It Has To Be Magic

Isaac Mizrahi brings his vision for movement and dance to Opera Theatres season opener.

 

Once upon a time, a New York fashion designer set out on an adventure. He had fame, fortune, followers and a reputation for creating beauty in everything from wedding dresses to tweezers. But “in some crazy way,” he felt drawn to an opera company in St. Louis where he had once designed the costumes and sets for a production of Mozart’s “A Little Night Music.” It is there that our story begins…

 

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By day, our protagonist is chief designer for the Isaac Mizrahi empire, owned and managed by Xcel Brands. It’s a good fit for someone with as many ideas‰ÛÓfrom shoes and eyewear to fragrances, handbags and clothing‰ÛÓas the 52-year-old Mizrahi. But he doesn’t stop there. He also leads TV talk shows, designs sets and costumes for opera, ballet and theater, performs cabaret and more. He’s a perennial judge on shows like “Project Runway All Stars” and is a frequent guest on the late-night talk show circuit.

Best of all for St. Louisans, at the end of May, Mizrahi will spend a month with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, culminating a multi-year process resulting in OTSL’s season opener, “The Magic Flute.”

“This is going to be a tremendously exciting production,” promises James Robinson, OTSL’s artistic director. It was Robinson who facilitated Mizrahi’s involvement in 2010’s “A Little Night Music,” which Mizrahi designed and directed. After that show’s success, “I told him the door is always open,” Robinson says. “Isaac had done due diligence. He was such a terrific collaborator. I feel like he’s a member of the [OTSL] family.”

And although, at the time, the a-ha moment of nailing down their second collaboration was still a ways off, Robinson says, the idea of staging “The Magic Flute” was already percolating.

Love at First Sight

“I absolutely adore ‰Û÷Magic Flute’‰ÛÓand I adore it in English,” Mizrahi says. “The first time I saw it was at the Met when I was a kid‰Û_It was probably acted by really famous people, but all I remember is that it was really gorgeous and that David Hockney designed it.” His memory‰ÛÓof the staging rather than the directing‰ÛÓisn’t unusual for this particular opera, which over the years has attracted multitudes of well-known artists, thanks to its fantastical story. From Marc Chagall’s swirling colors to Maurice Sendak’s wild things to Jun Kaneko’s bold Japanese-style screen projections, the interpretations are endless.

Mizrahi’s own interpretation starts with the music. “I’ve been listening to ‰Û÷Magic Flute’ forever and thinking about it forever,” he says. “To me, the best part is the music. The story is there to allow for all of that unbelievable music. The characters are vivid and wonderful because the music has brought them to life.” Mizrahi called a choreographer he loves, John Heginbotham, to help him realize the “dance event,” a theatrical dream ballet in a 1950s Hollywood context. “Somehow I got it into my head that it was extremely danceable.”

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Initiation Rites and Other Trials

To stage an elaborate fantasy, show producers have to overcome a full spectrum of real-world constraints. Budgets and timeframes might not be as gripping as the ordeals of fire and water faced by the heroic Pamina and Tamino, but they can end a quest just as easily. Wielding a keyboard and cell phone instead of an enchanted flute, Ryan protects the company against the perils‰ÛÓand he fully admits that it can be a lonely role, especially when delivering bad news to directors and designers. His goal is to be egalitarian, even with celebrities like Mizrahi.

“I had to test this [equal treatment] in a very big way, because his original design for ‰Û÷A Little Night Music’ was significantly over budget, and I was the one who had to tell him,” Ryan says. “I’m about to tell a major fashion designer that he’s got a $300,000 design in costume materials alone and a budget of $30,000 for those materials. I have that conversation every year with every director. And that conversation [usually] never goes well with anybody.”

Let alone somebody who was on live TV just moments before taking that call and would go back on camera moments afterward. “He was on QVC during a 10-minute break,” Ryan recalls. “I watched him walk off the screen. My phone rang. I told him, ‰Û÷OK, look, we’re not even in the ballpark with you.’ He said, ‰Û÷Wow, OK. I’ll call you by noon tomorrow with a solution of how we’re going to get this in the ballpark.'” And, to Ryan’s surprise and delight, “That’s exactly what happened. Usually there’s screaming, ranting, not understanding.”

This season’s “Magic Flute” will use the Andrew Porter translation commissioned for OTSL in 1980 (the first of its three previous productions, followed by shows in 1984 and 2002). But the dialogue has been newly revised, and the 2014 version also involves an unusual element for an opera: professional dancers. Mizrahi’s vision wouldn’t be complete without them.

