Portland Opera's wardrobe unit dresses a punk, lab technicians and a doll to suit the tale of a 19th century German poet

When the fire alarm rang in Frances Britt's hotel room in New York last year, she threw her coat over her pajamas, grabbed the bible and dashed to safety.

It wasn't Gideon's version of the good book she saved, but the hefty notebook that contains sketches of the costumes that will be seen in Portland Opera's upcoming production, 'The Tales of Hoffman.'

Britt, who manages the company's costume shop, says the notebook merits reverence for a reason.

'The book really is our bible,' she says. 'It's what we use to duplicate the designer's sketches.'

In this case, it was the work of New York-based designer Claudia Stevens that survived what proved to be a false alarm. Stevens is the wardrobing whiz behind the 150-plus costumes seen in 'The Tales of Hoffman,' originally presented by Portland Opera in 1995.

The opera tells the story of the 19th century German poet E.T.A. Hoffman, who is unable to resolve the conflicts and passions that consume him. The real and the imagined elements of his fractured psyche are fused as he tells his story through three transforming loves: a frivolous infatuation with a mechanical doll, a genuine but thwarted love for a singer and an idle sojourn with a courtesan.

Although the tale is set in the mid-1800s, the costumes get their inspiration from a wide variety of eras and social influences, and each look is more fantastical than the last.

A male chorus member adopts a punk appearance in the third act, which is set in a Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. Sporting a modified mohawk, spiked leather jewelry and a tattooed face and torso Ñ the latter illusion achieved through an ingeniously hand-painted body suit Ñ the effect is 'Mad Max' meets Maori warrior.

One of the better costume coups takes place in the first act, when the mechanical doll that Hoffman covets makes her appearance. Electrical wires connect shin plates to the doll's skirts, while a comical breastplate spoofs the doll's manufactured sexuality. The act also called for the creation of otherworldly lab technician garb, which Britt fashioned by layering the plastic mesh used on screen doors over paint-dappled satin jumpsuits. Similarly painted lab glasses and rubber gloves complete the look.

A former member of the opera's chorus, Britt has managed the company's costume shop since 1980. She says the department finds most of the fabrics in New York and occasionally in Los Angeles. When it's necessary to shop locally, Britt and her team go to Fabric Depot, Mill End and Josephine's Dry Goods.

The Internet is an increasingly important resource for the costume shop.

'We find a lot of what we need on the Internet, especially shoes and hard-to-find fabrics,' says Britt, whose crew of three grows to six or more when the shop is 'building' a show.

Minnie Jardine is the head draper and creates most of the principals' costumes, each of which take up to a week to craft.

Jardine says that she learned the hard way that details are important.

'Once I was working on a principal's costume and thought, 'Why am I so worried about the back of the dress? No one will see it,' ' she recalls. 'Wouldn't you know it, she sat downstage with her back to the audience for most of the first act.'

Jardine notes that the distance between the audience and the stage isn't very far Ñ or forgiving.

'Not only do a lot of people bring binoculars, but you can really see the details from the first five rows,' she says. 'Those are the people I'm playing to.'

A firm believer that practice makes perfect, Britt likes to see the cast in full dress rehearsal as many times as possible.

'I want to have as many chances to fix things as possible,' she says. 'We'll see this cast perform six times before opening night, and even then we're ready with our safety pins. You never know when you're going to get that call: 'Wardrobe!' '

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