Say Yes to the Dress

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Kate Royal in Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met Kate Royal in Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met, costumes by Isaac Mizrahi (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

In viewing the documentary L’Amour Fou, you don’t have to go too far to draw a connection between fashion icon Yves Saint-Laurent and opera: He turned the runway into an opera house with his Opera-Ballets Russes collection in 1976. His life and business partner Pierre Bergé was president of the Opéra Bastille from 1988 to 1994. Laurent’s private sanctuary in the Paris home he shared with Bergé included a photograph of Maria Callas—"Of course," Bergé remarks.

L'Amour Fou traces Bergé’s relationship with Laurent and the creation of their couture empire, refracted through the posthumous auction of the couple's artworks; during this climactic scene, a recording of La Divina singing “Casta Diva” plays. Saint-Laurent echoes another one of Callas’s most famous arias when footage of the designer at a press conference includes his remark “I have lived for my work.” The Tosca elements of Saint-Laurent’s history are mixed with those of Puccini’s La Rondine leading lady, Magda, when later in the film Bergé says he hopes the precious pieces of their collection will “fly off like birds.”

As much as Saint-Laurent personally resembles a Puccini heroine—a mix of Tosca and Magda, of Mimì and Manon Lescaut—haute couture is in and of itself the opera of the fashion world. Hemlines go on for arias; fabric trills into an ecstatic coloratura and a splash of cerulean at the neck can offer a grand finale. There are choruses of necklaces, belts, bags and headpieces and intimate trios of mascara, eyeliner and shadow. And unlike ready-to-wear, it’s completely and orgiastically over-the-top. Like couture, opera often walks the line separating the sublime and the ridiculous.

It’s therefore unsurprising that fashion designers often dabble in operatic productions. My far more sartorial colleague, the blogger known as Opera Chic, has expanded upon this thesis for W Magazine, citing Tom Ford’s work with Santa Fe Opera in Paul Moravec’s The Letter, Viktor & Rolf’s Swarovski-laden threads for a Baden-Baden production of Der Freischütz and the Missonis longtime patronage of (and costuming for) La Scala.

Many designers, like Armani and Lagerfeld, are repeat offenders and have been clothing several generations of divas. In a curveball debut, Armani’s first cut with opera was a 1980 production of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. More than a few artists, Versace among them, have fallen for the lure of Strauss’s Salome. And Valentino was the appropriate choice when it came to clothing the singers in Dominick Argento’s 1994 opera, The Dream of Valentino.  

The Met as Fashion Runway

New York is also not immune to the collision of high fashion and high opera. Last year at the Met, the devilish Hun wore Prada in the company’s premiere production of Verdi’s Attila, which resulted in Violetta Urmana rocking a mud-colored leather dress but drowning in an ill-tailored yellow frock. While the production on the whole lacked an element of visual spectacle (anyone else remember that hideous blue tarp?) the costumes were a throwback to the age of diva worship—and, thanks to some strategically placed LED lights, Star Trek fandom—in the 1960s.

On a far more glam end of the spectrum, Renée Fleming has brought John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix all onto the Met stage in the same evening in a 2008 gala performance of scenes from La Traviata, Manon and Capriccio (the latter opera by Strauss has been a magnet for designers; when Dame Kiri te Kanawa sang the role of the Countess in Covent Garden, her dress came courtesy of Versace). At the time when she was working with the three designers, Fleming said, “Their sense of poetry in motion is a total complement to the music that I will be singing.” Lacroix returned to the Met to clothe the soprano in a bold gold dress when she took on the title role in Thaïs in 2008. Lacroix’s fashion empire famously went to ruin in recent years, however the designer has put his background in historical costuming to use in other opera houses, clothing the likes of Vesselina Kasarova and Alexandra Pendatchanska for the Bayerische Staatsoper and Staatsoper Unter den Linden, respectively.

Yet the marriage of designers and opera is not always a peaceful one. Inviting Lacroix to design costumes for Renée Fleming in a 2009 Met production that originated in Chicago left the original costume designer Paul Brown understandably bereft to the point where he removed his name from the New York production. And while the gold dress was striking, other gowns were less successful. Writing for Gay City News, James Jorden described Fleming in her final dress as resembling “a Botoxed Miss Havisham.”

Miuccia Prada’s costumes for Attila also proved problematic with the Met’s cast of supernumeraries. As Page Six reported, the Italian fashionista said of meeting the opera’s extras, “I cannot clothe them! I need models!” A rep for the Met went on to explain to Page Six that casting "is at the discretion of the creative team” and that “due to a change in concept,” the opera house was replacing several of its non-singing performers. This may have made for a pretty stage picture, but as Amy Odell reported for New York magazine, “if extras are in fact being recast at Prada's behest, the precedent it sets, which is that the clothes—or at least Prada's clothes—are more important than the people wearing the clothes.”

And not all designers craft candy-like works of couture. Isaac Mizrahi, once a delirious designer for Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, tapped into his diffusion collections for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice at the Met. Though there was a flash of brilliance in Eurydice’s gauzy white gown and some superlative historic costumes for the chorus, the rest of the cast—including Orfeo and Amore plus director Mark Morris’s dancers—seemed to have walked out of Mizrahi’s showrooms for Target and QVC. To be fair, it seems that the designer is now less interested in design and more focused on becoming an entertainment personality. Perhaps the next time we see Mizrahi onstage at the Met, it will be Isaac himself.

Do the clothes make the opera singer? What have been some of the greatest hits and fashion faux pas that you've seen onstage? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Comments [2]

Phyllis Sharpe

Several years ago I saw a production of Carmen at the Met that was so out of sinc insofar as its casting, opening scrim, and Carmen's costumes by Halston. the Carmen in her slinky costumes moved as if choreographed by Bob Fosse. But Muzetta and the tenor were both very old style. I had trouble not laughing out loud.

Jun. 01 2011 09:38 PM
Wendi Westbrook from Manhattan

As both an operagoer and also a costume maker, I'll take a crack at this - Costumes are not regular clothing. They exist to delineate the character and further the story. Whether we as the audience like the final product or not, costume designers are trained to consider the complete picture - all the characters within a scene, and all the scenes within the entire opera , and [hopefully] having a logical relation to the scenery around them. The costume designers that I work with are certainly aware of fashion, especially for contemporary and stylistic productions, but their research includes books and paintings and photo archives, and many other sources, and fashion is just another resource. Sometimes the contribution of a fashion designer works - Han Feng's designs for the Met's production of Madama Butterfly jumps to mind [she admitted in an interview that she had no idea what she was in for when she began] - but more often it's just a novelty that does not integrate with the whole. One of the things I love most about the opera is that it's a collaboration among many different people. Even if some of them are used to being the star, they all have to work together to produce this wonderful experience.

May. 24 2011 07:46 PM

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