Fashion Designers at the Opera

spacer By Helena Matheopoulos
Thames & Hudson; 192 pp. $60

Books Fashion Designers Cover 312

In 1980, Karl Lagerfeld, a lifelong opera fan, designed the costumes for Luca Ronconi's production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann, which played at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. He discovered that onstage, his magnificently detailed couture dresses looked "paltry and anaemic." What was required of costumes for the opera was "a broad-brush statement of the same concept … costumes that make a splash from afar." 

It was a lesson that many other fashion designers have learned in the intervening years, as they were invited to participate in the splashiest of art forms. Helena Matheopoulos's Fashion Designers at the Opera is a celebration of this phenomenon, looking at the work of ten different designers for twenty-eight productions. In 2009 and 2010, Matheopoulos tells us, "Tom Ford, Christian Lacroix, Miuccia Prada, Emanuel Ungaro and Viktor & Rolf made successful sorties as costumiers for high-profile operatic productions across the globe." Many of those projects are featured in the book, which is organized by designer. Ford is missing, but Ottavio & Tai Missoni, Marc Bohan, Zandra Rhodes and Gianni Versace are included. The format offers several pages of text for each designer, followed by reproductions of sketches and photographs of their work. 

What makes Fashion Designers at the Opera particularly winning is the designers' unanimous enthusiasm. Emanuel Ungaro, for instance, recalls his work with director Ronconi on a new production of La Clemenza di Tito for Teatro San Carlo as "pure bliss." Many of these designers — notably Lagerfeld and Ungaro — were already keen and opinionated opera fans. Christian Lacroix learned to love opera in his teens: he has now designed costumes for more than fifteen operas, often in collaboration with Vincent Boussard. Even the designers who were new to opera, such as the Dutch pair Viktor and Rolf (who created rather abstract costumes for Robert Wilson's production of Der Freischütz at the Baden-Baden Festival) raved about working in the opera world. Like most of the designers featured, they relished the creative freedom afforded by the experience: "There is no need for the costumes to function in reality," Viktor and Rolf write. 

Other common threads arise: surprisingly enough, many of the designers appreciated the opportunity to design for many different body shapes. Most of them grasped the importance of facilitating the intense physical effort of singing. And they loved the liberation from commercial concerns. 

Sometimes couture collections are criticized as "too theatrical." Fashion Designers at the Opera gives us insight into a world in which that quality isn't a flaw but a decided strength. Fringed leather coats and animal prints from Prada were employed for Pierre Audi's production of Attila at theMetropolitan Opera; Zandra Rhodes provided pleated gold lamé and flesh-colored mesh for Aida (Houston Grand Opera, English National Opera and San Francisco Opera). The exception was Armani's work for Jonathan Miller's 1995 production of Così at Covent Garden. The costumes were garments from the Emporio Armani line, intentionally contemporary. The singers liked them so much that they asked — and were permitted — to keep them. spacer 


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