Among stars of Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” will be the costumes and sets — designed by fashion superstar Zandra Rhodes, who was honored this year at Buckingham Palace as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

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A fashion legend breezed into town last month, complete with fuchsia hair and deliciously ornate jewelry. Now 75, Zandra Rhodes opened her first shop in 1967, selling clothing made from her own line of fabrics. She’s since dressed the likes of Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Freddie Mercury and Diana, Princess of Wales, in her theatrical, boldly printed designs.

Earlier this year, she received one of Britain’s highest honors: At Buckingham Palace, she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her services to the country’s fashion and textile industry — which she accepted wearing a dramatic electric-blue-and-black print suit of her own design, topped by a jaunty pillbox hat and her trademark bright-pink bob.

Rhodes’ visit to Seattle — squeezed in between the runway show of her new spring collection at London Fashion Week and a trip to New York for the unveiling of her first collection of wall art — was of an operatic turn: She designed the costumes and sets for “The Pearl Fishers,” opening at Seattle Opera Oct. 17.


‘The Pearl Fishers’

Oct. 17-31, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$295 (206-389-7676 or

Though Rhodes’ “Pearl Fishers” designs are making their Seattle debut, they were originally created in 2004 as her second opera project. The designer divides her time between London, where she has a flat above the Fashion and Textile Museum (which she founded in 2003), and Del Mar, Calif., where she came to know the head of San Diego Opera. Long intrigued by the idea of designing for opera — “Zeffirelli once asked me, but he never rang back,” she said — Rhodes made her debut with the company with “The Magic Flute” in 2001.

Three years later, “The Pearl Fishers” took Rhodes to an exotic setting: The opera, written by Georges Bizet (“Carmen”) takes place long ago on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). “Bizet never went there,” Rhodes noted — but she did, studying and sketching the region’s colors and clothing in order to translate them for the stage.

In Seattle Opera’s costume shop, she moved happily among the 74 different costumes hanging on racks and displayed on various-sized mannequins. “It’s like seeing old friends,” she said.

Rhodes used two different, vivid color schemes for the opera’s characters: bright oranges, pinks and corals for the priests and priestesses; cool blues, purples and creams for the villagers and pearl fishers.

The fabrics look detailed and rich, but many come from humble origins: Some were originally inexpensive Indian bedspreads, others were mass-market polyester saris bought at a warehouse. To create the lush look, she printed additional patterns on them at her fabric company, all with a sea theme: shells, ferns, waves.

Designing for opera, Rhodes said, brings special considerations — and not just the wide range of figures. (Varying sizes wasn’t much of a problem with such drapey designs, she explained: “You just add more pleats.”) When it comes to singers, Rhodes said, “you must never cover their ears, and they don’t like something close on their neck.”

The priestess Leila, center of the opera’s love triangle, wears the same costume throughout, which had its own challenges. Though veiled at one point, the soprano needs to see the conductor — and the veil’s fabric needs to be thin enough to sing through, but substantial enough to stay put. Additionally, Rhodes said, “she has to take her sari off and wrap it before the audience.” A tiny piece of velvet was sewn into the fabric so the singer knows exactly where to hold it.

Though high fashion keeps her busy, more opera is in Rhodes’ future: She’s hoping to design “Turandot” for San Diego Opera soon, having fallen in love with the grandeur of the art form.

“You’re totally taken along by the music,” she said. “I think opera’s very magical.”