Since its founding in 2007, Opera UCLA has mounted some of the most impressive productions not only on campus, but in the city of Los Angeles. A key element: the bold, inventive and eye-popping costumes springing from the imaginations of the students in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design.

“The collaboration between Opera UCLA and the design students and faculty at TFT is crucial to the success of all of our students,” says Peter Kazaras, the director of Opera UCLA since its inception. “It gives the voice and opera students the valuable opportunity to perform on inventive sets and in gorgeous costumes designed by fantastically talented students from around the world, and the design students the chance to have fully realized projects as a part of their portfolios as they enter the professional world.”

The new Peter Kazaras Opera Production Fund, established by Dean Judith L. Smith of the Herb Alpert School of Music, will support future opera productions at UCLA. Here, we present stunning recreations of M.F.A. students’ costume designs from a decade of operas co-produced by TFT and the school of music. Styled by Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko, head of costume design at TFT, the costumes are based on original designs by the M.F.A. students. They spotlight the dynamism, boundless creativity and unique ingenuity of our Bruins — and celebrate the rich, ongoing collaboration between the UCLA TFT Costume Design program and Opera UCLA.

MODELS (Left to right): Michelle Drever (music master’s program), Akshar Sharma (sophomore, theater) and Annemarie Verkuylen (senior, theater)

JUANA • 2019
Designed by Alexa Behm M.F.A. ’20

Before working on the opera costumes, Behm had never heard of 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose poetry and scholarship fearlessly challenged sexism. For this premiere, based on the 1999 historical novel Sor Juana’s Second Dream, by UCLA Professor of Chicano/a Studies Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Behm researched Hieronymite nuns to conjure their “poetically draped sleeves” and reflect the austerity of their order. La Condesa, with whom Juana falls in love, is adorned in “luscious silks and brocades”; she and her spouse, the Viceroy, represent life outside the convent. The celestial presence El Alma, who personifies Juana’s voice, appears in an Aztec goddess–like headdress and glimmering gown. “I really wanted to respect the period and culture, while also creating a visual that spoke to a modern audience,” says Behm, a costume designer who has worked with L.A. Opera. “Every person left this show knowing who Juana was and heard the message that she relentlessly fought to deliver.”

The celestial presence El Alma from Juana, modeled by Sabrina Langlois M.M. ’23

Designed by Alexa Newman M.F.A. ’14

The vibrant club scene of Monte Carlo was the reimagined backdrop for this tale of a devious womanizer, an opera that has remained popular since its 1787 debut. For this latter-day production, Newman “infused her costume designs with a cheeky nod to the ’70s,” says Karvonides-Dushenko. A flashy white suit incarnates Don Giovanni as a jet-setting player, while the red jumpsuit and dramatic picture hat of his revenge-seeking ex, Donna Elvira, convey her bold determination. The opportunity for students to receive feedback on their work from the Copley Center’s 2014 Swarovski costume Designer-in-Residence Sandy Powell, winner of three Oscars for costume design, “was truly special,” says Newman, whose credits include assistant costume designer for such series as GLOW, Horse Girl and That ’90s Show. “To hear firsthand about her career and how she started out was so inspiring.” 

MODELS (Left to right): Xavier Brown ’23 (theater) and Pearl Vaynman (senior, music performance)

Designed by Rebecca Guzzi M.F.A. ’13 

For the princess in this fantastical production based on a 1925 opera about a spoiled child, Guzzi devised a costume evocative of glossy beauty and fashion magazines. She designed the extravagant gown with a tulle and taffeta skirt in multiple shades of yellow and gold, giving it more depth when lit onstage. But, she confesses, she most reveled in making the characters look disheveled: A chorus of gritty urban animals displays shredded layers, incorporating plastic bags, feathers and twigs, and for a nestlike headpiece, “a party-store Halloween raven that an undergraduate student painted to look like a city pigeon.” Guzzi, who won an Emmy in 2019 for FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and has earned two more nominations, says, “It was this type of creative involvement from so many hands in the department that made this project particularly rewarding.” 

