NEW YORK — Han Feng’s decision to design costumes for the English National Opera’s new production of “Madam Butterfly” was partly a gesture of friendship.
It was, after all, her pal, Anthony Minghella, the film director now trying his hand at Puccini’s opera, who put the offer on the table. But dressing the 50-plus cast members for his production has turned into a testament to their friendship.
Standing in her airy apartment amid storyboards pinned with hundreds of vivid printed swatches, the designer said she dove into the project by doing extensive research about the period before creating the fabrics and silhouettes. To give performers a more modern edge, Feng developed patterns such as a multicolored checkerboard print and a striped pattern with oversized flowers.
“For Americans, this is still very Eastern, and for Easterners, this is still very American,” she said.
Feng will be the first Chinese designer to create costumes for the English National Opera when Minghella’s “Madam Butterfly” is staged Nov. 5. The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, is among those who are expected at the London premiere. In the months leading up to the November opening, Feng will be jetting to China, London, Shanghai and New York to oversee production.
Minghella, who has made his mark with movies such as “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain,” first met the designer in the late Nineties. His wife was a fan of her clothes, and the director was curious to find out who was behind those creations. The three became friends and Feng has been dressing him for the red carpet ever since.
“I didn’t even know who Anthony Minghella was,” she recalled. “Then his wife said, ‘My husband made “The English Patient.”‘ I saw it three times.”
Measuring up to the director’s expectations was a bit of a challenge for Feng, who had never designed costumes. She recalled with a laugh the afternoon she presented her ideas to the production team. Unaware that sketches were needed, Feng showed up with a suitcase stuffed with items from her fall ready-to-wear collection and told the group, “See this skirt? Imagine it as a butterfly skirt,” she said, shaking her head. “They said, ‘Ah-ha.’ They were looking at me like, ‘What is this about?'”
“Anthony told me, ‘I need you to put your imagination on paper,'” Feng said.
With his encouragement, Feng worked through the night to complete the task. For a designer who has largely worked independently, she appreciated the opportunity to learn how to articulate her ideas.
After closing her store in Manhattan’s Chelsea this year, Feng is focused on taking on unusual projects like the opera and completing her fall “Madam Butterfly”-inspired collection.