Entering the Costume Department of San Francisco Opera is like stepping into the workshop of a dream. Boxes of silk, metallics, wool and other quality materials line the walls, with bolts of exquisite fabric propped here and there. Paints, dyes and other colorful potions are stacked on shelves, with psychedelic splatters showing evidence of their recent use. For the uninitiated, the visit is like going into Santa’s workshop or Cinderella’s home, right after the elves or Fairy Godmother have disappeared. No such magical beings are needed, however, as Assistant Costume Director Christopher Verdosci, now in his 17th season with San Francisco Opera, has everything under control.
The Costume Department is where visual dreams are made into reality. Verdosci and his capable team translate the vision of the world’s leading composers, past and present, into unforgettable designs. To say that these clothes evoke drama would be an understatement. There are the shimmery Japanese-themed garbs of Madame Butterfly, the ultra-chic Grace Kelly-worthy gowns of The Makropulos Case and the bold Egyptian-inspired costumes of Verdi’s Aida just for a start. The wardrobe of even those most flamboyant members of our community would likely pale in comparison to these outfits that match the grandeur of their accompanying operas, not to mention the charismatic, world-famous singers who wear them.
Abby Zimberg of the San Francisco Bay Times was recently allowed entrée into this creative space. We were honored to learn more about San Francisco Opera’s costume design from the brilliant master, Verdosci.
San Francisco Bay Times: Please explain what the basic steps are for creating costumes for a San Francisco opera, once the production is known. Based on some of the videotaped interviews online, it sounds like you begin with sketches that are then used to create prototypes.
Christopher Verdosci: When the design of a costume is finalized, the coordinated effort begins. The supervisors and designers source the materials; the dyers prepare the fabrics; drapers create the first patterns and prototypes, while their assistants cut the textiles and feed the pieces to the stitchers, who construct the costumes. The dyers, milliners, craft artisans, leather workers, footwear specialists, shoppers and stock assistants all work in close collaboration under the guide of the production supervisor.
In any one day you will find the artisans of the San Francisco Opera Costume Shop surrounded by quilted petticoats, hoop skirts, huge turbans, jewel-encrusted crowns, leather armor, lizards and bears, chain maille and blood—all to create the magic onstage.
San Francsico Bay Times: Please describe one of your favorite costumes that you and your team created.
Christopher Verdosci: So many of the world’s most amazing production designers have worked with the San Francisco Opera over the years and have left a stunning legacy of fabulous costumes in our archive. It would be impossible for me to choose a favorite, but the most recent production of Capuleti by Christian LaCroix will always be close to my heart. Co-producing the piece with Bavarian State Opera allowed LaCroix to access certain historical pieces from the Bavarian Archives and to incorporate them into his signature shapes and colors.
There are several other SFO productions I consider to be legendary: Capriccio designed by the late Gianni Versace, showcased his impeccable sense of style, his master sense of color and his signature details. As a design student, I viewed the famous black and white dress, worn by Hanna Schwarz, at a retrospective exhibit in Miami. As I stood in front of that masterpiece of a costume I knew this was a world I wanted to be a part of.
San Francisco Bay Times: Please share an anecdote concerning working with a particular singer. So many greats have worn your team’s designs.
Christopher Verdosci: I have had the honor of working with the world’s leading opera stars: Susan Graham, Renee Fleming, Natalie Dessay, Danielle de Niese, Placido Domingo, Rene Pape, Thomas Hampson and so many others … wonderful people, both personally and professionally.
One of my favorite artists, Angela Gheorghiu, was preparing to sing the tragic Mimi in La Boheme in San Francisco. We sat down together and she informed me that she would prefer not to wear light blue in the production. I immediately pictured in my head the many Mimi costumes I have seen that were, indeed, light blue (including the dress intended for her). I asked her why she would prefer another color, and she referenced Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger (the source material for Puccini’s operatic version) as she explained that Mimi was not as sweet and innocent as she has always been interpreted. But, rather much closer in personality to Musetta, a woman who clearly knew how to wield her beauty.
I found this thought process and level of commitment and care to the art to be incredibly inspiring. It is my responsibility to make the artist look and feel their absolute best on our stage. It is an interactive process with each artist to ensure their comfort and to provide them the costume tools they need for their characterizations.
San Francisco Bay Times: For the more elaborate costumes, perhaps such as the ones that you previously mentioned, how many people are typically involved in the design and creation, and how many work hours might be needed?
Christopher Verdosci: Creating a traditional eighteenth century costume is a collaboration between many artisans. From start to finish, the costume will involve at least 12 artisans. During a fitting, at least five artisans are present to fit accessories, footwear and headwear. A single costume can require 75–80 hours of work.
San Francisco Bay Times: Do you ever recycle old costumes in productions? Are some simply reused as is, while others are adjusted for new uses?