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MODEL: Madeline Reynolds M.M. ’23

Designed by Sophia Weltman M.F.A. ’23

When Weltman looked into past iterations of this playfully surreal, gender-bending 1917 French play turned 1947 opera, her takeaway was to “just have fun with this,” she says. “I was excited, because it felt boundaryless — except for the budget.” She economized by using materials like Los Angeles Apparel gym shorts, white sneakers revamped with leather paint, and for comic effect in a duel, “cheapo” dummy hands purchased on Amazon. Her splurge? A swanky baby-blue geometric suit for the son, who is said to be “worth his weight in gold.” Weltman took her inspiration for the outfit from Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th-century oil painting The Blue Boy, a Gucci suit and Boy Scout uniforms. Weltman, who is following her M.F.A. in costume design with a Ph.D. in theater and performance studies at UCLA, says, “Having a whole year to work on that production was such a luxury.” 

MODELS (Left to right): Designer Sophia Weltman, Sam Song (sophomore, music performance) and Christopher Shayota (senior, music performance)

Watch an exclusive behind-the-scenes video from our photo shoot of Opera UCLA’s dramatic costumes

Designed by Maddison Carroll M.F.A. ’19

Chronicling Susan B. Anthony’s life and activism for women’s right to vote, this opera spans a century, an intimidating prospect for costume design. “There are so many period details for each decade from the 1830s to the 1930s I wanted to get right, but figuring out how to make all of these looks coexist in a nondistracting way was difficult,” Carroll says. One of her favorite ensembles was this group of suffragettes, whose costumes she based on historical images of women who wore aprons as billboards for their cause. The custom-printed canvas versions modeled here, as well as the “Votes for Women” sashes, “are the exact ones I had created for our production, and are great examples of the graphic approach our design team took for the show’s look,” says Carroll, who has costume-designed several short films and was a costumer for HBO’s critically acclaimed Perry Mason.

MODELS (Left to right): Marisa Moenho (theater major), Dania Malekghasemi (senior, theater), Rachel Hahn (music master’s program), Chloe Johnson (senior, theater), Yua Watanabe (senior theater), Olivia Salazar (junior, music performance)

Designed by Ruoxuan Li M.F.A. ’16

In this Mozart classic, two men disguise themselves to test the fidelity of their fiancées. For this staging, set in 1920s England, Li was tested herself: She had to pivot on her design of Downton Abbey–inspired costumes when the fabric store ran out of the velvet she’d been using. Embellishing garments with hundreds of rhinestones donated by Swarovski, she created multiple cowboy looks, dyeing pieces of suede and applying floral motifs cut from vintage Mexican cotton. But learning project management as an M.F.A. student was critical, “because I don’t want to be a starving artist!” says Li, who is now costume designer in residence for American Contemporary Ballet. “This program really trained me to be a professional designer.”    

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MODEL: Xavier Brown ’23 (theater)

Designed by Hannah Greene M.F.A. ’12

For this lighthearted take on the Greek myth of Orpheus rescuing his wife, Eurydice, from Hades, Greene styled the opera’s heavenly gods as elegant, old-Hollywood film stars, infused with touches from the worlds of fairies, the underworld and cabaret. Introduced hiding in a cornfield, Pluto’s devilish minions start out in husklike raffia-and-straw wrap skirts and then shuck them while dancing, unveiling an androgynous look adorned with 1930s touches like bloomers, garters and fishnet stockings. “It was a challenge to figure out the fastest, least complicated way to make that reveal happen,” says Greene, now a costumer and fabric buyer for television, where she often works with fellow Bruins. “We call it the UCLA mafia,” she jokes. “We’re like, ‘You also went to UCLA? Go figure. That’s why you’re so good.’”

MODELS (Left to right): Marlee Tierney ’23 (theater), Davide Costa (senior, theater), Gary Easton (senior, theater)

Watch an interview with celebrated photographer Kwaku Alston

Designed by Charlotte Ballard M.F.A. ’17

The story of Cinderella — in French, Cendrillon — is a study in contrasts: before and after, good and evil, magic and mundane. In this production, featuring 1940s fashion, Ballard chose colors and materials to ensure that the wicked stepsisters would be visually incompatible with both their poor counterpart and the brooding prince. “Two-way dupionis, layers of pleated organza, fabric swagged up to reveal contrasting linings … I got to have fun with them,” she says. Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis M.F.A. ’75, founding director and chair of the Copley Center, taught her that “fabric swatches will find each other — you’ll know which fabrics are meant to be with each other,” recalls Ballard, who after studying theater went on to pursue the writing of both science nonfiction and science fiction. Today, when conducting research, she says, “I know when some element fits or doesn’t fit. It’s that exact same sense of knowing.” 

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MODEL: Dania Malekghasemi (senior, theater)

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.