Fashion designer Zandra Rhodes (pictured left, photo by Gene Nocon) created the production of Aida that opens San Francisco Opera's 88th season this Friday. She also designed the Les pêcheurs de perles seen here in 2005. Her Die Zauberflöte closes Seattle Opera's 2010-2011 season. The Opera Tattler and the Last Chinese Unicorn talked to Rhodes over coffee at the San Francisco Opera costume shop.
LCU: Why is your hair pink and what is your natural hair color?
ZR: In 1970, I tried on this lovely green wig, and it just cramped on my head. I thought, just a minute, I'm a textile designer, if you can dye a sheet, why can't you dye hair? So I had my hair streaked green, in those days. In 1980 I went to China and turned it red. It has been this color ever since. Originally though it would have been dark brown. Pink is very easy maintenance, far easier than any of the other colors. Green fades to look like old grass. Pink will last 6 weeks!
OT: Is there a story behind your first name?
ZR: My mother was going to call me Xandra with an X after Alexander. My grandmother said that no one will understand that, so that's why I'm called Zandra with a Z.
LCU: Who is your current muse? What do you look for in a muse?
ZR: I don't currently have a muse, but I have had fabulous muses. One of them was a wonderful girl called Maxine Smith, who first got me to go to LA. It is really someone who adores clothes, who will sit with you at night and try things on, and say this feels great and why don't you wear this. You just need someone who is prepared to spend time, who is fairly exotic, and willing to just play around with things.
LCU: How do you get your inspiration? Do you have style icons?
ZR: I get my inspiration through my friends, talking about things, trying things on, and looking at things, as they happen. I have found that since I have been doing things like the opera, things like that, it is very difficult to always be around to see the "style icons." I like someone who is a bit more below the radar, that you can suddenly think, that person has something wonderful going for them. Like yesterday I went to the farmer's market and we passed this amazing girl with stockings on, in all pink, and she had these pink stockings with bows round the top. This was someone experimenting with style, which is wonderful.
LCU: If your house caught on fire and you had time to grab 3 items from your closet, what would they be?
ZR: Oh, what a difficult question! If you weren't given any time to think, well, because some of the things you could buy again, so you should take things you couldn't buy. Probably my sketchbook. A sketchbook I couldn't redo, so it would be better if I grabbed that. It is only one of them, and the rest are stored. I have to admit, I am a hoarder beyond hoarders. For example, I've got in my library, in front of the books, I've got things, like one shelf is just all Japanese sushi in plastic. Another one has a metal spider I bought in the street in Brazil. I've got rocks from everywhere I've been to. So it's the case of, what would you actually pick? I would probably would pick my jewelry, though it is not valuable. It is just art jewelry, but if it was just hanging there I would probably put on as much as I could. So jewelry, sketchbook. What else? It couldn't be clothes because they are all in chests. Oh dear, what would I pick! Give me a bit longer on that one!
LCU: If you could say one thing to Alex McQueen before he died, what would it be?
ZR: You should have talked to people and not tweeted. I found that really sad that they could say he tweeted this and that, whereas I would have been able to ring a poor, bored friend and say listen, I am really depressed, I don't know what to do. Then the sadness of being in a cupboard, I mean, imagine finding him. But I think for me, talking to someone is important, I find that I am very, very lucky in friends. I can phone someone and say, I'm really depressed, I haven't any new ideas. One of my friends would say "Good God are you still on that again? You are always telling me that, you told me that last year." Friends can help talk you out of things and get you to come round or look at it another way.
LCU: Who is your favorite character on Ab Fab?
ZR: I was on there with Loulou and Brett Eckland. I'm going to say Joanna, merely because she's a good friend anyway. But I think all the characters are good, and both the girls are good.
OT: The first opera you designed was Die Zauberflöte for San Diego, but what was the first opera you attended?
ZR: Before I started on opera, I had hardly seen any. The first opera I saw, it was in Covent Garden, what's the one with the lady that throws herself off the balcony?
ZR: Yes, but she looked like Miss Piggy. [Giggles] The Tosca was very big and Mario had built up shoes.
OT: Do you have a favorite opera?
ZR: I don't really have a favorite. I find when I'm working on a particular one, that one is my favorite. For example, The Pearl Fishers, they had Charles Castronovo singing, and when he reaches that extra high note, not on the main one, when they are both singing, but the song after that ("Je crois entendre encore"), it is gorgeous. It is a gorgeous opera. So I love that. I enjoy Aida, I can't wait for that grand march. It is just such a wonderful art form.
OT: What is your dream opera to design for?
ZR: I would love to have a go at the one they did with David Hockney, the Chinese one with the screaming lady, Turandot. I am also trying to work on ideas for a Salome.
LCU: What do you love about opera?
ZR: The amazing thing about opera is, without you knowing it, it hits all your senses. So it is not just what your eyes are showing you, but the music that's operating on you secretly without you knowing. For example, this is how I realized that, when I am watching rehearsals and they say to me I don't think the chorus looks right in what you put them in for the grand march in Aida. Well, once they start that grand march and they come on, it gets so exciting that I don't notice what they are wearing. [Laughs] It is so amazing, you are looking and you are thinking I forgot to look at that bit, because it was so exciting, with all the rest happening. You know in Aida when they are dying in the middle of the stage? In mine the pyramid closes down on top of them. There are two people with headsets, holding the scenery, and walking in on the stage, being guided, counting. So the singers are having to concentrate on dying in front of you and in the meantime the sets are being moved in by people, so they are not taking any notice of that. Then in back in the corner the chorus (they aren't paid over time to stay on, so they already've got half their wigs off and everything) and the maestro conducting them and the harp music, all in the back. You might not realize that you are not just listening to the principals singing with the orchestra playing. You've got extra music going on with these beautiful voices, but they are just all in the back! I just love all those technicalities.
