Costume Dramas

E. V. Day dresses for excess at New York City Opera.

E. V. Day at work in the New York City Opera warehouse.

E. V. Day at work in the New York City Opera warehouse.


E. V. Day, who is known for her “Exploding Couture” series (most famously, her 2006 piece Bride Fight, which will be shown at the Cincinnati Art Museum next August), often deals with intriguing questions. This past spring the new general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera, George Steel, asked, “Could we make a dress explode from a performer and fly back and forth?”

“Probably—with a lot of Velcro,” Day replied. As she and Steel toured the Philip Johnson–designed David H. Koch Theater, the director had a new thought: would the theater’s Promenade, with its gold ceiling and balconies, be a good site for an installation?

And that’s how Day came to fill the space with 19 suspended-in-air “time capsules” featuring retired costumes and accessories from Don Giovanni, Carmen, The Magic Flute, Madame Butterfly, and Manon. Funded by a City Opera board member, the installation is on view to ticket holders (and, on select occasions, to the general public) during the opera’s Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 seasons.

Day, who was an opera naïf with a devotion to punk rock (in college, she was lead singer for a punk band called Cockpit), listened to arias, plunged into City Opera’s library, and visited the wardrobe warehouse in North Bergen, New Jersey. Carmen’s “Habanera” aria, which she watched on YouTube, made her cry; she keeps its text in a binder, next to the lyrics for “Priestess” by punk rocker Wendy O. Williams. “They’re about the same thing,” Day exclaims. “I love you, and love is fickle.”

Day chose costumes, then wielded her knives and monofilament at the warehouse, where she and six interns worked for six weeks. “The costumes may not look as ‘exploded’ as in the past,” she says. “I want you to see the origin and its coming away from that.”

The installation debuts as City Opera tries to find its stride with a new leader and a just-renovated theater. Steel sees the symbolism. “There’s an easy surface reading about exploding the old,” he says, “but I see the work as a supernova, a tremendous release of positive energy.”

The project has sparked some new ideas the artist may explore in a solo show at Deitch Projects in New York. “I’d love to work with toe shoes and tutus,” she says.

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