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Dressed to Kill

An all-star cast of great performers selects their favorite costumes. 
By Daniel J. Applebaum 

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© Beth Bergman

DIVAS SPEND MUCH OF THEIR PERFORMING LIVES in fabulous gowns—but a truly great costume has to be something more than a beautiful outfit. opera news asked some of our favorite divas in the worlds of opera, dance and theater to discuss how their favorite costumes shaped some of their greatest performances. 


My favorite costume is Ježibaba’s spiderweb dress, designed by Mara Blumenfeld for the Met’s 2017 production of Rusalka. It was a Victorian grandmother’s dress but embellished with many unexpected touches—a malevolent black-leather corselet, jeweled spiders hidden in my wig, and an incredibly intricate overlay of spiderwebs. Mara asked me who I thought Ježibaba was, and I said, “A combination of Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange and a drag queen.” She shifted her design a bit based on my input, and the end result allowed me to writhe and cackle to my heart’s content!


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Marilyn Horne as Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri, designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera Archives


I think my favorite is the costume I wore in Act I of L’Italiana in Algeri at the Met (designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle). It was a fitted travel suit made out of Black Watch Scottish plaid. It helped me establish Isabella’s character immediately, and I felt saucy wearing it. It was one of my best roles, and when I performed Isabella for the last time at Covent Garden, the designer was again Mr. Ponnelle. I will always remember him placing the brass buttons just so to enhance the curve of my waist.


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Joyce DiDonato in Laurent Pelly’s gown for Cendrillon at the Met
© Bill Cooper/ROH


If forced to choose a favorite, I think it’s my Cendrillon ball gown (originally for Santa Fe Opera, but worn at Covent Garden, Gran Teatre del Liceu and the Met). This gown, created by Laurent Pelly, is something extraordinary. It’s high glamour, makes a great entrance but is also utterly simple. Like Cinderella, it appears to be brought up from the ashes. The gown ombrés to a flesh-toned bodice, allowing Cendrillon’s human beauty to take center stage. A few fabulous crystal sequins don’t hurt. In the midst of the ornate ball scene, the gown’s pure simplicity reminded me that it is Cendrillon’s innocence and goodness that capture the prince’s heart. The gown kept me playing her as a real young girl, not a diva. However, that’s a diva gown if ever I wore one!

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Denyce Graves in Carrie F. Robbins’s design for Dalila
© Ken Howard/Courtesy San Diego Opera


Hands down, my favorite costume is the one I wore in the second act of Samson et Dalila. It was created by Carrie F. Robbins, and I wore it in productions at LA Opera and San Diego Opera. The dress moves so well, the colors complement me, and I feel sexy in it. I love it so much that I tried to get one made for myself!

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Susan Graham in Ray Diffen’s costume for Octavian
© Beth Bergman


When your very first Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier is in the Met’s historic production, you need all the confidence you can get. My costume for the presentation of the rose was made especially for me by Ray Diffen. That felt very special. It was ornate and sparkly like no other Octavian costume in the world. I would often refer to myself as a human disco ball. I felt like I could do anything. Coming up the stairs while the orchestra blares—it’s the greatest entrance in all of opera—when I set foot onstage holding that gorgeous Tiffany silver rose, it felt like I was on top of the world. I’ll always associate that moment, and all the many fantastic moments that followed in the years after, with that costume.

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Martina Arroyo as Cio-Cio-San at the Met
Louis Melançon/Metropolitan Opera Archives


The costumes I wore in Yoshio Aoyama’s production of Madama Butterfly were gorgeous. Butterfly’s whole composition as a woman was different from myself. I had to learn her way of walking, her demeanor. I think the moment you get into costume (meaning the garment but also the wig and makeup), you become the character. You believe in her, because you’re looking at her. You’re not looking at a short girl, or a fat girl, or a white girl, or a dark girl. You’re looking at the finished product.

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Renata Scotto as Francesca da Rimini
© Beth Bergman


Franca Squarciapino’s design for Francesca da Rimini at the Metropolitan Opera required me to be very feminine and exude beauty, the same qualities my role demanded. The costume was extremely comfortable and made with the very best Italian silk. It was hand embroidered as well!

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Christa Ludwig as the Marschallin
Louis Melançon/Metropolitan Opera Archives


While many costumes I wore throughout my career were beautiful, singing in them was a different matter. When I made my debut at the Met in 1959, singing Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, I was shocked by what I had to wear. I, a voluptuous woman, could hardly breathe in my predecessor’s narrow pants. Of course, trouser roles required that I hide my feminine attributes, but for God’s sake! No hips! No bosom! On top of all that, I had to wear an ugly, stiff, gray wig. My costumes in Der Rosenkavalier were much nicer, particularly for the presentation of the rose. However, again I had to bind my chest. I did not enjoy the look or feel of pants roles. I preferred the marvelous costumes I later wore when I sang the Marschallin. I was able to show that I am a woman with a woman’s body. Even if the costumes were beautiful, I did not like wearing pants!


I prefer costumes that allow me to move freely and gracefully onstage. Whenever I have a fitting, I sing one of my character’s more difficult phrases to make sure I am able to get the breath and support I need. A good costume also helps me determine who my character is and what physical gestures I will need to transform myself. Among my favorites are the costumes I wore singing Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera at the Met (designed and directed by Piero Faggioni). The vibrant colors of the costumes and the hats I wore helped me to find the perfect portrayal. When I walked on the stage, I was Oscar. I was able to leave Harolyn in my dressing room.

