opera iris japanese ghosts



By Julia Findlater

Photograph Charles Lester
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Kimono Costume from the Opera by Designers Charles and Patricia Lester.

designer opera costumes japanese
model Mel Vondrau
Photography © Charles Lester
Pictures of the Plus Size Collection

Did you know that Japanese ghosts do not have feet? I learnt this fascinating fact during an extraordinary afternoon spent deep in the Welsh countryside where Charles and Patricia Lester live and work. For a Londoner accustomed to endless traffic jams they appear to have an idyllic lifestyle with a five minute commute between their Georgian mansion and their studio in a converted workhouse, bowling along the lanes in their classic Rolls Royce. This unusual location is the creative crucible for the costumes which will entertain Holland Park Theatre opera goers this summer.

To anybody used to the more temperamental extremes of the fashion industry Charles and Patricia are a refreshing change, combining a deep interest and understanding of fabric with a pragmatic approach. They both have an infectious enthusiasm and energy, but seem to be able to fuse this with a charming yet business-like manner and as a team, they each bring specific strengths to the production process. The duo's innate creativity and inventiveness has given birth to fantastical ideas - the lester-abergavennysumptuously pleated, delicate fabrics and colours with which they now create the most spectacular clothes. We must not forget the canine members of the team, particularly, Rosie the English Bull Terrier, who expresses her approval by pushing her nose along the rails of finished garments, enjoying the pleasure of their 'feel'. One cannot be sure, but does she seem to return again and again to her favourite pieces?

Inside the Lesters' studio the greyness of the wet April Saturday was immediately dispelled by an explosion of colour. Every surface was covered with bolts of rich fabric whose colours and textures evoked a Japanese sunrise: crimson, yellow and orange, and the subtle colours of a Japanese garden: violet, pink and palest white. I could almost smell the orange blossom and hear the nightingales sing. Hung on rails around the walls of the room were accumulating the costumes for Iris.

Most of us are familiar with the Lesters' designs from fashion magazines or from gazing longingly at the real thing in Liberty's. Their collection is sophisticated, subtle and elegant clothes which seem to spring from the canvases of Albert Moore or Leighton. Photographs on the walls show that they are worn by clients ranging from princesses to Hollywood stars. How, I asked, did they agree to design the costumes for Iris?

As Patricia explained, constantly moving around the studio with three excited dogs, she is entranced by the performing arts. They have a well established reputation - other projects have included costumes for the film 'Wings of a Dove' and fabric for Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet'. But the real reason is her passion for Irises; many years ago, she explained, she bought a kimono decorated with Irises at an auction to raise money for 'Save the Children'. When, earlier this year she was, in her own words, 'cajoled' by Opera Holland Park into designing the costumes for Iris, she remembered that early passion.

In common with most people, neither Charles nor Patricia were familiar with Iris. Indeed Pietro Mascagni is probably better known for Cavalleria Rusticana, and, I imagine, few of us are aware of his sixteen other stage works. Iris, written in the 1890s, might have given Mascagni the success he longed for had he not been eclipsed by that other great 'oriental' work, Puccini's Madam Butterfly. However, Iris makes a welcome change, and is arguably Mascagni's greatest work.

As they listened to the opera repeatedly, Charles and Patricia became certain that the key to the costume design was to capture the richness of the sound in the design of the clothes. Their ambition was to achieve a harmony of design so there are no divisions between the costumes, the music and the set, but a marrying of all these elements. Before thinking about individual costumes they plunged into a period of intense research from their capacious library, reading and researching everything from books on the history of Japanese costume to the traditions of the tea ceremony. Finally detailed discussions with the Director, Tom Hawkes, they began to focus on the design of specific characters.

They were not interested in slavishly copying historically accurate Japanese costume - anyone could do that. What she and Charles have produced are clothes which start with a Japanese base but which have become stylised, exploring the traditional shapes and silhouettes of Japanese design, but adapting them for the operatic stage. In the same way that the themes of the story are timeless and deal with universal issues, so the costumes are eternal. The project allowed things that they had absorbed during the past visits to Tokyo and Kyoto to come to the fore and enable them to respond to the project to produce a couture show - if it were just costumes she felt that she and Charles would be 'doing the wrong thing'.

It should come as no surprise that the period holds a fascination for Charles and Patricia for their clothes are truly 'aesthetic', not concerned with the vagaries of fashion, but timeless. Their design focuses on the richness of fabric and colour to create mood and atmosphere, rather like Whistler's Nocturne's. The marriage of their work with Mascagni's opera, Iris, whose music he hoped would be 'continuously beautiful', will make for a truly 'aesthetic' experience.

