Soprano Vanessa Vasquez is in the fitting room of the costume shop at the Santa Fe Opera, mirrors reflecting her stiff posture and arms outstretched like a scarecrow’s. Her dress is plain, as befits the singer playing the impoverished Mimì in La bohème, composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s tale of bohemian life in 19th-century Paris. In a flurry of movement, costume designer Camellia Koo and two of her assistants pin and unpin, measure and remeasure in this fitting about a week before the Friday, June 28, premiere.
“Mimì starts off in a sort of fashion that’s she’s created herself,” Koo said of the down-on-her-luck seamstress who is struggling with illness, likely consumption. Mimì has only one costume in the two-hour opera: a soft, blue-gray man’s cotton shirt; a brown, full-length woolen skirt; and a plain khaki shawl. It’s humble but presentable. Her one concession to finery, perhaps, is a pair of fingerless woolen gloves embroidered with a vibrant rose pattern. “There are hints of the period,” Koo said. “She’s wearing a men’s-style frock coat, but it’s made for her, so there’s still some femininity in it.”
“She does have her pride,” costume director Missy West said.
In contrast, the opera’s other prominent female character, a singer named Musetta (soprano Gabriella Reyes), has several flamboyant costumes.
Koo set about designing costumes that would reflect some essential traits of characters such as Mimì and Musetta and also have a visual impact, even for the audience in the back of the house. The narrative focus is on the bohemians, and their clothes reflect their stations in life but are also designed to be appealing.
“It has to be character-based,” Koo said of the designs she made for the production. “That’s more important than getting the period 100 percent right, which is the least interesting to me in terms of storytelling. With all of the principles, we are completely irreverent with the period.”
That’s not to say that the opera’s production doesn’t evoke the late Romantic era in which it’s set. But even within its historical framework, Koo and scene designer Grace Laubacher could take an imaginative approach. The bourgeois middle-class characters — bedecked in showy, tailored frocks in vibrant pastel colors with matching boots and top hats — are juxtaposed with the drab browns and grays of the young artists, poets, and musicians who are boarding together in an unadorned Latin Quarter garret.
“All of the colors come from the set,” Koo said, “so hopefully, it all looks cohesive and of the same world.”
The bohemians — Mimì, Musetta, Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard — have little in the way of creature comforts and finances, but they have their hopes and dreams. La bohème is about the sacrifices one makes for the sake of survival. It’s a story of compromise.
“In some ways, this opera speaks to artists of all sorts,” Koo said, counting herself and her crew among those who could relate to the day-to-day struggles the characters go through. “All the people working in the wardrobe shop — all those seamstresses and drapers — are artists in their own right.”
Only a handful of people work in the Santa Fe Opera’s costume shop year-round, under West. But starting in about late April or early May, that number swells from three permanent staff members, including West, to 70 or more. Right now, the shop is abuzz with the staccato rhythm of sewing machines, as drapers, stitchers, and firsthand stitchers (who supervise other stitchers, assist cutters, attend fittings, and work directly with Koo) toil over the banks of long narrow tables laden with materials from which the costumes are made. Strips of cut fabric litter the floor like confetti. Rolling clothes racks line the walls. Storerooms are stacked floor to ceiling with plastic bins of white and black lace trim, leather, pleather, satin, and silk. The label on one shoebox reads “vintage red ‘Mae West’ ankle boots,” and on another, “women’s black dragon boots.”
In a side room, milliners build top hats out of felt in an array of pastels, steaming them into shape; stitchers attach epaulets to regal marching band costumes.
In another side room, wig makers thread human hair, strand by strand, for hours on end.
Vasquez has one wig — long wavy locks of dark brown hair — for the entire production. She’s wearing it at the fitting, and it’s a testament to the quality of the makers that it’s not noticeably a wig.
“It took me 82 hours to make it,” said wig maker Harley Haberman. “Every single one of these hairs I tied myself with a little crochet hook. That’s why it takes so long. But it creates a better look than a factory-bought wig. They’re all custom to these opera singer’s hairlines. Mimì has just the one wig, but Musetta has three wigs.”
In the opera’s early acts, the character of Musetta — a courtesan who keeps company with the bohemians and wealthier middle class alike — sports a wig with short spiky hair.
“She’s being avant-garde, like the Marlene Dietrich of the 1830s,” said wig designer David Zimmerman. “In Act 3, when she and Marcello have been together for a while, she’s got bob-length or shoulder-length hair. The period of Bohème actually only spans a few months, so her hair is growing faster than real hair actually would, but we can still get away with it.”
Musetta also rebels against gender norms by wearing men’s fashions, and by showing off a flashy outfit or two. But her individualism will be severely tested by the opera’s final act.
In Act 1, Musetta shows up wearing the coat and top hat of her sometime paramour Alcindoro, a pompous buffoon the bohemians take great delight in showing up whenever they get the chance. Musetta is already tired of him when she makes her dramatic appearance in the second act.
“She’s among the crowd of the bourgeois and the artists in Café Momus, in the cityscape of Paris,” Koo said. “She comes up skating and she reveals this very fantastic skating outfit. It is clearly not of the period, but that’s on purpose because she has her own sense of style. She’s quite showy. That’s her character.”
Musetta wears a bedazzling bright pink, sequined jumpsuit. But in the third act, her look is more inspired by the real-life figure of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who was better known by her nom de plume, George Sand. Like Musetta, Sand subverted stereotypes of femininity and women’s roles in society by choosing to wear male attire in public. While it wasn’t uncommon for women of the time to do this, it was not the norm. Musetta wears a stylish suit and waistcoat, more subdued in tone than her skating outfit, but still eccentric.
“She can live in the world of bohemians, but can also find her way, especially, in the world of the bourgeois who we’re exaggerating a little bit to make them, not cartoonish, but a little caricature-ish,” Koo said.
By the time Musetta appears in George Sand mode, she’s already begun to conform and is showing signs of settling down.
“In Act 4, she goes way more traditional,” Koo said. “She’s in a pregnancy dress. She’s having a baby, and fulfilling the female role in society. But she’s smart. She knows how to survive and she realizes that she does have to conform a little bit to society in order to sing.” ◀