Zandra Rhodes turns from clothes to operaby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — If you have been in downtown St. Paul over the last few days and seen a diminutive older women with bright pink hair - well, you've just had a brush with an international fashion icon.
Zandra Rhodes has designed clothes worn by everyone from Princess Diana and Jackie Onassis to Paris Hilton and the cast of "Sex and the City."
But Rhodes isn't in St. Paul on a fashion mission. She's overseeing the costumes and set design for the Minnesota Opera production of "The Pearl Fishers."
It's hard not to stare when you meet Zandra Rhodes, and it's not just the pink hair. She's also known for her theatrical make-up, her costume jewelry, and of course her brightly - really brightly - colored clothes.
"I call them sort of lovely chiffon dreams in printed chiffon," she said. "So that they are a vehicle for the prints, although I do plain dresses now."
Zandra Rhodes trained as a textile designer in the 60s in London, but she was unable to interest cloth merchants in the wild designs she created. So, she became a designer.
When the punk era hit London, her clothing with rips, external seams, and jeweled safety pins became the talk of the town. She said her ideas keep coming back. She was hearing things again this year during Fashion Week.
"Marc Jacobs, every write-up I've seen has said 'it's influenced by Zandra Rhodes,' with the prints and the tears and the edges with the pearls," she said. "So it's very interesting how it comes around."
Sitting in the Ordway Center it's easy to see the bright patterns of Rhodes' own clothes reflected on the set behind her.
Rhodes did her first opera about eight years ago in San Diego.
"I did the costumes for the Magic Flute," she said, "[And] fell in love with working with opera. The fact that you are dealing with this wonderful medium with sounds and color, and the people you work with are fantastic."
The Artistic Director of the San Diego Opera came back three years later with a bigger challenge - to do the costumes and the stage design for Georges Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers."
"Which incidentally I'd never heard of at that time," she said.
She also learned that, while the opera was set in Sri Lanka, she'd have a lot of latitude.
"I started drawing realistic trees and bits of beach scene," she said. "And then I thought, 'I don't think they are coming to me for realism at all; because opera's not very real anyway. So I went back to my sketchbook, looked at some of the drawings of palm trees I'd done and I just 'Zandrified' them into pink palm trees and turquoise columns and magical rocks."
On stage, the chorus is running through a rehearsal. Their costumes are based on sketches Rhodes gathered during a research trip to Sri Lanka, but they too have been "Zandrified."
"So that the villagers all come out in wonderful mixed greens and magical textiles," she said. "And all the religious people are in vibrant shocked oranges and pinks."
Rhodes will appear as the special guest at two performances called "Punk and Pearls" at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis Friday at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. She'll talk about her work, while members of the cast model her designs and perform extracts from "The Pearl Fishers."
The production, directed by Australian Andrew Sinclair, has done well over the years. The Minnesota production is the tenth time it's been mounted. Rhodes has traveled with the show, and seen many different singers in the lead roles.
She said she knows she's meant to be making sure the costumes and the sets are right, but when the curtain goes up on opening night at the Ordway, she'll still get caught up in the performance.
"I think opera is the weaving of magic spells, of impossible situations, but when they reach the right notes and they are all dressed properly and they've all got their right wigs on and they are all singing gorgeously you are just carried along by the waves of the music," she said. "And actually, I think that this opera is far more beautiful than Carmen."
As a result, Zandra Rhodes said even as she continues full tilt with her clothing line, she's ready to conjure more magic with any opera design work that comes her way.
- Morning Edition, 09/25/2009, 8:45 a.m.