result that singers uniformly complain about the airlines' excess baggage charges when they travel.
The outfit must complement the program. "I am thoughtful about choosing a dress for a program," says mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. "We're in the storytelling business. When you are not doing opera, the gown can be an important way to set the mood." Mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips, who also does oratorio work, says she has "enough black gowns to last me a while!" By contrast, Sandy Lape, a stylist who works with both Renée Fleming and Deborah Voigt, notes that Voigt likes to wear red when she is singing arias from Salome and has a different red dress for each concert in which she's impersonating Strauss's sexpot. Singers usually change to create a different ambience in the second half of the evening. For a recent recital in Columbus, Ohio, Graves chose a red dress with a long train covered in red flowers for the first half, which consisted of romantic songs by Donaudy, Strauss, Duparc and Francesco Durante. She returned for the second half in slinky black sequins for more contemporary works, including a version of Gershwin's "Summertime."
Big stars get many of their clothes directly from designers, because the dress has to be built to accommodate their breathing. Canadian designer Rosemarie Umetsu created a gown for Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya in which the bodice had to expand five centimeters (two inches) and still remain shapely. "So I put elastic inside the corset, and I used a fabric with some stretch," says Umetsu. Donna Langman, who designs much of Graves's concert wear, starts by creating a boned corset and then draping the fabric on it. Singers like the corset; it keeps them standing up straight and gives them something to push against when they sing. Even men want that feeling. When Umetsu made a concert outfit for bass-baritone Gidon Saks, the waist of the chartreuse pants — an exceptional color for men — was five inches high and boned. His jacket was the standard black, but cut in double-breasted Regency style, with a high standing collar in the back.
There are some styles that women singers avoid either by custom or as a result of sad experience. While mezzo-sopranos might wear pants if they are playing a trouser role in a concert version of an opera, recitalists don't. And if your name isn't Anne-Sophie Mutter, strapless can be a problem. Mezzo-soprano Naomi O'Connell, who plays one of the vocal students terrorized by Tyne Daly's Maria Callas in the London production of Terrence McNally's Master Class, discovered this when she gave a recital in Dublin. Her strapless cocktail dress was a little big and had to be pinned in the back. Halfway through her final song, the safety pin popped open, and the dress started slipping. She finished intact but says, "I can't tell you how long those last thirty bars of music felt to me. Since then I've tended to give strapless gowns a miss more often than not."
Because singers are standing for two or more hours, shoes matter. Stiletto heels are fine for those stalwarts who feel no pain, but a few singers actually go barefoot, claiming it makes them feel well grounded and more in touch with their bodies. Soprano Measha Brueggergosman wears a size eleven wide, which is hard to find in a sexy shoe. So she goes unshod but has Rosemarie Umetsu make her gowns with hemlines that hit the floor to conceal her feet.
Concert wear is expensive. "I cannot even imagine buying something made for you for less than $3,000, and I have paid much more than that," says Millo. $10,000 is not an exceptional amount to spend. Designers often give discounts or freebies in return for the promotional value of having a famous singer wear their clothes. But the bills still add up. A singer such as Graves, with an active recital schedule, can require twenty-five gowns in a performing year, especially as she will change her outfit two or more times during a single concert, and gowns can never be repeated in the same concert hall or, ideally, even in the same city. One artist goes so far as to keep track of when and what she wore on an Excel spreadsheet.
It seems like a lot of effort and money goes into something that is secondary to the performance — but a good dress adds considerable excitement to the concert experience. A beautiful visual impression only reinforces the aural memories singers want to leave with their audience.
JULIE CONNELLY wrote "The Education of a Set Designer" for the July 2009 issue of OPERA NEWS.