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But you said you were a size 6!

New Orleans opera fans will argue fiercely about the qualities of the directors or whether they want their favorite opera staged traditionally or in a more contemporary style. They know the names of all the international divas. But do they know whether it’s the temperamental tenor who decides which costume he wants to wear — or is it his wife? Is the outfit made just for him? Or does he choose from a selection brought to him by some bespoke tailor? Or are there hundreds of costumes in-heaven-knows how many sizes hanging on a hook in a closet somewhere?

Take this weekend’s performance of Il Trovatore by the New Orleans Opera. It’s a BIG opera with a chorus of at least 50 people. And then there are the world-famous soloists (not a temperamental tenor among them), here to sing the principal roles. All of them need not just one, but three or four costume changes. That means there could be as many as 150 costumes used throughout the performance.

How in the world does that happen?

“It starts with a directorial decision,” says Robert Lyall, artistic director of the New Orleans Opera Association. “First you settle on the look of the opera; what the sets will be; which period the costumes will reflect. One begets the other and that is usually driven by the look of the set.”

And it all has to start about a year ahead, with what is called a costume plot detailing how many outfits will be needed; their historic period; and a size chart for all the people in the cast who have to ‘fess up about their sizea.

“And, sometimes, I have to admit, some of our artists are less than candid about that,” Lyall says with a grin.

Then a request is made to a costume house whose business it is to rent out the fabulous brocade gowns, military costumes, togas and capes, shawls and shoes seen on stages across America.

“After which comes the ritual of fitting costumes to each member of the company,” Lyall explains. “It’s a very time consuming and expensive part of the business.”

Fortunately, most professional costumes are designed to be adapted to a variety of shapes and sizes. They come with expandable waistlines, for example, and they’re made of cloth that can survive the kneeling, fighting, even fainting, that is so often part of a dramatic operatic role. But for all that, they still have to be fitted to each individual artist.

“That’s when Charlotte Lang, our wardrobe mistress, and our staff of seamstresses go crazy,” Lyall adds, because it all has to happen in the two or three weeks prior to the performances: That’s when the huge hampers arrive, stuffed with costumes that then have to be sorted, hung and steamed, and finally fitted.

“It’s at that point we find out how truthful you are,” Lyall says. “That you’re really a size 10 when you said you were a 6. It’s high intensity, but, as usual, it all works out.”

Go see for yourself. Performances are Friday night and Sunday afternoon at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts in Armstrong Park.

For more information about the visually stunning Il Trovatore, click here.


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