And then there are the costumes: 60 being built by OTSL’s costume shops, plus another two dozen from DeMoulin Bros & Co., a band uniform manufacturer in Greenville, IL, with the depth of knowledge to reproduce a vintage Shriner look.

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Four of Mizrahi’s original costume sketches for “The Magic Flute.” There are over 70 costumes in the production, 60 of which were built in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ costume shop. Images courtesy of Isaac Mizrahi.

When asked whether he was inspired by period movies‰ÛÓlike the Bette Davis and Susan Hayward classics that helped inspire the runway designs featured in the 1995 Movie “Unzipped,” Mizrahi bristles a bit. Then he launches into a rapid-fire description of his creative process.

“It’s not even inspired, it’s just what makes the most logical sense, and then you get into the natural progression of thinking about a passionate idea. It just becomes. It grows. You don’t deny or lie, you just keep thinking in this honest way‰Û_.All of a sudden, when I hear that first aria, all I can see is Pamina dancing a jazz ballet. I see it as a dance event that lends itself to a sound stage and the making of a movie.”

Then he pauses for breath. “It was an inspiration, but God knows‰ÛÓI don’t know where it came from!”

Though Mizrahi has little time in his already overwhelming schedule, “He clearly wakes up in the morning thinking about this production,” says Steve Ryan, director of production and operations. “He’s absolutely pushing what our limitations are, and he knows it. I know he’s going to push, he knows I’m going to pull back, and we both know that’s great collaborative tension. You can’t ask for a better situation.”

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Initiation Rites and Other Trials

To stage an elaborate fantasy, show producers have to overcome a full spectrum of real-world constraints. Budgets and timeframes might not be as gripping as the ordeals of fire and water faced by the heroic Pamina and Tamino, but they can end a quest just as easily. Wielding a keyboard and cell phone instead of an enchanted flute, Ryan protects the company against the perils‰ÛÓand he fully admits that it can be a lonely role, especially when delivering bad news to directors and designers. His goal is to be egalitarian, even with celebrities like Mizrahi.

“I had to test this [equal treatment] in a very big way, because his original design for ‰Û÷A Little Night Music’ was significantly over budget, and I was the one who had to tell him,” Ryan says. “I’m about to tell a major fashion designer that he’s got a $300,000 design in costume materials alone and a budget of $30,000 for those materials. I have that conversation every year with every director. And that conversation [usually] never goes well with anybody.”

Let alone somebody who was on live TV just moments before taking that call and would go back on camera moments afterward. “He was on QVC during a 10-minute break,” Ryan recalls. “I watched him walk off the screen. My phone rang. I told him, ‰Û÷OK, look, we’re not even in the ballpark with you.’ He said, ‰Û÷Wow, OK. I’ll call you by noon tomorrow with a solution of how we’re going to get this in the ballpark.'” And, to Ryan’s surprise and delight, “That’s exactly what happened. Usually there’s screaming, ranting, not understanding.”

This season’s “Magic Flute” will use the Andrew Porter translation commissioned for OTSL in 1980 (the first of its three previous productions, followed by shows in 1984 and 2002). But the dialogue has been newly revised, and the 2014 version also involves an unusual element for an opera: professional dancers. Mizrahi’s vision wouldn’t be complete without them.

And then there are the costumes: 60 being built by OTSL’s costume shops, plus another two dozen from DeMoulin Bros & Co., a band uniform manufacturer in Greenville, IL, with the depth of knowledge to reproduce a vintage Shriner look.

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When Mozart debuted the opera in 1791, he imbued the words and music with liveliness and humor, but he couldn’t have imagined the diversity of materials and options that would become available for future productions. For the birds alone, says costume shop manager Stacy Harris, there are a multitude of decisions based on Mizrahi’s sketches. “Real feathers? Fabric painted like feathers? Custom-made pointe shoes?”

Back in 2010 for “A Little Night Music,” Opera Theatre bought and adapted one of the costumes due to limitations on staff time and budget rather than producing it in-house as they typically do. “I could tell he didn’t really like it,” recalls Pat Seyller, director of the costume shop, “but he went with it and was agreeable. He understood.”

Seyller and Harris both love that this time Mizrahi gave them fully realized sketches rather than fashion design renderings, which can be hard to build off of for the costumes. He also includes historical info about the costumes‰ÛÓ Mizrahi is famously well-prepared with background knowledge. And, on Opera Theatre’s end, “My staff is very, very good at trying to do what designers want,” says Seyller. About 40 people work on costumes and accessories in teams for the four shows. They start with the first opera to open‰ÛÓin this case, “The Magic Flute” kicked off in the costume shop on March 31‰ÛÓand go down the line. “The Elixir of Love,” (May 31-June 25), the world premiere of “Twenty-Seven” (June 14-June 29) and “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (June 18-28) round out this 39th festival season.

