China silks and custom-made Japanese textiles are among the sumptuous fabrics used to create the 64 elaborate costumes for the American premiere of Tea: A Mirror of Soul, an opera by Tan Dun that opens on July 21 at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. Conducted by Lawrence Renes, the opera marks the company debut for director Amon Miyamoto, scenic designer Rumi Matsui, and costume designer Masatomo Ota. Lighting is by Rick Fisher, who is in his sixth season in seven years at Santa Fe.

Dun, composer of the film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and other operas, wrote Tea: A Mirror of Soul in 2002. It tells the story of a doomed love affair between a Japanese monk and a Chinese princess and the history of the ancient tea ritual, illustrated by Ota's colorful, contemporary costumes. “The clothes are not traditional but more modernist with an avant-garde feel,” says David Burke, director of costumes for the Santa Fe Opera. “Ota is as much a fashion designer as a costume designer and, as such, has the contacts for short runs of fabric made in Japan.”

The costume for a ghostly apparition of the princess, Lan, is made of Chinese red silk. “The same fabric appears in the scenery,” Burke says, pointing out that a large expanse of the China silk will be pulled into a hole on the stage during the prologue. Lan is the daughter of the Emperor who appears in a heavy, hand-dyed and appliquéd caftan made of ultra-suede accented with black brocade.

“The central panel on the front of the Emperor's caftan is meant to be like a wrought-iron sculpture, but it has to be collapsible as he sits down,” says Burke. “His crown is based on a piece of Lalique jewelry. The costumes are Japanese or Chinese as influenced by Western design, with reference to Gustav Klimpt and Lalique. The shapes are generally stylized and not copied. There is also natural imagery such as gingko leaves and Japanese maple leaves on the headdress.”

Singer Nancy Maultsby — in a role called The Ritualist — is dressed in a red caftan and headdress with a blend of Chinese and Tibetan design elements. “This costume is made of heavy-weight red chenille appliquéd with black velvet to create the Chinese medallion on the front,” says Burke, who ordered 144 ombré-dyed tassels in colors ranging from red to orange to yellow, which are sewn on, each with a bead, to add movement to the bottom of the costume. “She wears a golden-yellow sack dress underneath,” says Burke. “The back has a long train based on an Erté design.”

For The Ritualist's multicolored headdress, Burke bought various Tibetan bits and pieces in New York for a design that mixes tassels, beads, fabric, and wood. Her scarf is made from a Tibetan musical instrument. There are 65 people in the costume shop, one per costume, plus Burke, who adds that there is a large apprentice program at the Santa Fe Opera. “All five operas open within one month,” says Burke. “After they are open, just the apprentices stay on as dressers for the season.”