Opera is all about the voices, and Seattle Opera's upcoming "I Puritani" will feature a lot of singers people are eager to hear. But costume designer Peter...

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Opera is all about the voices, and Seattle Opera’s upcoming “I Puritani” will feature a lot of singers people are eager to hear.

But costume designer Peter J. Hall, whose long career has included productions of all kinds with Dame Joan Sutherland, Dame Judi Dench, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger and David Bowie, is hoping you’ll also come for the visuals — including the sumptuous, opulent costumes he first designed for the Metropolitan Opera back in 1976 (they’re now thoroughly refreshed and updated).

You don’t go away from an opera humming the costumes, of course, but they are mightily entertaining, as they draw you into the Puritans-vs.-Cavaliers period (1642-51) with gorgeous silks, velvets, laces and those slashed sleeves so beloved of 17th-century aristocrats. All this will be played out against brand-new sets designed by Seattle’s Robert Dahlstrom, a Seattle Opera regular whose work is always ingenious and effective.

Hall, now in his early 80s, is the sort of fellow who can spin out one great story after another about his six colorful decades in a profession that has taken him from his native England to Sicily, South America, Sydney and many points in between.

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A talk with Hall is an interview you hate to see end. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks of David Bowie (“I did one of his tours; he is serious, intellectual, wonderful to work with”) and Mick Jagger (“Exactly the opposite. Impossible, because he listened to advice from one person after another, and constantly changed his mind”).

He’ll tell you what the grandest singers are really like: “Dame Joan [Sutherland] was doing an ‘Alcina’ in Venice, and she was to stand on an island that slowly revolved. She had a flowing costume with 25 tons of Murano crystal around her, all glitter and glamour.” As Hall passed by during a dress rehearsal, the majestic Dame Joan, a famous nibbler, leaned toward him and said, “Have you got a sweetie?”

Then there’s Maggie Smith, the award-winning actress with whom Hall worked on the Shakespearean play “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“She was very wicked and funny,” Hall remembers. “She could do things onstage with just a cup of coffee that no one else could have thought of.

“The wigs for this ‘Much Ado’ production were being made by Stanley Hall, and the director, Franco Zeffirelli, went along with me to look at them with her. The wigs were, let us say, not to Maggie’s taste. She took one look and said, ‘Do you want me to look like [expletive] Groucho Marx?’ “

Smith, who became a good friend, was on the guest list one Christmas holiday when Hall gave a house party at his place in Spoleto, Italy.

“It was freezing,” he remembers, “and the fire wouldn’t stay lit. I had been given a pack of tarot cards with a book as a gift, so we did this game predicting the future with the cards. Every card Maggie turned up was just terrible. Later, I saw her in L.A., and she said, ‘Every single word you said came true — don’t ever do that again!’ “

He may have set aside the tarot cards, but Hall probably will never set aside the fabrics that have bewitched him since early childhood. There might never have been a costumer more thoroughly in love with fabric than Hall, who began as a child making a shoebox theater and ransacking his mother’s wardrobe for bits of old lace.

“I remember those fabrics,” Hall says dreamily, “especially bits of an old evening dress — it was black net with tiny seed pearls over pale green silk. Lovely.”

After classes at the Western College of Art (interrupted by World War II), and a stint in the army, Hall emerged in London to look for work. His anxious mother gave him two days to look for something in the theater before finding “a serious job,” but within a couple of hours Hall had become assistant stage manager in a musical based on “Die Fledermaus.” Costuming was a major problem with the materials shortages in those postwar years.

When Hall was about 21, on a visit to Italy, he was invited to design opera costumes in Milan for productions that went on to tour England, Scotland and Wales. Returning to London, he answered an ad and found himself working at London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden — and coming to the attention of Zeffirelli, one of the most influential director/designers in opera. Hall remembers with particular fondness a 1960 “I Puritani” with Sutherland in Palermo, where Zeffirelli directed, and the costumes involved “black silk and velvet, and for the wedding scene, ruby red and sapphire blue — it was all rather splendid.”

While he worked, Hall would listen to recordings of the operas so that “the costumes illustrate the sound,” and so that he got a feeling for the movement in the opera. Along the way, he discovered the following facts about singers:

1. They do not like hats.

2. They really, really do not like Elizabethan ruffs around their throats.

3. Sometimes they ask for bizarre things, like a piece of plywood in the vests “for support.”

4. Sometimes they do even more bizarre things, like cutting off the costume because they wanted to kneel a certain way on the stage (a recent Salome), or sending in advance the measurements of the size they would like to be, rather than the size they really are (so the costumes are all made too small).

Over the years, Hall has learned tact. Mountains of tact. It is always the larger singers who proclaim, “This costume makes me look fat,” when in fact it is not really the costume. And often the singers have strong ideas of their own about “unlucky colors” or the negligee that soprano Angela Gheorghiu wanted to wear in “La Boheme” (never mind that it was in a scene where the production has her coming in from the street).

“These days,” sniffs Hall, “it’s the fashion to do opera in bluejeans and tank tops. This cheats the public. You have to listen to the music and what it says to you. It is certainly not saying ‘bluejeans and tank tops.’ “

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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