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Zandra Rhodes [Photo by Gene Nocon]
23 Apr 2013

A Chat with Aida Designer Zandra Rhodes

When I spoke with Zandra Rhodes, she was in her large San Diego workspace, which she described as having walls decorated with her own huge black and white drawings.

A Chat with Aida Designer Zandra Rhodes

An Interview by Maria Nockin

Above: Zandra Rhodes [Photo by Gene Nocon]


She had mannequins hanging from above dressed in her clothes. One of them was being costumed for Aida since she was speaking on her designs for that opera in the theater that evening. She said she was preparing things that would bring the right atmosphere to the theater for her talk.

MN: Have you always been interested in art, design, and music?

ZR: I came to music later than to art and design. When I first came to San Diego I hardly knew anything about opera, but I’ve been here more than twenty years now. By chance, my partner, Sallah Hassanein, and I got to know Ian and Ann Campbell. Ian is the general director of San Diego Opera. I invited them to dinner one Saturday evening and was told that they were terribly sorry they could not come because the opera was opening that night. We ended up joining them in the theater instead. Ian suggested we come to the pre-performance patrons’ dinner, after which he would show us around backstage. Sallah was so impressed that he immediately became a member of the Patron Program. Now we subscribe to the opera and go to all the openings. Opera is one of those art forms that requires familiarity. Once you can hum along with the music, a piece takes on a life of its own. For example, Bizet’s The Pearlfishers originally had few showings. Only when theater managers discovered that the same composer’s Carmen did well, did they give Pearlfishers a second chance. Now they both have music that people recognize.

MN: What was the first opera to use your designs?

ZR: My first foray into opera was The Magic Flute, which San Diego Opera invited me to design in 1999. It was seen there in 2001. Those costumes were used in Seattle last year.

Next I did The Pearlfishers for San Diego. I did the original drawings in my sketchbook using felt tipped pens on rice paper. Then those drawings were blown up and made into the stage settings. I knew that they needed to be very fresh. After that, the head of Opera Pacific who had seen my work at San Diego said I would be perfect for Aida. I then designed Aida for him and for Houston Grand Opera. That’s the same production that is now in San Diego. It has also been at English National Opera where it was their most popular opera for the Christmas season. They kept it for an extra year before sending it to San Francisco. From there it went to San Diego.

My partner was born in Egypt. He and I had visited that country in 1985. While there I made many sketches, even going down into some of the tombs and drawing what I saw there. Two years later, I did an Egyptian fashion collection called Secrets of the Nile. One of my tomb sketches showed a man with a leopard skin stretched across his body. I did a print that I called Tutankhamun’s Leopard for the dress show. For Aida I got those screens out again and the mock leopard skins that I printed at my studio in London now adorn the chests of the priests. I think that when you see the opera you will agree that it looks like my idea of ancient Egypt and that my designs fit the time and the place.

MN: How do you design for singers who are not built like fashion models?

ZR: When I was designing the costumes for Houston, Dolora Zajick was singing Amneris. I drew caftans for her, but she wanted something much more fitted. We then worked with some lovely corset belts and flowing hand-painted capes with thousands of feathers. I think my Aida does look a bit like ancient Egypt, which was probably bright and colorful. We don’t really know what colors they had, but they did have pleating and I’m sure they had tattoos. In the tomb pictures, the priests had turquoise zigzags on their bald heads.

MN: What is the process that takes an opera set from a drawing to the piece seen on stage?

ZR: First of all the stage director has to approve of the designer’s work. Either a director chooses me, or an opera company director like Ian Campbell puts me together with his choice of a director. I meet with the director and he tells me his concept for the production. I go back to my studio and begin sketching my ideas for the piece. When I have my initial drawings done, we have another meeting. It’s important that the director feel inspired by the designs. When he says, “I like this” and continues with, “Try this and that,” we get together with the person who will actually build the set. In San Diego that is John David Peters. He may say, “You’ve got this problem” or “That might work.” For Aida my job was to come up with initial sketches and ideas of how Egypt should look on stage. That is where the sketches from my 1985 trip came in handy. Since opera is larger than life, you can add larger-than-life details and that’s very exciting. Aida is full of lovely surprises. When that Triumphal March happens you think, “I can’t believe this!” Opera is a leap of the imagination.

MN: Where is the Zandra Rhodes Textile Museum?

ZR: It’s on Bermondsey Street in London. Designed by Mexican architect Riccardo Legorreta, it has orange and pink walls. I felt that London needed some color, so I went to a master of colorful architecture. Right now we have an exhibition of fabulous tapestry work. After that, in July, there will be a show called Zandra Seen and Unseen featuring works of mine that London has not seen before. I also have a traveling show called A Lifelong Love Affair with Textile that was at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. It went to Boston last year. Now, it’s going to Kuala Lumpur because shoe designer Jimmy Chu visited me in my studio to ask for it. It has already been seen at the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City. I also have art prints from my drawings on display at the University Club in San Diego.

MN: What advice do you have for young designers?

ZR: The main thing is not to give up. If you believe in your talent enough, you have to make sure to do all your work and push, push, push!

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