The 'Aesthetic Movement', as espoused by Whistler, Oscar Wilde, Burne-Jones and others, began with the opening up of trade between Japan and the West, in 1854 by Commodore Perry, and enabled Japanese culture and artistic ideas to flow to the West where they were greeted with enthusiasm by artists, architects and designers. By the 1860s curio shops in Paris were offering a range of Japanese objets d'art. Liberty and Company of London, founded in 1875, largely as an import house, can attribute its success to the growing demand for Japanese goods. Interestingly Liberty is one of the major outlets for the Lesters' clothes - although personal buyers who visit their studio will encounter the world's largest collection of the Lesters' art!

Traditional Japanese shapes, surface treatments, materials and techniques were interpreted in every form of decorative art and design. By the time Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado opened in 1875, the fascination for things Japanese was a positive mania, and music, usually the last art to respond to changes, was also caught up with this craze for things Japanese. In 1872 Camille Saint-Saens wrote La Princesse Jaune and of course Madam Butterfly, adapted from a novel by the great French orientalist, Pierre Loti, was written in 1887.

Having dived deep into the project, Patricia soon realised the enormity of the challenge facing them. For a highly specialised fashion house producing a few hundred exquisitely hand finished garments a year, producing 140 garments over a few weeks would be a challenge to the existing staff and those who were drafted in specially. Patricia recalls the look of horror on the faces of members of her team when the company's involvement in Iris was announced. Despite the number of garments, it is not in the Lesters' make-up to change their techniques simply because of sheer volume - so hand-stitching and finishing would remain as the method, rather than a 'production line' switch to machines. This is perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Lesters' achievements with Iris. The costumes you see are not 'imitations' of what they do normally but each is worthy of a place in any of their collections.

Making costumes for the chorus was a huge task. Years of designing couture clothes meant that Patricia could not, as previously suggested, bring herself to design a standard costume for the chorus. 'The chorus shouldn't have a uniform like a group of children coming out a school or like a male voice choir.' Insisting that each character in the chorus had an individually designed costume, she established an occupation for each individual member in the chorus. As she explained, she needed to know the motivation of each of the characters before she could design the costume. By identifying a money lender, a bird-seller, a girl selling blossom and so forth, Patricia designed each costume to reflect each personality, giving the chorus a richness and depth one does not usually find in opera.

By getting under the skin of the characters and understanding the history and design of Japanese costume, Charles and Patricia have brought a new dimension to this opera. Attention to the simplest detail is all important. For example, the difference in shades of black worn by the different characters. Patricia was aware of the existence in Japan of a poor and a rich man's black. As a colour, black is simply a very dark version of something (be it red, green, blue or brown). A rich man's black has a real depth whereas the pauper's version is a more faded example which reveals more of the base colour. So when she came to design the costume for Iris's father, Il Cieco, she was careful to use the poor man's black to underline his status.

Amongst other challenges were the costumes for Osaka whose character transforms from a young nobleman in Act I to that of Jor, 'Son of the Sun' in Act II. The task was to design something with a silhouette which the audience would recognise as his own, but distinguish him in disguise, as well as ensuring, of course, that his black was rich!

Charles and Patricia work in a very instinctive way, using an emotionally based talent to bring to life their ideas. They draw inspiration from their surroundings - to the extent where it is not unknown for Patricia to think of ideas as she sits on the motor-mower cutting the lawns; sometimes she says 'if it is a particularly big idea, I find that I've mown a field or two!' These ideas then become what Paricia calls 'doodles', and design drawings which Charles works up on the computer, printing it onto transparent film. Once they are happy with the image, it goes onto computer and a screen is created for the production process. The actual design of the clothes is done on the stand, never from drawings. At this stage others in the studio, particularly Georgina, their daughter, will contribute their ideas until a final decision is arrived at. It sounds simple, but the skill is in the Lesters' sense of colour, texture and pattern which make their clothes so individual.

The visual impact of the set and costumes of Iris is important, as the plot and characterisation is not complex. Conscious of this, Patricia showed me the costumes for the first two acts, explaining that the clothes have surprises in them - the way the light captures the fabric or the colour changes with differenct movement. Act II has very rich colours in order to express its drama and passion - lots of heavy velvets, in contrast to Act I which has a gentile simplicity. Act III, where the ragpickers go about their daily grind, is mean and impoverished in a way that only a sewer could be although Patricia is quick to point out that Iris's transformation in this scene gives her rags an air of luxury. In the final Act there are also three ghostly apparitions and, as Patricia has already explained to me, Japanese ghosts don't have feet, so how do you design a costume for an earth bound performer giving a sense of weightlessness? 'Wait and see' was her only reply


A Textile Experience from 22nd September to 4th October 1997 at Leighton House Museum - An exhibition held at Leighton House of Charles and Patricia Lester's Art pieces and costumes for the opera 'Iris'.

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