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Harolyn Blackwell as Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera
© Beth Bergman

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© Paul Kolnik


There is something about a tutu that leaves a ballerina feeling incredibly exposed. The juxtaposition of a corset-like bodice and a stiff skirt that prevents the wearer from seeing her own legs can feel daunting. My favorite is the costume I wear [as a principal dancer at New York City Ballet] in Balanchine’s Firebird (by Dain Marcus). The red color feels powerful, and the tutu itself is very petite and floppy. It’s asymmetrical, and the edges of the tulle are frayed. It’s a comfortable tutu. There’s something freeing about rough edges.

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Fayer/Metropolitan Opera Archives


My favorite designer, Sir Cecil Beaton, created the sets and costumes for the premiere of Vanessa, by Samuel Barber, at the Met. I was so young, so impressionable, so naïve and vulnerable I didn’t realize what a great man he was. I had a fitting for the white gown I wore in the ballroom scene—my big dramatic moment when I proclaim the child I’m carrying will not be born. The dress was brought in, I tried it on. It was over. Cecil then said, “Now bring the white gown for the fitting.” “But Mr. Beaton,” I said confusedly, “I just had a fitting for the white gown.” Sounding exactly like Alfred Hitchcock, he replied, “No, my dear, the bloody one.” In performance, switching gowns changed me completely. Mentally, physically, I became very weak. It was a metamorphosis. I felt like I was another Erika. If the designer is as great as Sir Cecil Beaton, the costumes take on a life of their own.

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© Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL


It matters to me to take a character through her story visually as much as vocally and dramatically. Two special productions whose designs truly made me cry and contemplate theft are La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (left; costume design by Bob Crowley), and Thaïs at the Metropolitan Opera (costume design by Christian Lacroix). Both captured the beauty of design and form in relation to the characters. I was awestruck wearing these looks.


All my Nefertiti costumes from Akhnaten at LA Opera are my favorite, but if I must choose a top, it would be the one I wore in the first scene. I knew I loved it the instant I tried it on. The fabric flowed in such a stunning way, and the colors complemented my skin gorgeously. My posture straightened, and I felt more confident. My movements became slower and more intentional. Nefertiti is a woman that I have studied and admired since childhood, and Kevin Pollard’s design completely aligned with how I always imagined her to look and feel.

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J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti at LA Opera
© Craig T. Mathew/Los Angeles Opera

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Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theatre’s My Fair Lady
© Joan Marcus


It’s hard to choose a favorite costume from My Fair Lady (the Ascot hat is especially unbelievable to wear), but I really love Eliza’s cockney outfit. They are the clothes she chose for herself. I wear a pair of cool man-boots that I found in a bin in the basement of Lincoln Center. Eliza is a practical girl, and it was important to me that she have practical, comfortable man-boots. Designer Catherine Zuber’s level of artistry and attention to detail are incredible. The hat is a recreation of a real boater hat from 1913 (the original is in the costume room), and the shawl was made by her mother. In the middle of previews, Cathy came to me and said, “Here. I just thought this little string around your neck would look really cute and be like a nice little frame.” I love it so much. Eliza doesn’t have much, but she is making an effort putting on her little string bow tie as if it were jewelry. I feel like that little black string is my favorite piece out of all the fabulous clothes I wear in the show. It’s so specific, it’s so lovely, and the moment I put it on I feel grounded and like the character.

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Ashley Putnam in Santa Fe Opera’s Liebe der Danae
© The Santa Fe Opera/David Stein


When I think about the costumes that are burned in my memory, most of them are from Santa Fe Opera. They have the most unbelievable costume shop, and Donna Granata, Robert Indiana and Rouben Ter-Arutunian were among the brilliant designers. Rouben designed the diaphanous gold caftan I wore in Die Liebe der Danae. It was completely see-through! My father, who was in the audience during a performance, told me that when the lights hit the gauze-like fabric of the costume, he heard clicking all around him. It was the sound of audience members excitedly (and accidentally) knocking themselves in the face with their opera glasses.

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Stephanie Blythe as Cornelia in the Met’s Giulio Cesare, with David Daniels (Sesto)
© Beth Bergman


I know that I perform differently—I sing differently—when I feel beautiful. If you feel good in what you’re wearing, it helps the character. Costume is part and parcel with character. A costume that holds a special place in my heart is the gold creation by Michael Stennett that I wore when I made my debut as Cornelia in Giulio Cesare at the Met. Putting it on, I thought, “Wow, this is what an opera singer looks like.”

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© Beth Bergman


I have two polar-opposite favorites—Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Nedda in Pagliacci (both at the Met). The latter (designed by Moritz Junge) was set in late 1940s Italy. My first dress was a simple wrap that allowed me to capture fluid movement for my sexy duet with Silvio, and the burlesque costume for the commedia was so fun. The fishnets inspired me to go further in the dance (see p. 45). When I sang Elisabetta in the Met’s sumptuous production in 2006 (left), my costumes (designed by Ray Diffen) each probably weighed about fifty pounds! That weight informed how my vocal technique was in line with a very specific posture necessary to carry those layers upon layers of material, heavy ornate beading and incredibly stiff corsets (all of which I loved). I call it “queenly.” Like in Nedda (and in every role, really), the physical vocabulary was crucially informed by the costume. Feeling supported by what you wear (literally and figuratively) is key to having the freedom to infuse the character into each scene. spacer

Daniel J. Applebaum  is a dancer with New York City Ballet. 

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