Frock opera

Opera, with its divas, high drama and sense of occasion, has always been a big draw for fashion designers.

Now a new book, Fashion Designers at the Opera, has pulled back the curtain on the collaborations, complete with behind-the-scenes photographs, sketches and anecdotes.

Viktor Horsting, of design duo Viktor & Rolf, who created costumes for Robert Wilson’s 2009 Der Freischütz, says: “Fashion is all about creating dreams and opera is the ultimate dream.”

While designers get to follow their dreams on stage, opera also benefits, with fashion bringing new audiences and making an art form often seen as elitist more accessible.

Loretta Tomasi, chief executive of English National Opera, says: “Having a designer with a recognisable name attracts a wider audience and creates something surprising and innovative. We had a big first-time audience for Zandra Rhodes’s Aida: near 40 per cent.”

Kasper Holten, director of opera at the Royal Opera House in London, says: “It is always good for opera not to be opera-centric, so fresh inspiration from fashion and other disciplines is important. We must stay in touch with the world around us to keep opera moving forward. Otherwise, it will become irrelevant.”

Fashion designers can also contribute to the overall interpretation of the story. Veteran director John Cox recalls that working with Gianni Versace on Strauss’s Capriccio, performed at the Royal Opera House in 1991, changed his take on the piece. “Versace felt strongly that somehow or other we should get the 18th-century element to play against the 20th­century to get the visual tension,” says Cox. “So we redid the whole interior, including props and furniture, which also made it fresh for me.”

For Jane Pritchard, curator of the theatre and performance department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the costumes play a crucial role. She says: “The clothes are interesting to look at even though people don’t know what the singers are singing about.”

Via fashion, old favourites and rarely performed pieces can both be given a contemporary twist, whether it’s Jonathan Miller’s 1995 production of Così fan tutte complete with cast dressed in that season’s Armani, or Pierre Audi’s 2010 production of Attila at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, featuring Miuccia Prada’s take on Attila’s 5th-century guards (complete with her signature black trousers, black boots and T-shirts).

Often, a surprising collaboration between art and artisans can attract other contemporary artists to a production, such as Vincent Boussard’s recent Candide, with its flashing video projection complementing the wild bathtub-shaped set and Christian Lacroix’s outlandish costumes.

Directors agree that the choice of fashion designer and individual production is crucial. As avant-garde director Robert Wilson explains: “I choose a production team according to the project and what is most suitable for the material I am working with. I wouldn’t have Viktor & Rolf do Wagner but they’re perfect for Freischütz. Versace was right for my interpretation of Salome, whereas Viktor & Rolf would not be. I work with fashion designers if they are right for the work”.

Still, in-demand fashion designers do attract attention and audiences, not to mention money. Ian Campbell, general director and artistic director of the San Diego Opera, which produced the first two Zandra Rhodes-dressed operas, The Magic Flute (2001) and The Pearl Fishers (2004), says: “Individuals who knew and admired Zandra gave a little more money this year and it will be a little easier to close the deficit gap for her Aida production in 2013.” In addition, the collaboration also tends to increase a production’s later rental value, says Campbell. Set and costumes from The Pearl Fishers have been rented more than a dozen times across the US and Canada, more than any other home-grown production.

“There is so much avail­able for people to see, you have to be able to cut through all that, and using a designer is one way to do it,” says Tomasi.

‘Fashion Designers at the Opera’ (Thames & Hudson) by Helena Matheopoulos, £35

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