When we talk about a "costume drama," we usually mean a show set in a historical era that requires elaborate costumes to recreate the period and mood. The Dallas Opera's current production of Verdi's Aïda certainly fits that description. Here, the royal court of ancient Egypt has to materialize before our very eyes, and that means costumes with a capital "C."
The late Peter J. Hall, the legendary Dallas Opera costume designer who died in 2010, originally created this production for the Dallas Opera in 1972. Hall's costumes for Aïda are opulent and encrusted with gold and precious jewels. His costumes also look as good up close as they do from the back seats of the theater. However, as Tommy Bourgeois, properties designer and costume design advisor for the Dallas Opera, pointed out in a recent trip through the backstage costume storage, not everything is exactly as it appears.
There is a dash of magic, as well.
Shows are designed to hold up through demanding performances, night after night, but this Aïda has been trodding the boards since Richard Nixon roamed the White House. In addition, opera companies rent out productions to companies around the world, which adds to the considerable wear and tear. However, this is economically astute for both the renter and the company doing the renting. It brings in much-needed revenue for the former and cuts down on the cost of mounting an opera for the latter. However, this means that these costumes get a lot of use—and occasional abuse. It also means that fitters need to plan ahead for different-sized singers.
"We make multiple costumes for each character: small, medium and big. Also bigger and even bigger," Bourgeois adds with a wry laugh. "But not so much anymore, though."
"Fortunately, Peter wrote out a detailed description of every single costume and we sill have that record," Bourgeois says. "This makes it easier for us to match repairs and replace parts of a costume."
Hall made liberal use of paint on the leather and fabric that went into these costumes, something that might surprise you. [Click the photo slideshow icon above to see the detail from some of these costumes.]
"He painted almost everything," Bourgeois says. "It gives theatricality and helps with the way stage lighting plays on the costume. Also, later if we need to make repairs, and we can't match the fabric, we can always match the paint."
Bourgeois showed us a perfect example. It is the costume worn by Amneris, the Egyptian Princess who is the slave Aida's rival for the love of the military hero, Radames. It is an iridescent midnight blue fabric with gold swirls. Rather than take in the medium for the slender Nadia Krasteva, who sings the role in this production, Bourgeois decided to simply enlarge a smaller version.
"Of course, we could never match this 40-year-old fabric," he explained. "I found some that was close in color, but we had to paint on the gold swirls. We use radiator paint for the gold."
Radiator paint? Modern houses and buildings don't have radiators anymore, but elaborate radiators painted with a gold metallic finish used to be everywhere. You can still buy the paint, but now it is called High Heat.
In the case of Amneris' gilded gown, you can barely see the difference, even on close inspection. Considering that a cape goes over this dress when Amneris wears it, no one would ever see this particular alteration and whether the perfectly recreated gold swirls were there. But Bourgeois would know and the ghost of Peter J. Hall still hovers over his creations. Besides, the Dallas Opera does things right.
Even when all repairs are made and fittings finished, you still have to be flexible and accommodate the various peccadilloes of the different singers and dancers. Sometimes the artists will have their own ideas, which Bourgeois is fine with…within reason. For example, Orlin Anastassov, who sings the High Priest in this production, has a hat as part of his "official" costume, but he didn't want to wear it. He suggested shaving his head as he has in other productions of Aïda.
"I was OK with either, but not with not wearing the hat and keeping his hair. It was one or the other. It was 'wear the hat or shave your head'," Bourgeois says matter-of-factly.
"Latonia [Moore, who plays Aida] likes to perform the role in bare feet, but she needed something on her feet for safety. I made an invisible sandal that she barely feels and this worked out quite well."
Sometimes, parts of a show's costumes originated somewhere else. For example, the big headdresses in this Aïda were purchased from the Metropolitan Opera from a pre-1972 production. Since these are not worn on the body itself, just on the head in a particular scene, they don't get the same amount of wear.
"We still had to repaint all of the gold," Bourgeois says. "If they are to look great, they need to have all of the gold shining."
Although these toppers look big and unwieldy, they are amazingly light and easy to wear. Of course, back in ancient Egypt when they were made of real gold they must have been a trial and a major headache. Peter's versions are made of painted fabric and the radiator paint on a wire frame. They fit snuggly but are comfortably light. Surprisingly, it is just like wearing any other hat.
Tommy's tenderly repaired and repainted versions of Peter J. Hall's 1972 Aïda costumes are just one intriguing component of a magnificent production, which continues through Nov. 11.
Then, it's back in the closet they go—until next time.