The new generation of polished opera stars clamber for elusive luxury partnerships
It happened backstage at The Metropolitan Opera House in 2009 in the run-up to an eminent Verdi’s Attila, sets by the seasoned architectural duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and costumes by Italian fashion doyenne Miuccia Prada. As she sized-up the supernumeraries for fittings, Signora Prada, in her costumière inauguration, reportedly demurred, “I cannot clothe them – I need models!”
No one flinched. The Met obliged. After all, Prada sends four annual couture collections down the Milan runways (plus two Miu Miu Paris collections), mapped to willowy, waifish blueprints. Beef and iron extras must have looked like an entirely different species next to impossibly- long limbed teenage Amazonians. Prada’s just one of many fashion icons who’s crossed into opera métier – Christian Lacroix, Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Missoni and Viktor & Rolf have all hung the opera costumière mantle with varying degrees of success.
But opera singers as fashion muse? Rara avis.
Long-perpetuated industry stereotypes are partially to blame – aside from Maria Callas, opera singers generally scored abysmal sartorial marks. Remembrance of gawky and coltish legends such as Joan Sutherland and Birgit Nilsson is better left to bulletproof gramophone incisions.
Luxury fashion houses favour one-off collaborations and short-lived partnerships, and opera singers remain largely untapped as brand ambassadors, relegated for Hollywood gamines and brighteyed pop stars.
But over the last decade, the opera industry has rebooted, eager to monopolize glossy column inches, merit to a confluence of innovations: the ‘Live in HD’ broadcasts that beam divas onto cinema screens and turn one-off roles into eternal DVDs; the ubiquitous micro-blogging sites that allow singers to wrangle public image from the iron grip of conservative publicists and managers; and a wellness regime, propelled by an emerging generation of opera directors who demand Olympiad calisthenics across steeply-raked stages.
Goodbye to the ‘park & bark’ singers of yesteryear. Hello to the next generation of silky divas (and divos) who are partnering-up with fashion houses to amp their couture credibility.
Enter Danielle de Niese with theatrical swagger and a sparkling tessitura. The Australian-born, American-raised soprano commands a decade-long partnership with American fashion designer Donna Karan after striking-up a friendship in 2003 with its senior vice president of design, Peter Speliopoulos, while singing Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo.
From galas to album covers, de Niese curates Donna Karan gowns based on sartorial logistics – will she be posing, performing or socializing? “If the gown’s for singing at an event, I make sure that the bodice is breathable and that there’s room for expansion so that my décolleté isn’t revealed every time I breathe deeply,” says de Niese, who wore a bespoke Karan gown to her 2009 wedding to Gus Christie, the third-generation heir and current chairman of the privately-run opera house, The Glyndebourne Festival, in idyllic East Sussex, England where she’s now based.
De Niese’s luxury partnerships converge as effortlessly as she hits the high Cs. She scored a tony Van Cleef & Arpels ambassadorship in 2009, and one year later, she began collaborating with British punk couture maven Vivienne Westwood. (For Westwood, it was love at first sight – she anecdotally-inquired, “Who’s that girl and who dresses her?” while attending a 2010 de Niese recital at The Barbican Centre in London.)
“In 2012,” recalls de Niese, “Vivienne Westwood sent me to New York City with a white mermaid gown for a CBS event at Carnegie Hall where I sang a duet with American rapper LL Cool J. The shape was so ‘va-va-voom’, with curves everywhere. I would’ve never thought to wear white, as it’s not my usual colour, but the risk paid off.” Jaws dropped and a standing ovation ensued.
Westwood – merit to her dramatic aesthetic, Victorian tailoring and ample cuts – has become an opera diva chérie. In 2012, she created a bespoke, blood-red gown for Grammy-winning American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, which was lensed for the cover of her ‘Drama Queens’ CD, a diva In extremis compilation of rare Baroque-era arias.
Opera singers equally covet the ultrafeminine, fairy-tale gowns by Italian designer Alberta Ferretti. Versatile Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio endorses the Ferretti philosophy, which embraces the female form in sample-size busting, full-frame measures. “Ferretti designs in a way that emphasizes the curves of a real woman, but she does it in a discreet, elegant way,” says Giannattasio, who wore Ferretti-sponsored gowns during a 2013 Far East tournée with Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo.
Other singers have cultivated relationships with fashion houses backed by longstanding ties to opera and classical music protagonists, such as Giorgio Armani. Mr Armani – who’d dipped into opera costume design with a 1995 Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Royal Opera House – frequents Milan’s Teatro alla Scala to cheer cherished, native heroes, such as Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. Between roles, Grigolo sits front row at Armani runway shows and croons at Armanisponsored private events, impeccably outfitted down to his libidinous shoes. Italian luxury menswear house Ermenegildo Zegna has been a faithful patron to the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre and partners with the multitasking Spanish tenor-baritoneconductor Plácido Domingo, who uses the brand’s bespoke ‘Su Misura’ service of ultra-fine, personalized fabrics.
As an upstanding darling of the Manhattan culture scene, American fashion and costume designer Austin Scarlett often promenades season-opening red carpets and galas with opera divas nipped into his made-to-measure couture gowns. In 2013, when emerging American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was awarded the annual Richard Tucker Award, she graced the award ceremony in one of Scarlett’s elegantly refined, romantic designs.
On the opposite side of the stage, Scarlett’s flexed his costumière muscle in 2010 for the Hans Werner Henze opera El Cimarrón at the Connecticut Greenwich Music Festival, and he’ll bow costume designs in April for the world premiere of With Blood, With Ink at the Texas Fort Worth Opera.
As a fashion designer, he finds deep merit through stagecraft. “I love the music and the grand theatricality of opera,” he says. “Costume design, of course, is more exaggerated than fashion design. It involves intensive research and a specific stylistic approach that helps develop setting and characters, and it needs to show a variety of personalities and emotions.” For opera singers who haven’t yet laid inroads to luxury house sponsorships, they can always buy their way in. Like the majority of her top-tier colleagues, American soprano Lise Lindstrom – whose go-to gala gear is Ralph Lauren’s super-lux Collection line and A-list Marchesa – scouts couture gowns in mono-brand boutiques before they hit down-market retail.
She views opera singers as cultural ambassadors who have the opportunity to model couture gowns to international audiences, a rare slice among royalty and cinema stars impeccably turned out at Cannes and Hollywood red carpets. “Who else but opera singers, celebrities and royal families regularly appear in the public spotlight in beautiful couture gowns?” she says. “As opera singers, through our artistry, not only do we transcend language and culture barriers, but through couture, we have the potential to be aspirational and inspiring ambassadors.”
For de Niese, it’s a matter of synchronicity. “The incentive for opera singers is obvious – we get to wear handmade, personalized, couture creations made with care and attention. It’s exactly the same way I approach my music.” Missed connections: Poised, charismatic opera singer seeks a storied luxury brand to amplify its cultural swagger. Would love to hear from you.
Article by Courtney Smith