While only a select group may be familiar with San Francisco Opera’s acclaimed productions presented since 1923 or the esteemed singers that have graced its War Memorial Opera House stage since 1932, being a die-hard opera fan isn’t a prerequisite for owning or wearing one of the company’s one-of-a-kind costumes.
“People from all walks of life buy these costumes,” says costume supervisor Galen Till. “There’s definitely a sense that the costumes we sell are unique and well-made, qualities which are really making a resurgence.”
Locals and out-of-towners will get their chance to own a piece of operatic history when the highly anticipated costume sale returns this Friday.
This year’s event, the first since 2014, will run for three days and be virtual as a result of the pandemic.
Five hundred-plus costumes from popular San Francisco Opera productions like Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow,” Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” and Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” will be available for purchase.
The majority of the items, featuring designs by Thierry Bosquet, John Macfarlane and the late Paul Brown, were constructed by San Francisco Opera artisans.
Some of the most exciting items include Patricia Racette’s ornate late 19th-century Viennese-style costumes from “Die Fledermaus” and Frederica von Stade’s red silk dress (adorned with flocked flowers and rhinestone trim) and oversize hat from “The Merry Widow.”
Till’s personal favorites are the chorus knights’ medieval costumes from “Tannhäuser,” some of which feature lightweight faux chainmail sleeves and hoods crafted by Weta Workshop, which created the chainmail looks for “The Lord of the Rings” movies.
To aid customers, who won’t be able to try things on in advance, the online shop will offer measurement charts. Items will also be searchable by size.
With online shopping, there is also the benefit of avoiding the long lines.
“We would have lines around the block at previous sales, with people waiting hours to get in,” says Till.
It’s important to note that shoppers will no longer be able to buy bits and pieces of costumes, like a belt or hat on its own, as in previous sales.
With all the time it has taken to painstakingly photograph and describe each item and, of course, ship it, event organizers are taking a curated approach this year, only selling complete looks ranging in price from $75 to $1,000, plus taxes and shipping.
Customers also have the option of saving on postage by making an appointment to pick up items in-person from Burlingame, through Nov. 24.
Although Halloween 2020 has come and gone, Till notes that there are plenty of other occasions for wearing these theatrical costumes.
“The possibilities really are endless,” says Till.
Although some buyers in previous years have been fans who want to own a piece of the company’s history or a costume worn by their favorite singer, some are attendees of historically costumed events such as the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, the Edwardian Ball, the Gatsby Summer Afternoon and the Northern California Renaissance Faire.
The Burning Man crowd also has shown up in droves over the years to pick up unique outfits for the annual event at Black Rock Desert, Nevada.
The first sale was in 2005, the year Till joined San Francisco Opera. Sales generally occur when the opera switches storage facilities or when space is needed to make room for new costumes.
Whether assisting with the costume sale or future productions slated for spring 2021, Till feels fortunate to still be working while the Opera House remains closed.
It’s sales like these—along with donor gifts and pledges, ticketed drive-in screenings of previous opera productions at Fort Mason and paid Zoom classes— that are keeping the company thriving amid the pandemic, so it can continue providing world-class entertainment to The City in the future.
“Supporting San Francisco Opera right now will help us return to the stage when we’re able,” says Till.
IF YOU SHOP: San Francisco Opera Costume Shop Sale
When: Noon Nov. 13 to 11:59 p.m. Nov. 15
Pricing: $75 to $1,000