Opera Costumes from our History

By: Angelica DiIorio and Alison Milan

With four decades of performances under our belt, Opera Colorado has amassed an impressive collection of costumes. Costumes can tell you a tremendous amount about the story unfolding before you. They can help indicate the time period of the opera all while differentiating between the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy.’ Seattle Opera even ranked some of their favorite costumes over the years.

To get a sense of the costumes we love here at Opera Colorado, we took a tour of our warehouse with our Costume Director, Alison Milan. Let’s look back at some costumes from our history, especially ones created for Opera Colorado premieres!

Costume from La traviata (2004, 2007)

A red dress with beading
Violetta’s dress from La traviata

This lovely red dress, designed by Bruno Schwengl, belongs to the soprano character Violetta in act one of La traviata.

Notes from the costume shop: “This dress is decadent. All the beading detail is really breathtaking. There is a black dress for Violetta as well that was equally as detailed. The female chorus starts the show with their dresses up over their shoulders; so you saw their black bedazzled petticoats and what looks like a black shawl over their shoulders. Then, in a very choreographed moment, they all drop their skirts at the same time to reveal a sea of stunning red silk dresses. It was one of my favorite elements of this production.”

Costumes from Un ballo in Maschera (2007)

A black dress with long sleeves and a maroon coat with gold trimmings
Ulrica’s dress and Riccardo’s coat from Un ballo in maschera

Meet the incredible costumes that make up act one of Un ballo in maschera, designed by James Schutte. The soprano Ulrica—played by Nancy Maultsby—wears the dazzling black dress and the tenor Riccardo—played by Frank Lopardo—wears the intricate red coat with gold trimmings.

Notes from the costume shop: “I love how ornate all the costumes are for the principal artists in this show. The chorus is all in grey with layers added at certain times, and I just think the beauty of their simplicity made the richness of the principals stand out that much more. Fun side note, I got to be the fit model for the Ulrica costume! We use the costumes from Un ballo in maschera all the time. They are such good period pieces, especially the men’s wear.”

Costumes from The Scarlet Letter (2016)

A red, embroidered "A: and a clean dress with red flowers
Hester’s scarlet “A” and Pearl’s dress from The Scarlet Letter

You might think of high school English class when you hear The Scarlet Letter. Opera Colorado premiered the opera in 2016 giving a whole new sound to this great American novel. These featured costumes include Hester’s scarlet “A” itself—played by Laura Claycomb—and a dress worn by her daughter Pearl in act one.

Notes from the costume shop: “I think all the custom embroidery on Pearl’s dress and Hester’s tabard is beautiful. We had the fabric for Pearl’s dress sent out and then created the garment. Ann Piano, our former Costume Director, did the cross stitching for the “A” tabard. The subtle details that went into all The Scarlet Letter costumes are really beautiful.”

Listen to the music of The Scarlet Letter for yourself>>

Costumes from Steal a Pencil for Me (2018)

A woman on stage in a blue dress with a yellow patch on her shoulder next to an image of the same dress on a hanger
Lisette’s costumes from our 2018 production of Steal a Pencil for Me

This light blue patterned dress is worn by soprano Lisette—played by Katherine Beck—in our world premiere of Steal a Pencil for Me in 2018. This story details the true, unlikely love story between two Holocaust survivors.

Notes from the costume shop:These costumes all have layers of fabric to show the passing of time and process of things falling apart, health failing, et cetera during the characters’ internment in the concentration camp, Bergen Belsen. The initial yellow color represents the star of David which Lisette and others are forced to wear. There are all these patches on the costumes which are removed to slowly to reveal more and more of the destruction the characters face. Then, there is a secondary costume, exactly like the first, but with much more of the “distressed” fabric overlay. I like that it almost looks as if they are disintegrating, and really helps to speak to the dire circumstances they were experiencing. It was an incredible process and took hours of labor and patience.”

Soon, we will release a recording of Steal of Pencil for Me! Learn more about this project>>

How does the team maintain costumes?

The costume shop shares: “All costumes have different needs to be maintained, but most are treated daily after a performance with an alcohol spray to combat odor and rid the piece of bacteria. Things that can be laundered are washed between each show. But, for the most part, costumes are dry clean only. Therefore, they can only have the alcohol treatment during the run of the show.

Dressers check items at the beginning and end of every performance to ensure everything is as it should be. The wardrobe team tends to repairs if anything needs to be mended. Things that can often happen include: hems coming undone that need to be re-stitched; tears in knees and places of tension, especially if an artist is crawling on the floor; closures coming off; and beading and other decorative elements coming loose. The possibilities are endless and the wardrobe team has to be prepared for anything!”

All costumes require a little T.L.C. Even the costumes at the MET undergo similar maintenance to keep their costumes in top shape.

We hope you enjoyed a brief look into the colorful closets we have here in colorful Colorado. Thank you for sharing four decades of songs and stories with us.

Do you have a favorite costume from one of the operas you have seen with us? Let us know what outfits you would steal in the comments below.

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