Isaac Mizrahi makes his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday night. He’s not singing, of course — although that might not surprise fans of the polymathic fashion designer. Instead, his costumes will grace the Lincoln Center stage for the new production of “Orfeo ed Euridice,” directed by his friend, choreographer Mark Morris.
The occasion marks the Met debut of Morris, as well, and even though he’s been collaborating with Mizrahi on productions since 1992, the designer was not a shoo-in. “I sort of threatened him and said if I didn’t do the costumes, I would be really upset because I love that opera so much,” says Mizrahi, who has taken a break from casting models for a new Target campaign to chat in the glass-walled conference room of his lofted Hell’s Kitchen office space. “I’ve been thinking about this opera my whole life.”
He’s not joking. “Actually, I was hoping to design the set, as well,” he continues. “So I made this maquette that he looked at, and it was kind of like a tragic thing — he really didn’t like it.”
As it turned out, Morris got over that and a year later tapped Mizrahi to work on the Christoph Willibald Gluck opera. Traditionally minded operaphiles, however, might be shocked by what they will see in this latest staging of the 18th-century piece: Working from Allen Moyer’s minimalist set — a monolithic series of curved bleachers — Mizrahi conceived of dressing the 100-strong chorus as historical figures from Joan of Arc to Charlie Chaplin. “From the minute I saw the maquette for this set, I thought of the trial of Orpheus,” explains Mizrahi. “I thought it would be so wonderful if the entire of history were watching the moment of Orpheus’ triumph over Hell.”
As for the protagonist, “he is a lonely, melancholy singer, and somehow, I wanted to evoke a country-western thing about it,” says the designer. Euridice, meanwhile, wears a white shroud until the final moments, when she emerges from her cocoon-like garments.
Surprisingly for a designer who is known for his use of shocking hues, Mizrahi refrained from using any, in this case, until the very end. “I feel that the music says that — don’t do any color until the end of Act 3,” he says. “It’s somehow more orgasmic than if you do the whole show with a ton of color.”
This story first appeared in the May 1, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Despite four months of daily fittings for the nearly 200 costumes and insomnia from worrying about the huge scale of the opera house, Mizrahi has been enjoying himself. Not to mention that he was simultaneously recovering from a car accident on Jan. 25 and spent the first weeks confined to a wheelchair. “It was a really, really good thing to be doing,” says the designer, who is now up and about and nearly back to his normal exuberant energy levels.
“It was weirdly parallel, thinking about the journey of Orpheus and my journey in my wheelchair through the labyrinth of the Met.”