Christopher Verdosci: We absolutely do—depending on the needs of the production we may rework it in a number of ways, including color shifting and partial deconstruction.
Additionally, we have sets of costumes that can be used in multiple productions. For example, gentlemen’s tail suits are used in La Traviata, La Cenerentola, and Die Fledermaus.
San Francisco Bay Times: How many fittings do you and your team usually hold with a singer?
Christopher Verdosci: Depending on the historical period and complexity of design, we often fit the costumes at least twice. More complicated costumes can require additional fittings. We also have two to three opportunities to work with the artists in costume on stage. This allows us to fine tune the details before the opening performance.
San Francisco Bay Times: Does the singer ever get to keep, or want to keep, his or her outfit(s)?
Christopher Verdosci: When an artist wants to keep their costume, it is the highest compliment to the artisans. Depending on the future scheduling and needs of the specific production, it is sometimes possible. We have also been known to lend specific artist items to other companies for performances. I recently found myself facing a missed deadline of military hats for Carmen.
Knowing that the Licieu in Barcelona had the same production, I borrowed their set of hats. Funny enough, it was at the time they were rehearsing the Lacroix Capuleti and found themselves in need of both the shoes and the wig for Joyce DiDonato. I like to imagine our FedEx boxes running into each other at customs.
San Francisco Bay Times: Regarding this year’s opera season, what have been some of the highlights for you, in terms of costume design?
Christopher Verdosci: I found Andrea Chénier to be one of the most exquisite productions I have seen of this opera. The costume designer, Jenny Tiramani, is actually an esteemed costume historian with a long association with the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her approach was authentic in design and construction. While we often employ some modern tailoring techniques, the costumes for Andrea Chénier were patterned and cut exactly as they would have been during the French revolution. As a history buff, I found it especially rewarding to work on the costumes of historical figures of the time, like the Robespierre brothers.
San Francisco Bay Times: Every so often, San Francisco Opera will hold a costume sale. Do you know when the next one might be, and what attendees can expect to find?
Christopher Verdosci: While there are currently no plans for a costume sale in the immediate future, you never know when we may decide to divest ourselves of outrageous capes, giant hoop skirts or feathered hats. Past sales have included molded wings, swords, shields, ball gowns, peasant capes and even a few animal costumes. I love seeing pieces that I recognize at Burning Man and The Edwardian Ball.
San Francisco Bay Times: From Le Nozze di Figaro to Orfeo ed Euridice, operas often include gender-bending characters, with this aspect often communicated to the audience via the individual’s clothing. Do you think that, in this regard, many operas were ahead of their time by allowing for such freedom onstage?
Christopher Verdosci: I think that the creative community has always been ahead of its time in terms of acceptance. The evolution of societal, dramatic and musical approach to gender-bending roles is complex. Shakespeare used male actors as females for societal reasons, while I think Mozart used female singers as men for musical depth. I can listen to Le Nozze di Figaro endlessly. I always ref lect on the genius of Mozart in creating the role of Cherubino. The vocal contrast between the solo tenors and basses is made more dramatically complex by the young cherubic voice of Cherubino.
San Francisco Bay Times: Can you think of example(s) where your team has created such gender-bending clothing? Do the singers seem to have fun defying stereotypes via the clothing?
Christopher Verdosci: Over the past two decades I have seen many of these types of costumes and casting. From Cherubino and Octavian to the Handel masterpieces, I am always amazed at the way singers can alternate between roles and gender-Susan Graham is a perfect example. She has excited me by performing my two favorite male operatic characters, Handel’s Xerxes and Strauss’ Octavian, and equally destroyed me with her brilliant performances of tragic heroines Didon and Iphigenie. Frederica von Stade, known for her San Francisco Opera performances of Cherubino, is also known for her fantastic interpretations of Massenet’s Charlotte and Rossini’s Rosina.
A recent favorite was our production of Handel’s Partenope. Setting the piece in a 1920’s Parisian salon with Man Ray, the production incorporated a mezzo in male drag to spy on her lover, a bass baritone entering in a hoop skirt laden down with weapons, and two counter tenors in tuxedos. The result was a glorious mix of vocals and visuals that viewed the complex tale of the Queen of Naples through a 20th century lens.
Costume has the ability to transform—not just visually. When I fit a man in a dress for a costume, their posture and attitude immediately adjust; it is fascinating to see. Opera singers are true performers. Their dramatic ability allows them to be fluid in their characterizations.
San Francisco Bay Times: Please mention anything else that you would like our readers to know.
Christopher Verdosci: I would like the opportunity to point out that what we do is a huge collaborative effort. There are so many important members of the opera family: the artisans who transport you, the patrons that come to our performances and the donors that allow someone like me to have my dream job.
To learn more about San Francisco Opera, including the stunning costumes featured in its productions, please visit: http://sfopera.com/