LCU: Do you ever cry at the opera? Does it move you to tears?
ZR: Traviata always does!
OT: So you live in London and Del Mar?
ZR: That's right, because my partner decided to retire to Del Mar by the sea, but some of me would say, well, I don't know, I am not sure if it has worked out, or if it was a good career move. I go backwards and forwards every month. I have a secretary either end, so for example, I spoke to my London office four o' clock this morning and checked in. It continues either side, thanks to the fax, which I'm better at than email. But if it hadn't been for being in San Diego, I would have never been introduced to opera, because in fact it was Ian Campbell at San Diego Opera that had asked me to do The Magic Flute which is now going to Seattle. I am going up there this September for a day just to talk to them. He asked me to do The Pearl Fishers too. Then Jack DeMain, who used to manage Opera Pacific, saw The Pearl Fishers and said I'd be great to do an Aida. So they gave me a contract to do Aida, and was given in three charges. The first one was to come up with the concept, the second was to produce the designs, and the third would have been to carry it out. Well, I delivered the first two, and then they said they weren't going ahead. Well, I was really pleased with what I'd done, and I felt I shouldn't leave it. So I went to see Ian Campbell at San Diego Opera, and I said "Ian, I've done all this stuff for Aida, and I really want it to work" and he said "We've got an Aida of our own, I can't do it, but I'll give you the name of the guy who is going to Houston Opera, who is still at Welsh Opera." I emailed Anthony Freud and he agreed to meet me in London from Wales, which is only an hour away. We got together and he said "I think I'd like to go ahead with it, but I need to work in Houston, can you come to Houston?" Well, as it happens, I was doing The Magic Flute in Dallas, so I flew over for a day. Freud put together English National Opera, the Norwegian Opera (though they backed out) and San Francisco. That's how it happened!
OT: What do you think of ENO's approach, having opera in the vernacular of a particular place, vs. surtitles?
ZR: Oh! Why not have surtitles! Can anyone not read these days? They have the surtitles, up in English. I can't speak Italian, but when they say "Guerra! Guerra!" it sounds much better than "War! War!" [Laughs] Do you know what I mean? I think very strongly even if you speak the right language, I don't think you can understand what they are singing, except when it is very slow. I don't think it matters if you understand the words or not. Now that they've got surtitles, it is to die for. Years ago you used to have to read the libretto as quickly as you could. I speak reasonable French, but even so, you don't always understand, even in Carmen when they sing "Here come the picadors. Here, come the torredors." It is so easy once you read what the surtitles say.
OT: What medium do you use in your final drawings for the opera?
ZR: My drawings are done in my sketchbook, usually in felt tip pen. It is done on Japanese rice paper. [Pulls out her sketchbook] There's not much in this sketchbook, I mean, I've only got the current one here. So I just draw on this, we scan them, and print them up. We color Xerox them.
OT: How does designing for the opera compare to designing clothes?
ZR: They use lovely big safety pins. Designing for the opera, you have to, well, you do have to have the imagination to make a size 16 feel as if she's a 10. I think the stars are quite amazing. They come at in all this sort of stuff and convey the point about the music and everything, I just think it is incredible, I love all the little tricks you have to use and the things you have to do to make the clothes do things that you can't do when you are working on a practical level. I mean, to me it's been very exciting, being able to use things that as a textile designer, all the things I've done are all, I can use my textiles to "Zandra-ify" all the clothes. For example, hang on, I'll bring a couple around that we are not using. These aren't being worn, these are the ones in London that were for the princess. But the point is, that actually started off as plain cloth. I can take a piece of orange cloth, and print it or paint it or pleat it, because that's what I do, and turn it into a garment that does different things. These are all based on different things that I've done. I did an Egyptian collection in 1986, and I designed a leopard skin, so all the priests have got turquoise printed leopard skin. You also get, in opera, what is clever adaptation. For example, I might have an original design, but the likelihood is you don't always get someone with that physique, so he might end up more covered up. So you get slight different interpretations. Funnily enough, when we started with The Pearl Fishers, in San Diego, we had them in t-shirts, fully dressed with the leopard skin. It has done 10 towns across America, and since then, all of the guys have done it bare chested, and looked fabulous.
LCU: There was a sighting of you at the farmer's market. What sort of cheese did you get?
ZR: I bought classic cheddar, a mature cheddar. It was a fabulous farmer's market. I also bought this mad cauliflower that looks like a wonderful hairdo! Not like the ones that you get at a supermarche that are all solid. That was what was so lovely, you saw things that you would never see otherwise. So it was a big treat.
LCU: Do you like marmite on your toast?
ZR: I love marmite. It is better than vegemite, which is the Australian one, that Australians swear by, but I don't.
OT: Do you have a favorite pastry or sweet?
ZR: Unfortunately I like sweets, but lately, they have been banned from my menu. I have lost about 18 pounds. That means, don't eat it if it's white, no flour, bread, or rice. I make a very good bread and butter pudding, which is with white bread, butter, and half and half. It is delicious. I can supply the recipe if needed.