“I don’t think that people realize how much work is being produced by the costume shop and how little time the drapers and their teams get to focus on one costume,” says Harris, who takes pride in the fact that OTSL creates almost all costumes for each production from scratch, unlike most operas around the country that rent them, often from OTSL. Seyller concurs‰ÛÓand admits that she herself is in awe of their productivity. “I’m always amazed at how much gets done in limited time.” Opera is unique in the scope: “Sometimes you wish you were doing a theater production that has 30 actors in it as opposed to 65 people, each with several outfits. Sometimes you’re overwhelmed by the size of opera, but the clothes are always much more spectacular!”

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Mizrahi directing one of the first days of rehearsal for “The Magic Flute.” As both creative director and costume director, Mizrahi’s days leading up to the opening included multiple costume fittings and two rehearsals, often stretching 15 hours. Photo by Wesley Law.

For opera purists, the biggest question may be Mizrahi’s street cred for directing an opera in the first place. “He’s a terrific musician inside,” says Lord. When they worked together in 2010, Mizrahi impressed the veteran music director. “He knew exactly what he wanted, but he had to come up with a vocabulary that worked for opera singers.”

Ironically, the singers‰ÛÓwith whom the audience identifies the most‰ÛÓare among the last to gather. After they arrive for rehearsals, they spend two or three days exclusively on the music, then work on the dialogue‰ÛÓin English at OTSL, all the better for hearing and understanding the jokes Mozart threw in‰ÛÓthen do about three weeks of “room rehearsals.” Only then, Lord says, do they add the stage and orchestra to the mix.

“Even the easiest-looking piece is a great soufflÌ© if it all comes together,” says Lord. “The great thing about live theater is that you never know. It’s an experience.”

The adrenaline of getting it right every time drives all of the production departments, according to Ryan. “There’s going to be a number of moments in ‰Û÷Magic Flute’ where we’ve got all the elements coming together‰ÛÓlighting, video, scenic, costumes, et cetera. Like the Queen of the Night‰Û_any one of her scenes. And the symphony. All of that has to work. The Queen of the Night’s entrance has to be amazing in almost 360 degrees.”

The Happy Ending

Sadness and evil are vanquished. Pamina and Tamino are blessed and live happily ever after. Even the spunky bird catcher uses his magic bells to find true love. And the intrepid director? How does he gauge a show’s success? “If I love it as much as I loved the vision,” Mizrahi says without hesitation. “I don’t really rely on critics or a lot of things other people might rely on. I rely on what appeals to me and what I hope the audience is getting from it.” With the self-deprecating candor that charms everyone from journalists to models‰ÛÓand a hint of laughter in his voice‰ÛÓMizrahi adds, “I love to please a crowd.”

Five months before “The Magic Flute” opening, Mizrahi was convinced that opera fans in St. Louis were already well on the way to embracing this production, sight unseen. “It’s a very learned audience,” he explains. “It knows what it’s looking at. I love that idea‰ÛÓI love playing to a smart common denominator.” And this particular singspiel‰ÛÓin fact, “The Magic Flute” was the fourth-most performed opera in the world during the 2012-13 season‰ÛÓ”It’s beloved,” Mizrahi says. “You have your audience built in, so you’re not really worried because you know they’ll be there for you. That will only make your show better.”

Robinson is likewise convinced of the St. Louis audiences’ support‰ÛÓand he can’t wait to see the show himself. He has directed it twice (“There’s so much of it that I love!” he says), but this year his directorial attention is on the world premiere of “Twenty-Seven.” For Harris and Seyller‰ÛÓspoiler alert!‰ÛÓthe crucible of success hinges on the Queen of the Night’s spectacular entrance. “I’m very excited to see how the Queen of the Night’s train works out,” Harris says, in reference to the complex entrance pattern that was still being perfected as this issue went to press. Seyller adds, in an awed tone, “I am very excited to see how it all comes together.”

Ryan, meanwhile, will be assessing the night elsewhere. “I hang out in the lobby on opening night because I love to hear what the buzz is at intermission,” he says. “If there’s a great excitement, that’s when I feel like we’ve done a great job.”

The challenge of pleasing that audience, of “reaching out and grabbing them,” is ultimately the reason Mizrahi is working with Opera Theatre of St. Louis. “This production is something I’ve been thinking about my entire life, since I saw it when I was a kid,” he says. “It’s been in my soul for so long.”

 

Photo credit: Cover/Story Photos by Wesley Law

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