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I’m going to admit that I know nothing about opera. I mean NOTHING.

So, when I was approached by the Kentucky Opera about going behind the scenes to attend a costume fitting of Louisvillian Emily Albrink, a principal in  La Bohème, I jumped at the chance. Imagine a dress-up closet, writ large, for adults surrounded by the sounds of amazing operatic voices.

Here is a synopsis of La Bohème. (Fun fact: the Broadway Musical Rent is based on this opera):

Love finds young bohemians in early 19th century Paris trying to make a living with their art. While there are fleeting moments of joy, the realities of poverty and ill health become too much and sacrifices must be made in an attempt to save one in their midst. Featuring Corinne Winters as Mimi and Patrick O’Halloran as Rodolfo, Puccini’s La Bohème is one of the top ten most performed operas in the repertory.

Emily plays the role of Musetta, a grisette or a courtesan in 19th century Paris.


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Emily, as well as all of the other principals, look like normal people until they sing. Then they are transformed, even without all the costumes. Take a look at this short clip of Emily singing and you’ll see what I mean:



Amazing, right? So are the costumes and the entire operation, as you’ll see below.

Here are some fun facts about the Kentucky Opera. (I should have titled this post Opera for Dummies-like me.):

Every costume in the play is rented from a the Canadian company Malabar.

For instance, you just order the La Bohème package and all of these costumes are shipped to you. This company has been around for 90 years and their attention to detail is meticulous. The entire chorus is outfitted, as well as the principals.

Outifts for the choir. They are made to look distressed as the choir is all "poor" characters.
Outfits for the chorus. They are made to look distressed, in keeping with the “poor” characters.


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French military costume.


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A distressed sleeve of a coat.

Costumes are generally made the same way they would have been made in whatever time period they represent.

For this opera, beautiful dresses are made from heavy silk, and steel bones are used in the corsets. There is incredible detail in all of the costumes. The costume designers at the Kentucky Opera say it would take at least a month to sew one outfit from scratch.


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Steel bones in the corset. Emily says they are better than Spanx.


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Heavy silk is used for dresses, similar to the silk used in fine curtains today.


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Intricate details and ruching on all outfits takes hours and hours to complete.

Principals wear three or more outfits through the course of La Boheme. Each character has a certain color palette.

Emily has three outfits for her character Musetta, all in the rich color palette of reddish rust, gold and green. They evolve from very dressy to what would be considered casual. But, even in the most casual of outfits, she still wears gloves.

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Musetta’s three costumes waiting to be fitted.

Here is Emily’s first and most dressy costume, complete with hat, fur stole, small purse called a reticule and gloves. She loves this outfit, as you can see.

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Musetta’s first outfit gets a big smile from Emily.


Hats are pinned to these white flaps so they cannot fall off.
Hats are pinned to these white flaps so they cannot fall off.

The second outfit is a bit more casual, with a shawl replacing the fur stole and no hat. Note that the outfit is still in same color palette.

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Musetta’s second outfit seems all business and professional to me.

Her third outfit is considered the most casual of the bunch. It is gold with striped skirt. And as always, accompanied by gloves.

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Beautiful embroidered detail on the jacket.


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From the ruching on the skirt to the button detail on the back, this took hours and hours to complete.

Three people are in charge of all the costumes.

Consider this the Costume Dream Team, as this is a huge portion of the performance. They are in charge of every piece of clothing and make sure it all fits correctly. They are all seamstresses and they are all involved in each part of the process. They are pictured from left to right:

Josette Miles: Manager of the Costume Shop, or Costume Mistress. Josette has been with the Kentucky Opera for thirty years. She keeps a several “bibles” of every person who needs a costume and their measurements.

Mary Vessels: Dresser for the Women’s Principals. Mary dresses all the women and does alterations.

Lorraine Venberg: Costume Coordinator. Lorraine orders the costumes and makes sure that everyone has the correct attire for each scene. She also works at Actors Theatre.


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The Dream Team of the Costumes: Josette Miles, Mary Vessels and Lorraine Venberg.


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Josette consults her bible on Emily during the fitting. She notices immediately upon looking at Emily that she has lost weight and estimates how much.


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Josette’s Little Black Books.

Opera singers are like doctors in terms of education and experience.

These are not singers who post themselves singing on YouTube and hope to be discovered. Emily has her undergraduate BFA from University of Michigan in musical theatre and her graduate Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music. She later completed a Young Artists program at the Washington National Opera, which is similar to a doctor’s residency program. Lots of years and lots of education later, she is working and getting paid.

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After many years of studying, Emily earns this fabulous fur stole worn by Musetta.

If an opera singer has not “made it” by the time he or she is 30 years old, then it’s over.  

Opera singers are generally finished with of any study program around the age of 30 and should be getting hired at this time. Opera singers peak around ages 35-40, when their voice reaches another level of richness.

Bigger voices do not necessarily come in bigger bodies. 

The old saying was that bigger voices come in bigger bodies. This is not necessarily true any more. For La Bohème, the characters are supposed to be young, poor and starving. The entire cast is about 30 years old and smaller/thinner than what you would envision an opera singer to be. Casting is more according to the story line, in other words.


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Little Mary has altered this outfit a ton to fit a smaller Emily.

Opera singers do not stay at one opera house.

They are always auditioning and moving locations for certain performances. They are booked out about a year, sometimes two in advance. Emily is getting married after La Bohème ends, which shows you how they interweave their personal lives with their professional lives.


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Emily is caught coveting the outfits of other characters.

Every singer knows the entire opera in advance of the audition. 

Rehearsals begin less than a month before the opening performance. Each person who auditions for a part is expected to know the entire opera before the audition. That way, when rehearsals start, everyone just needs to learn their marks and their physical presence on the stage, rather than having to learn the entire opera.


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On the set, the dining table and requisite bottle of wine and glass.


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Another apartment scene, well marked with many colors of tape.


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This bed will move all around the set.

La Bohème has only two performances: Friday, September 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, September 22 at 2:00 p.m. To purchase tickets, click here>

As an aside, I tried out for the chorus. What do you think about my outfit? (Goes great with my white jeans–see you can wear them after Labor Day.)


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A big thanks to Heather O’Mara, Emily Albrink and the Costume Dream Team for giving me a window into their world.  



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About the Author
Heidi Potter