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The story, to be staged at the Keller, doesn't end well for the diva Tosca, but she looks fabulous anyway.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - 'I tell stories sartorially, I tell stories through the clothing, so it's an investment in my fellow artists to say you're more than just townsmen number four,' says Christine A. Richardson, the Costume Director for Portland Opera. Here she is with Tosca's first dress from the church scene. Her work on Tosca is on view starting Oct 29 for three performances at the Keller Auditorium.

In Portland Opera's new production of "Tosca," the leading lady has three looks: innocent churchgoer in Virgin Mary blue (even though she's a smoldering ball of romance, resentment and insecurity); red carpet stunner on a reluctant date with the handsy Chief of Police Scarpia; and well-dressed eloper whose itinerary takes a turn for the worse off a battlement.

These dress designs — and most costumes for the giant cast of aristocrats, rebels, soldiers, cops, nuns, priests, townsfolk and assorted passersby in 1800 Rome — were the responsibility of Christine A. Richardson, costume director for Portland Opera.

The set has been in other cities before, but it's easier to make the costumes anew, rather than trying to adapt another company's work. So having seen the set, Richardson brainstormed both color palette and style.

"I see them both at the same time, period and color," she told the Portland Tribune three weeks before curtain, surrounded by racks of garments that were almost complete: the Spencer jackets, blouses and breeches were tacked and pinned, awaiting final fittings with singers she might not have seen for months and whose size may have changed.

"The color of the set is definitely more influential than the period, because of the palette. Because it is such a big show, the palette can be quite broad, but having a narrower palette is really my focus."

It is Portland Opera's return to the Keller after the pandemic pause, and this "Tosca" is opera comfort food. To go with the poignant arias and mighty choruses, there are reassuring period costumes. This means frock coats and silk stocks (like big cravats) for the dudes and big skirts, and cropped jackets for the ladies. And, puffy shirts for all. Think Regency swagger, Bridgerton drip, Mr. Darcy when his cheque clears.

PHOTO COURTESY GIA GOODRICH PORTLAND OPERA/ARTSLANDIA - Christine A. Richardson the Costume Director for Portland Opera, in prepandemic days with costumes she designed for Portland Opera's 2018 production of La Traviata.

The man in black

Richardson's goal is to make certain characters stand out. Rome in 1800 was at a fashion crossroads, so despite all the earth tones and religious monochrome, there are pops of color. Tosca-the-character is an actress, and she wears a gold Indian sari as a shawl.

Tosca is in love with an artist, Mario, who shelters a Napoleonic revolutionary. The chief of police, Scarpia, tortures Mario and says Tosca must submit to Scarpia sexually or the artist will be killed.

That bad guy Scarpia wears Johnny Cash black, of course.

"I can focus on Tosca herself or I can focus on Scarpia by controlling the palette a little bit, but I also really love to lean into the reality," says Richardson, meaning she researches what people would have worn in Rome then. Social class, character, weather — they all play a part.

"I love creating a backstory for each of the characters, even the 40 chorus members. … Maybe she's a widow, maybe these are a mom and a daughter going to the church?"

Richardson says audience members might not know a synthetic fiber from a natural one, but the color and drape would look off, so she tries not to use them. She's all about cotton, wool and silk, and often shops local — at Mill End Store in Milwaukie.

PHOTO COURTESY PORTLAND OPERA - Alexandra LoBianca plays Tosca in the Portland Opera's first show in the Keller for 18 months.


Richardson took over running the costume shop from long-timer Frances Britt in 2015. She makes the hats, too, curling each feather by hand. The pandemic cut back some of the fun and camaraderie — most days she works alone in the shop, or with just her tailor/draper Jeffery Wilson.

But sewing and designing is her passion. She has always been hands-on.

"I came from going to the thrift store as a kid and buying a bunch of cheap things and ripping them up into something new to wear to school," she said. "Some fashion designers love to sketch and draw pictures. I've never enjoyed that part of it. I love to look at images, but I will very quickly take a piece of fabric and drape it on a form and have the idea or pull pieces together and put them together to make something."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Religious clothes lined up ready to go in Puccini's tragedy 'Tosca'. Christine A. Richardson the Costume Director for Portland Opera, in prepandemic days. Richardson and Wilson made costumes for a cast of 53 for Puccini's "Tosca," which opens Oct 29.

'I lived for art'

We first see Tosca in church in a taffeta dress and a blue velveteen Spencer jacket with an underskirt. Tosca's second-act dress is a dark maroon velvet, with a train. Richardson worked with the director to create something traditional but original.

"It leans a little more toward the blue, which is just really beautiful on stage. I definitely take people's skin tones and hair color into the picture while I'm choosing fabrics," Richardson said. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco has a slightly olive skin tone.

"Remember color series? I keep wanting to say she's kind of a summer, so this color will be beautiful," Richardson said.

Tosca ends her story heading to the docks, incognito in a navy-blue cloak, which she sheds, revealing a brown cotton pinstriped dress.

"It's not the fluffy blue or the lovely silk loft. I guess she's grown up a little bit, in the sense of life's getting dark here."

Portland Opera's Puccini's opera "Tosca" opens on Oct. 29 and plays for three more performances.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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