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NEW YORK — The opera conjures up images of leading ladies in cup-runneth-over corsets and butt-enhancing bustles, but the costumes for the latest production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” playing at New York City Opera this month, take quite a different tack. Printed saris, wildly colorful turbans and tiger, fawn and horse headdresses all make appearances during the 19th-century opera, written when Bizet was in his early twenties.

British designer Zandra Rhodes dreamed up the outfits and sets for the production, which debuted last year at the San Diego Opera (She also designed costumes for the company’s 2001 production of “The Magic Flute.”) In “The Pearl Fishers,” two men from Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) choose a virgin priestess to come bless their village’s pearl harvest. In classic love-triangle fashion, the woman they’ve chosen, Leïla, is the same woman the two once fought over and fell in love with years ago.

To re-create an ancient South Asian coastal village, Rhodes eschewed realism and “Zandrafied” the production instead, which meant installing oversized pink and turquoise palm trees, cartoonish canvas backdrops and strips of fabric meant to evoke bright blue waves. “Ian [Campbell, director of the San Diego Opera] said to me, ‘Just remember, Bizet never went to Sri Lanka,’” she says. 

Rhodes was hemmed in by few conventions, as is evidenced by the nylon saris she printed with gold and orange seashells reminiscent of the Shell gasoline logo and two-dimensional temple columns painted in teal, mint green and fluorescent yellow. “The only rule, which is a lovely rule, is that the singers must never have their ears covered,” she says, showing off elaborate sketches of men in turbans and women with long braids intertwined with elaborate Indian tassels.

She did try to re-create some traditional garb: While in Sri Lanka doing research for the opera, she sketched sculptures of men, and then designed costumes based on their look. “We made up the head of the village with this great big hat, but on the stage he looked just like Johnny Depp in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’” She replaced the hat with a turban. “Sometimes in opera everything’s over the top, but this was just a bit too much.”

This story first appeared in the March 31, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Rhodes, who also will design costumes for a 2006 production of “Aida,” splits her time between Del Mar, Calif., and London, where she lives on top of The Fashion & Textile Museum she founded in 2003. Even though she still produces two collections a year, the hot pink-haired designer is getting used to the art of opera appreciation: “When you do a fashion show, you get great applause but you don’t get the rising of spirit that you do somehow with music,” she says, adding: “They gave me a standing ovation in San Diego.”

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