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The Tailors of Seville : While Singing Is the Star of Any Opera Production, Costumes Play a Crucial Role--Especially in This Age of Technicolor and MTV


Opera is voice, voice, voice, the composer Gioacchino Rossini once said.

Sure, but today's audiences, bred on film, television, even MTV, want a face and body too.

Enter the opera-costume designer--one part design historian, one part nanny, someone who must never offend the audience, never offend the diva and never, ever go over budget.

The last rule might be the most critical these days, as even the richest opera houses cope with fiscal woes.

Fashion designer Eugenie Crager, 36, is an opera newcomer who has proven deft at creating striking costumes for a song. She put her own red leather mini on a character in Long Beach Opera's "Bluebeard" last season.

Last month, Mark Wendland, 32, who studied set design at Carnegie Mellon University, wrapped the same company's "Carmen" and a chorus of gypsies in $1-a-yard muslin petticoats.

Even the Los Angeles Music Center Opera turned to the Dallas Opera to share the expense of Peter J. Hall's exquisite costumes for "La Boheme," which opened Thursday night.

All of this penny-pinching comes as opera companies are trying a variety of methods to attract new audiences: supertitles (even the Metropolitan Opera is caving); modern interpretations, and spin doctoring from artists outside the medium, who approach production design from unconventional perspectives.

"Directors like Peter Sellars dress the characters the way they dress," observes Tammy Fareed, director of community relations for the Long Beach Opera. Which is? "A very theatrical street look."

Case in point: Designer Wend-land wore a sarong, combat boots and a T-shirt on the opening night of "Carmen."

Hall, a veteran British costume designer, suspects the current vogue for modern dress in opera isn't the answer to attracting young audiences. "Opera, after all, is circus . . . spectacle. And the young people who come to the Met like that sense of history and splendor," even if, he allows, "sometimes the critics don't."

The artists and vendors of "La Boheme," set in a 19th-Century Paris street market on Christmas Eve, wear subdued colors--browns and grays. And although some characters are dressed in their very best, most, Hall notes, are not. But whatever the character's social status, his or her hand-painted costume is guaranteed to drape beautifully. "I like natural fabrics," Hall says. "Polyester never does the same kinds of folds as the real thing,"

In 1973, Hall designed costumes for one of the biggest-budget operas of his career, the Metropolitan Opera's "Otello." Twenty years later, he has been asked to design costumes for the New York company's new version of "Otello."

"This one is going to be very somber and severe," he says, a bit sadly.

Hall's not surprised that the same sort of monastery chic dominates the fashion world today. "There's always a relationship between fashion and opera," he notes. "Even a well-produced period costume changes in 10 years because the designer has a different point of view on the period."

As Wendland sees it, it's a stark, minimalist, modern world. That's not to say he is unconcerned with historic authenticity. One of his favorite research haunts is the Hollywood branch of the public library, where he tracks styles from back issues of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. He also collects catalogues from museum costume shows.

"Not only do they have photos of the costumes on a mannequin," he says, "but they show how the garment is sewn on the inside. It's much better than an 18th-Century painting that idealizes a garment."

Historic sources serve as a springboard for Wendland's work. For "Carmen," he researched the construction of corsets. "They tortured women's bodies to make them into something alluring. You sort of learn something about why they stood in that particular posture."

A minimalist approach seemed the natural direction for Crager to go with the two leads of the Long Beach Opera's production of "Orfeo ed Euridice." "Both of them had beautiful bodies, so I thought, 'Let's just show them.' So I put him in pants with no shirt, and put her in a simple silk velvet dress."

Crager, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, makes custom clothing at her West Los Angeles studio. But when asked to costume "Bluebeard" in just a month on a tiny budget, Crager hit the thrift stores.

"I was all over this city," she says. On her list: six '50s wedding gowns for the chorus, a large-size velvet wedding gown, red leather pants, yellow rain slickers and on and on. "I slept as little as possible and I learned a tremendous amount."

Like how to use the train on a wedding dress to expand it to operatic proportions. Even though the trend in opera, we keep hearing, is for singers to look like the slender young maidens and heroes they play, there are still some who pack the pounds.

One local diva recently responded to a critic's comment on her heft by appearing on stage closing night in an impromptu and more revealing costume redesign--much to the surprise of the designer. "By then there was nothing I could do. She thought her version was sexier," the designer recalled.

The episode was reminiscent of an era long past, when singers traveled from engagement to engagement with their own lavish, look-at-me costumes, encrusted with jewels and feathers. Although that's not an accepted practice today, Hall quips: "I'd never say no to a big-footed singer who brought along her own pair of large-size shoes."

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