Get thee to a performance of Portland Opera's La Belle Hélène. Now! And don't sweat the culture, silly, just ogle the costumes. Though the opera is ostensibly about Helen of Troy, LBH's fashion fandango is a far cry from Greek drapery and laurel wreaths. This naughty comedy by Jacques Offenbach toasts--and roasts--Napoleon III's France through the lens of legend. I'm sure the Helen of Troy story is in there somewhere, but the intervening layers--Offenbach's slams on Parisian society, costume designer Bruno Fratalot's punk touches--may distract you. That's OK. You can read the libretto later.

Offenbach was a playful and prolific composer dedicated to having fun with his subjects--at their expense, bien sûr. Says LBH director Robert Fortune, "If Offenbach were alive today, no one would be safe from his barbed wit, including politicians, movie stars, public figures or 'fashion victims.'" This kind of story is vats of fun for the stage couturier. A tour through the Portland Opera costume shop, where spike heels sprawl in piles and snakeskin pleather hangs alongside a one-shoulder peekaboo halter, reminds me--if it weren't obvious already--that this is not opera for the blue-rinse set.

Onstage, you'll see centuries of fashion history parade by in one raunchily stylish pageant. The mourners of Adonis file to the funeral in Gaultier-esque garters, broad-brimmed hats and slit skirts. Another character models a leopard chiffon halter and platform sandals. Hélène herself is all '40s Hollywood in a board-sweeping sequined fishtail gown. In all, there are at least 80 outfits to gawk at. Concluding that it couldn't all be fun and games to pull such a production together, I spoke with Fortune about what it takes to dress an unruly romp like La Belle Hélène.

Note: If you doubted fashion's social importance, be convinced by La Belle Hélène, an accessible entree to this oft-intimidating breed of "the-a-tah." This opera's spicy, it's in English, and it's terribly au courant. Being a vapid style columnist, there cometh from my lips no stronger recommendation than that.

WW: How does costuming a satire like La Belle Hélène differ from costuming any other opera?

Robert Fortune: When you costume a tragedy, you look to exactly reproduce the costumes worn during the period. You're not so much inventing as re-creating. That's one side of our job, to research the authentic clothing and be specific. Then there's opera like Offenbach opera--full of invention, nonsense, fantasy, humor, dreams--you can just play.

How did you play with La Belle Hélène?

We still went to the specific Greek costumes, and then thought, "How can we destroy this?" [Exhibit A: Agamemnon's costume. Above the traditional Greek pleated tunic, the king wears a double-breasted blazer with a laurel wreath and "Aga King" stitched on the back, a white cowboy hat, sunglasses and a fat cigar.] Agamemnon is king of kings, so we look for 21st-century equivalents. We think of the president of America [cigar for our last president, Stetson for our current]. We also thought of Muhammad Ali, and boxers [hence the "I am the greatest"-style motto emblazoned on the jacket].

What do costumes do for a performance that the performers themselves can't do?

A good costume is 40 percent of a character. It's very important--more important than set. If you do the wrong costume for the character...[he shakes his head]. That's why I always work with the same three or four costume designers, people like Claude Masson, Francois Chevalier, and Bruno Fratalot [who costumed this production. For those of you impressed by big names, Fortune has collaborated with Thierry Mugler].

To what extent are the costumes for this show affected by what's happening in the fashion world?

You can't be a costume designer and be disconnected from fashion--from what people are wearing today--because theater is life. If the life onstage is not connected to life today, then theater becomes a museum. We cannot produce dead things.

What does La Belle Hélène tell us about our lives?

When Offenbach wrote La Belle Hélène, he was very avant-garde about the situation of women. Hélène is a character who wants to express herself and her feelings without repression or control by society. La Belle Hélène is about what happens when you mix politics and love--or sex. It's also about femininity and sexual freedom.

La Belle Hélène

runs through May 19, at Keller Auditorium, 222 SW 3rd Ave., 241-1802. Call for ticket information.