For over 17 years, McCartan has served as costume director, overseeing the construction of garments big and small. Sometimes, that’s meant building billowing gowns, with towering collars and extravagant trains. Recently, though, her attention has been focused on more humble accoutrements: McCartan and her team stitched and donated over 10,000 protective face masks for workers in need, including farm workers and nurses.
Now comes a new challenge: opening up the archives for a costume sale on the weekend of November 13. The company has only had five such sales in its nearly century-long history. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, its sixth will be the first ever held online.
McCartan remembers how this tradition began — out of the back of a truck in front of the company’s old costume shop, when it was located on 9th Street in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood.
That sale was spur of the moment. “We needed to raise some money,” McCartan explains. “And the costume director at the time thought, ‘Well, we’ll have a costume sale.’”
McCartan had been working at the opera since 1986. She had been brought aboard as a shopper. It was her responsibility to buy everything her colleagues might need, from fabrics to light bulbs for their sewing machine.
It was entry into a world McCartan had been toying with since she was a kid. Her family bounced around a lot — her father, a doctor, traveled for medical school and fellowships — and the Swiss-born McCartan found solace doodling.
“I used to love to draw. I would draw pictures — like a lot of kids — of princesses and fancy dresses and stuff like that,” she says.
She spent much of her teenage years in Chicago, “which you can probably hear from my voice,” she quips. From there, she ended up at Southern Illinois University, studying costume design.
“I was always interested in art, but I thought I wanted to go into acting,” she says. But she ultimately shifted course: “With my love for clothing and fashion and drawing, I was drawn more toward the costuming aspect of theater.”
Though her degree trained her to concoct new designs and sketch them out on paper, McCartan had a taste for the production side of the industry. Problem-solving was key there: In production, you were tasked with translating a two-dimensional drawing into a three-dimensional garment, one that could withstand the pressures of daily performance.
“I'm fascinated with getting inside the minds of designers because you have to do that to help them create what they want to see on stage,” McCartan says. To build experience, she took jobs at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and the Bay Area’s Berkeley Repertory Theater, before landing in opera.
It was theater on a scale she had never encountered before. “Really, if you’re talking one show, easily you’re dealing with creating 350 costumes,” she says.
As McCartan worked her way up from shopper to production supervisor to department head, she worked with artisans, crafts-people and drapers. Nowadays, her department numbers 24 employees. It’s their work that will be on sale this fall.
Each successive sale has brought ever more massive crowds. The 1989 sale received a modest write-up in the San Francisco Examiner newspaper. But by 2000, journalists were reporting that the sale was “almost as big a hit” as Dead Man Walking, that year’s world premiere production.
After another big sale in 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle reported an expected crowd size of 50,000 for the most recent sell-off in 2014. The line of shoppers snaked around the block.
“The first real costume sale we had on Army Street [now Cesar Chavez Street] was just crazy,” McCartan recalls. “It was right before Burning Man, and people just lined up around the block. People showed up in leotards and were trying to throw costumes on.”
Burning Man — an annual festival in the Black Rock Desert best known for its large-scale art installations and eccentric outfits — continues to draw costume-lovers to the sale. But other buyers come to complete their cosplay outfits or even prepare for future Halloweens, McCartan says.
She’s even found pieces repurposed by fashion influencers on Instagram. One set of black pants, created for the character of a Taoist priest in the world premiere of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, ended up as part of a vintage outfit, styled with sunglasses and jewelry from the fashion label Celine.
This year’s sale will be smaller than previous years’, but with hundreds of costumes available, McCartan imagines many pieces will find new homes among the fashion savvy. She’s particularly fond of the costumes from the company’s 2007 Tannhäuser. “I actually hate to see any of those go,” she says.
Set in 13th-century Germany, Tannhäuser chronicles the plight of a knight torn between a pure love and profane, sacrilegious temptation. One of McCartan’s favorite looks is the pants tailored for the pilgrim characters.
“They look kind of like Japanese clothing, but modern, kind of hipster,” she says. “Someone would want to purchase them as a fashion statement.”
And then there’s the armor the knights wear. “The chain mail, in fact, in Tannhäuser is precious to me,” McCartan explains. Though real chain mail is relatively easy to find — it’s a staple at renaissance fairs and other reenactments — having performers wear pounds and pounds of metal was out of the question.
“It’s heavy. It’s hard. Sometimes those things can be noisy,” McCartain says. Her department had to choose its materials according to the performers’ comfort. Too much weight on a singer’s body could prevent them from projecting their voices across the auditorium. “There's no way our singers would be able to handle real chain mail or real armor on stage.”
This same concern led McCartan and her team to create lightweight hats for The Merry Widow, another production featured in this year’s costume sale. But for Tannhäuser’s knights, she looked to a New Zealand workshop called Weta to create custom plastic, indistinguishable from real chain mail on stage.
Productions like Tannhäuser might use a template design for chorus costumes and other secondary characters. Few designer have the time to customize every look in a cast that can number in the dozens upon dozens.
So it’s up to McCartan and her team to personalize each costume, so that each performer has an individual look. One Tannhäuser knight might have chain mail sleeves, while another might boast a full breast plate.
But for all the detail the costume department invested in Tannhäuser, the production has been staged only once here in San Francisco. That’s what makes it especially bittersweet for artists like McCartan.
The 2007 production of Tannhäuser was built in the Bay Area. Once its run at San Francisco Opera was complete, it was packed up for a production in Athens, Greece. The set included a ring of fire and a tree that could burst into flame — but it also boasted numerous water effects, including a downpour of rain for the big finale.
After Tannhäuser received a second run in Greece in 2008, it was once again prepared for departure. But contract negotiations left the set sitting in a shipping container for months. By the time it returned to San Francisco, mold had destroyed the set — and the production could not be salvaged. The costumes, however, were completely unscathed.
But that kind of situation is the exception. Most productions, and their costumes, circle the globe. San Francisco’s Die Fledermaus (The Bat) toured Japan: Some of its costumes, on sale this year, are still affixed with Japanese labels.
Meanwhile, The Merry Widow, with its ornate gowns, visited Texas — at a time when San Francisco Opera’s current general director, Matthew Shilvock, was employed at the Houston Grand Opera. It was the only show Shilvock worked backstage on while serving as assistant stage manager.
Given that these productions travel from theater to theater, the costumes have to be worn by individuals of all shapes and sizes. Depending on the design, McCartan says that the outfits are generally made to be altered, so they can fit performers four inches larger than their original size.
The design process for new productions can start up to a year in advance, with construction and fittings happening months ahead of the rehearsal period. By the time the star performers arrive, McCartan and her team are usually in the fine-tuning stage, focused on perfecting the leads’ costumes.
Given the time and materials involved, McCartan says the prices at the costume sale are a bargain. “For example, a soldier with chain mail and armor? And the work that goes into one of those costumes? That can easily be a $3,500 costume.”
Nowadays, the costume department handles far fewer costumes than it once did. There are fewer shows, shorter seasons. But McCartan is proud of the artistry her department produces. Even if it is more cost effective, not every opera company has its own costume shop, she says.
“I'm just in awe of watching these things come to life with all the talent in our shop,” McCartan says. And it’s that talent she hopes to share when San Francisco Opera’s 2020 costume sale goes live online on November 13.
San Francisco Opera’s 2020 costume sale will run from November 13 at 12pm to November 15 at 11:59pm. More information is available at sfopera.com/costumesale.