Calaf, Colors, and Cloth

Lowell House Opera's "Turandot" takes the stage in style

Four weeks, four pairs of hands, and 80 yards of cloth later, 50 costumes for the Lowell House Opera’s (LHO) “Turandot” are finally ready for the main stage.

Beginning March 5 and running through the 15th, LHO will perform Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” in honor of the 150th anniversary of the maestro’s birth. The opera, set in legendary Peking, focuses on a suitor named Calaf, who must answer the three riddles of the enchanting but cruel princess Turandot to win her hand and keep his head.

The costumes in “Turandot” attempt to stay faithful to traditional styles of Chinese dress while maintaining Puccini’s vision of Peking as a grandiose Orientalist fantasy. Though LHO has often borrowed costumes in the past, each outfit in this year’s production has been specifically made by four dedicated costume designers.

Cut from various poly-blend fabrics intended to mimic silks, linens, and satins, the costumes were designed to create an effect onstage that is just as lavish and radiant as the imagined originals while remaining conscious of cost. According to Keun Jung Cho, a costume designer who is also a first-year student at the Graduate School of Design, the flowing robes and bright colors are inspired by both traditional Chinese dance and films like Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower.”

The two dresses created for Princess Turandot are by far the most elaborate. The first, a brilliant white lace nightgown, only appears in Act I for one minute. With the second and primary dress, an ornate gown of sea green and turquoise, Cho seeks to accentuate the effect of Turandot’s beauty and power upon Calaf and the audience.

“She carries the show,” Cho says. “All colors and textures revolve around her.”

The other members of the cast have been outfitted with costumes that, while conceptually less powerful than Turandot’s, require no less artistry in design and no less attention to detail. In addition to the main cast, the opera calls for numerous palace attendants, guards, peasants, and a chorus. While the peasants have simplistic white linens and iconic peasant hats, the ministers wear elegant and noble bluish-purple robes with lengthy sleeves, emphasizing their roles as identical and interchangeable within song. Calaf is dressed in a short-fitting gold and brown outfit, its length intended to contrast with the extravagance and nobility of the woman he pursues. In addition, some of the most indulgent designs are reserved for the nine children in the chorus, who are intended to look like “little china dolls,” Cho writes in an email.

Sarah S. Eggleston ‘07, the producer and manager of the show, emphasizes the difficulty of balancing practical and aesthetic challenges in the costume-making process. The designers had to pay close attention to budgetary concerns for the many costumes, with fabric costs spiraling upward as costumes become richer and flashier. The fitting of these costumes was also an especially tricky process, considering that the cast rotates heavily from night to night.

“The costumes must be large enough to fit all,” Eggleston says. “Many of the parts are double- and triple-casted.” The producer and costume designers had to juggle the individual preferences of the all-volunteer cast, including instances in which some did not wish to wear certain hats and headpieces.

In addition, there were numerous aesthetic concerns in designing the costumes. The designers strived to achieve a harmony between costume individuality and uniformity.

“The more massive the costume, the more restrained the presence must be,” Cho says. Turandot, for example, must maintain a dominant onstage presence alongside numerous guards and attendants in identical uniforms. Cho also stresses that the outfits must at the same time harmonize with the red and gold hues of the set in a way that appeals to the senses of the distant audience.

Still, despite the intricate and important process of designing the costumes, Cho emphasizes that it is just one of the many critical elements that bring the opera together. “It’s about looking at the big picture of design rather than obsessing over details.”