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L.A. Opera cleans out costume closet

October 9, 2009 | 11:14 am


When you've dressed hundreds, perhaps thousands of performers over the course of more than 20  years, your wardrobe is bound to get crowded with the old and the outdated.

On Saturday, Los Angeles Opera will put more than 2,500 items up for sale from its costume department in downtown L.A. (The sale runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 330 S. Alameda St.)

Some of the clothes hitting the racks were worn by such stars as Plácido Domingo, Karita Mattila and Carol Vaness. The sale also includes costumes from productions by Robert Wilson ("Parsifal"), Maurice Sendak ("Idomeneo") and David Cronenberg ("The Fly").

The costume sale comes at a time in the company's history when it is attempting to grow artistically while facing significant financial obstacles. The ambitious $32-million "Ring" cycle is eating up a good portion of the company's resources as the recession is putting pressure on donations.

The company denied that the costume purge is a "garage sale" and said that Saturday's event is intended to make room for the department's growing inventory. "We don't have any room and we can't afford more storage," said Jennifer Green, the head of the costume department.

Currently, the department occupies a 28,000 square-foot facility on Alameda St. in downtown. It also uses a smaller storage space located in El Monte. Both facilities are rented at a total cost of about $400,000 per year, according to the company.

L.A. Opera said it had originally hoped the costume sale would enable it to vacate the El Monte location. But due to the demands of the "Ring" cycle and other projects,  it has decided to maintain both facilities.

The costume sale comes at a time of "fragile" economic health for LA Opera, according to Faith Raiguel, the company's chief financial officer. But she added that the company is poised for survival.

"I think we got ahead of the curve by cost cutting early," she said. In January, the company announced the layoff of 17 employees, or approximately 17% of its staff. It also mandated a pay cut for all employees, averaging 6% but with higher-paid staffers taking an 8% cut. The reason given for the cutbacks was declining donations, among other recession-related factors.

Fly The company's current annual operating budget stands at $52 million. The costume department, which has an annual budget of $2 million, currently has 10 full-time staff members.

Proceeds from the costume sale will go toward the general budget, according to Raiguel.

Christopher Koelsch, the company's vice president of artistic planning, estimates the costume sale will bring in less than $50,000.

On Saturday, buyers will find that prices vary dramatically. Those wanting to purchase a silk sari that Domingo wore in "Idomeneo" or a dyed and painted cotton skirt that he wore in "Samson and Delila" can expect to pay between $1,500 and $5,000.

A giant rubber and latex Brundlefly suit featured in "The Fly" is going for $10,000, complete with a display case.

Some costumes come with interesting backstories. Mattila, the Finnish soprano who performed in "Jenufa," went through numerous pairs of socks before finding the right kind with the perfect elasticity. (Yes, you can purchase the pair that she ultimately chose to wear on stage.)

The majority of items for sale will be masks and other accessories going for as little as $10. Some costumes are from so-called "dead" productions that the company will not revive, including "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and the critically panned "Nicholas & Alexandra."

Even though performers perspire, buyers need not fear they will be purchasing smelly clothes. "They've all been thoroughly cleaned," said Green, the company's head of costumes.

-- David Ng

Photos: (top) Costumes worn by tenor Plácido Domingo, with LA Opera senior cutter/draper John Bishop; (bottom) a suit from the opera "The Fly." Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times 

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