A Night at the Opera

– Andrea Mestrovic –

Seattle Opera's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. © Alan Alabastro photo

Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera classic Madama Butterfly is a fable of all-consuming love that crosses cultural boundaries.  Set in Nagasaki, Japan, in the early 1900s, the story is inspired by a true incident, documented in a French novel.
The abstract is as follows: a striking 15 year old geisha, Cio-Cio San also known as Madama Butterfly, marries and falls in love with an American naval officer, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, only to choose death over dishonor after he abandons her.  With such illustrious passion (not mention intricate silk kimonos in the most fascinating colors), tragic aftermath, and compositions that transcend the joys and sorrows of love that wasn’t meant to be, Madama Butterfly continues to be one of the most performed operas in the world.
I was left elated with Seattle Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly – starting with Patricia Racette’s majestic musical and dramatic performance, to the dynamic set design, effervescent effects, and an array of rich costumes.  I caught up with Susan Davis, Seattle Opera Costume Shop Manager, to find out more about the costume design principles and the creative progression involved in bringing Madama Butterfly to life – so vividly.

Susan Davis, Seattle Opera Costume Shop Manager

OP: What were some key inspirations for Madama Butterfly costumes and colors schematics?
SD: The opera is set in the early 20th century; the color palette is very tight overall—primarily shades of grey, with touches of peach, rust, apricot, and gold.  Pinkerton’s US Navy uniform is the exception to this, being a true navy blue for Act 2. His costume has the strongest historic reference, though we’ve made some modifications to a traditional uniform design for use on stage.
OP: Are there any particularly significant historical references paraphrased in the wardrobe?
SD:  Primarily the uniforms described above. Cio-Cio San’s (Madama Butterfly) wedding kimono has a floral pattern, conveying her youthfulness. Her costume is the most vibrant in color and decoration—the opera is named after her, after all. She stands out from the crowd. The Western characters, Kate Pinkerton and Sharpless, are in standard styles from the period, but again in shades of grey. Kate, with her large turn-of-the century hat and tailored walking suit, is a striking contrast to Cio-Cio San’s rich, flowing silk kimonos.

© Elise Bakketun Photo

OP: During the process of designing costumes for an opera classic like Madama Butterfly, do modern interpretations of long-gone fashions come into play? In other words, are the costumes made to fit tightly around original historical models or are they somewhat modernized to enhance the effect for today’s audiences?
SD:  Research forms the base for any costume design—if an opera has a specific setting (place and time), the designer might rely more heavily on historic research. The research serves as a spring-board for designing the right costumes to tell the story of the particular opera (both overall, and the situation of specific characters). In this production, Japanese dress, which has a long history and tradition, forms the basis for the costumes of the Japanese characters. But the basic kimono silhouette has been modified—the kimono sleeves and collars are traditional, but the skirt portion is fuller, with trains for some of the ladies (including Cio-Cio San). That’s one way the designer filters the research through her artistic lens to create a non-traditional look for the costumes.
OP: Costumes play an integral part in making a production a success.  How long is the process of designing, sourcing out, and finally producing the end line-up of costumes for something as elaborate as Madama Butterfly?
SD: The process of creating an entire production, from pre-planning to opening night, takes about a year. The process starts with design meetings between the director and the design team (costume, set, lighting designers); sketches are finished about six months before the costume workroom starts, followed by sourcing fabrics and trims. The workroom will work from six to twelve weeks on any given show. Because we started with an existing set of costumes, the shop worked about seven weeks on “Butterfly”.  (The production was rented from Canadian Opera Company, with original set and costume designs by Susan Benson).

© Alan Alabastro photo

OP: Can you tell us a bit about the costume shop at Seattle Opera? Is it truly a fairytale closet many believe it to be?
SD:  People are drawn to this work because of their passion for creating costumes and being involved in the arts. The shop is staffed with technicians who specialize in different aspects of costume making—tailoring, dressmaking, millinery and so on. We have an area called costume crafts, which handles the non-clothing elements; these range from dyeing and painting fabric, to creating hats, armor, and jewelry.
“Madama Butterfly” is unique in that most of the fabrics are hand-painted and dyed. Cio-Cio Sans two main kimonos were painted with a silk painting technique—the designer provided a template for the craftsperson to work from.  Some operas have lots of “distressing”—ageing clothing by painting and sometime physically shredding–to make a new costume look like rags.

© Elise Bakketun Photo

Our storage area is indeed a huge closet—our racks are two and three levels high and hold over twenty full productions, plus stock garments such as shirts and petticoats, and boxes of accessories for a range of historic periods and styles—essentially hundreds of pieces. Storage is important—we may not use our zoris (Japanese style flip-flops) very often, but it’s prudent to store them rather than re-buy them each time we do “Butterfly”.
For more information on Madama Butterfly or upcoming events, visit www.seattleopera.org
Andrea Mestrovic is a multi-lingual, multi-talented, but modest multi-tasker who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Andrea has a sure-footed instinct for discovering magnificent finds all over the globe. You can follow her on twitter @AndreaMestrovic

About the Author

Andrea Mestrovic is a multi-lingual, multi-talented, but modest multi-tasker who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic. Andrea has a sure-footed instinct for discovering magnificent finds all over the globe. You can follow her on twitter @AndreaMestrovic or read all her posts on http://oliviapalermo.com/author/andrea