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Bob Bernard's Corner: Dressing for Success

An Appreciation of Emi Wada

By Bob Bernard

“The Lifespan of a Costume”, one of the Metropolitan Opera’s Backstage at the Met educational programs featured during week ten of the Met’s series of nightly opera streams, cited the Met’s ability to work on over 2,600 garments each season.

Emi Wada, the Japanese Academy Award-winning theatrical costume designer, once awesomely designed and supervised the tailoring of 1,400 costumes for a single film: Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic Ran, a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

In 2006, LA Opera shared Ms. Wada’s time and expertise with the Met:

  • LA Opera produced Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea [The Coronation of Poppea]
  • The Met produced the world premiere of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor
While in Los Angeles, Ms. Wada shared with us her design philosophy – as well as many of her memories from working with Kurosawa ……

When designing costumes for an opera, Ms. Wada defined her operative art as adhering to these principles:

  1. Perfection of Detail
  2. Adherence to Realism
  3. Coordination of Color with Character
  4. Coordination of Costume Design with the Music.
The costumes for LAO’s Poppea cast were newly made, yet retaining the original concepts developed for the Netherlands Opera's production from thirteen years back. The redesign work done was to adapt the original concepts to LAO’s cast. In accordance with Ms. Wada’s insistence on perfection of detail, the costumes had to be made from scratch, taking into account the fact that, in particular, several members of LAO’s cast were substantially taller than their predecessors, e.g., Susan Graham as Poppea and Christopher Gillette as Arnalta. Moreover, costume design, as defined by Emi Wada, means everything a singer/actor puts on: clothes, wig, makeup..... If it covers you at all, Ms. Wada considers it to be part of your costume.

Doing the above made it possible to replicate the sculpted costume design, retaining the coordination of costume design with the (Baroque style of) music.

In order to meet Ms. Wada’s exacting standards, the basic working fabric was created from scratch, “scratch” in this instance being a particularized blend of cotton and paper that is then infused with Ms. Wada's custom coloration. To be sure, sometimes the adherence to realism is compromised just a bit when existing, available products and/or substances have just the right attributes. In the following photo from the prologue to Poppea, we see the gods of Love and Fortune. Well, the cute, kinky-blue hair of Amore is made from off-the shelf, stretched-out Guangdong cleaning scourers for the kitchen sink, an item found in local Gardena markets (the more well-known, copper-colored scouring pads having the wrong hue for the hair of our God of Love), and the “feather” adorning Fortuna is actually a frond from a local variety of Pampas Grass.

Following, here are two clips from the process of settling on the costumes for Poppea:

In parallel with her bringing LAO’s Poppea costumes up to snuff, Ms. Wada had to ready the costumes for her Met debut: the world premiere of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor. Without us hearing a note of Mr. Dun’s score we already knew that the music would be more lustrous than any operatic score we could have previously heard because Ms. Wada decided that the basic costume fabric was to be made from a blend of silk and paper.

Emi Wada's experience of Audrey Hepburn presenting her with an Oscar on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is forever implanted in her memory, it being a well-deserved citation for Best Costume Design for Ran.

In the lead photo from Ran at the top of the article, we see the three brothers garbed according to their most innate characteristics: red = betrayal; yellow = ambiguity; blue = honesty and gentility. The father is, at this point in the story, costumed in pure white, reinforcing his (then) innocence. As the story develops in the film, his clothing gradually assumes more yellows and reds.

Reflecting back a bit further then, her memories of working with legendary motion picture director Akira Kurosawa came to the fore. Ms. Wada remembered two vignettes from the film Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Yume. For one example, there is the memory of the segment entitled “Crows” in which the viewer is immersed in the chaotic artwork of Vincent Van Gogh, climaxing with an explosive release of crows into a wheat field that, of course, brings to mind Van Gogh’s final painting, “Wheat Field with Crows”.

Without resorting to computer manipulation of images, Kurosawa sought to capture a reasonable replication of the painting, however, crows being crows, multiple takes proved to be necessary. What's more, crows also being fast learners, it proved impossible to use any given crow more than once. That meant a fresh batch of 400 crows had to be captured for each succeeding take.

There is also the memory from the segment entitled “The Peach Orchard” in which the dolls from a young girl’s collection come to life on the terrace of a peach orchard. [Kurosawa once confided to Ms. Wada that the inspiration for this particular dream was Hinamatsuri, a young girls' festival in Japan that occurs annually on May 5.] A more prosaic film director would have cobbled together a set using wood framing, rollout sod, and potted plants ….. Not Kurosawa: Just the right hillside was selected and graded; seeds planted, and allowed to grow …… There was six months' preparation for a film shoot that took but a single day.

Because she is so down-to-earth, Ms. Wada was easy to get to know. At a time when it was SOP for Tokyo shop girls to show off their mortgaged Louis Vuitton handbags while commuting to work, Ms. Wada traveled here with simply serviceable gear bought off-the-rack and made in China. “It is what is inside that matters,” was her good sense explanation. Her one functional travel luxury was a trio of watches worn on her arm and wrist, thus obviating any possibility of jet-lag confusing her arithmetic conversion from Tokyo to LA to New York City time.

A look back at Ms. Wada’s unique origin, one totally different from any other young woman of her era, gave us insight and understanding as to the artist she has become. A native of Kyoto, a city well-grounded in a tradition of culture, she was blessed with wealthy grandparents who provided her, when she was in her early teens, with a private tutor: Hisao Domoto, who influenced and abetted her interest in art, literature, and the theater. The family had a collection of works of Western painting and furniture, and the family Steinway was played by both her father and her aunt, a professional pianist.

Her life-long fascination with color began at age ten. World War II had just ended and her grandfather was able to obtain for her copies of Life magazine. In that publication she found an abundance of unusual (to her) colors, Revlon cosmetics being just one example. Soon she was making her own color swatches, based upon these bits of magazine colors. Now she is renowned for mixing and developing her own unique colors. One particular blend has been christened Emi Blue. It lies somewhere between turquoise and marine. At an exhibit of her collected costume works from film in Tokyo, thousands were rewarded with a souvenir sample of Emi Blue, while countless others were turned away because there was no room for them inside the exhibit.

While residing with us for LA Opera’s production of Poppea, we were pleased to accommodate her special needs:

  • After being recognized and pestered for autographs and photo-ops by the many visiting Japanese tourists at the New Otani Hotel, a transfer of residence to the Omni Hotel was affected.
  • Catering to Ms. Wada’s lone vice of chain-smoking, we – given temporary custody of one of her cigarette lighters – would have this device at-hand for her use the instant she exited the LAX terminal, following her return from each of her coordination sessions with the Metropolitan Opera
Before she left us, we asked her what advice she had for the coming generation of artists. She offered,

“Read as much as you can from classical literature, including the Greek plays and Shakespeare. Then use your imagination to express your creativity.”

As willing as she was to look forward on behalf of younger artists, she has been even keener in anticipation of new projects for herself. Back then she had offers for work on three films and two operas awaiting on the table. When asked which she would choose, her answer was a direct,

“The one which I think is the greatest challenge.”

This zest for living and for the personal stimulation it still gives to her career stands out as the most striking quality of this remarkable woman, this remarkable artist.

Sayonara, Dear Lady… さよなら, 親愛なる女性


Acknowledgement: Opera League Volunteer May Wang, herself fluent in Japanese, Mandarin and English, provided the TLC for Ms. Wada and did the interviewing for this article.

Author: Thomas Lady

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