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Photography Courtesy of Isaac Mizrahi NY
It’s snowing in New York. A lot. In less than a week, Isaac Mizrahi’s showing his fall 2010 collection, but today, he’s on the phone, breezy and ebullient, talking about “that glorious woman thing that I never get over.” He’s describing two things at the same time: his collection, and Desiree Armfeldt, heroine of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the show he’s directing this June for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Mizrahi is famous for his ability to inhabit two worlds at once, having pioneered the high/low trend by designing $40 dresses for Target while doing couture for Berdorf Goodman. And he’s forever had one foot in fashion and the other in theater, even as a kid, when he produced dining-room plays with handmade puppets, writing scripts and sewing tiny costumes. (He’s still doing wardrobe, though these days it’s for productions like Mark Morris’ Orfeo ed Euridice at The Metropolitan Opera.)
“I’ve worked in every single capacity in the theater except direction,” he explains. “And every kind of theater—ballet, opera, Broadway. I produced my own one-person show off-Broadway [Les Mizrahi], and that ran for a long, long time. Some of my best friends are directors. It’s been like a secret ambition to do this. Well, actually”—he pauses—“maybe it’s not so secret. I’ve been telling people for years that I’d like to direct.”
That wish resonated in the ear of James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theater of Saint Louis, who called Mizrahi three years ago to ask whether he would like to make his directorial debut with OTSL. Mizrahi says he “called back within 3 seconds of getting that message” to say yes.
At first, he and Robinson discussed only operas: Benjamin Britten, Franz Lehár, Henry Purcell. “Then Jim said, ‘What about musical theater?’” Mizrahi says. “And I said, ‘If we’re talking about something like A Little Night Music, I think I would just faint, you know, die dead away.’ He said, ‘If you agreed to do that, we could agree tomorrow,’ and I said, ‘All right, well, let’s get the contract, then!’” It was so exciting. It was this moment that we just stumbled on. That was 2½ years ago. So who would know that between that time and now, there would be six revivals of this?”
Mizrahi credits his designer’s ESP for tapping into that zeitgeist, adding that he won’t see the current Broadway revival, though he’s seen stills. Night Music may be musical theater, but there’s nothing facile about it: Scored in ¾ time, like a waltz, it’s filled with polyphonies and high notes, and has a complex, Shakespearean plot. Mizrahi’s not just directing—he’s also designing sets and costumes, just as he did with puppets in his parent’s living room. Still, he’s confident that this production will be singular. For one thing, it will be backed by a full orchestra. “It will be lush,” he says.
“There is a darkness, and there’s a plainness, because it’s Swedish,” he adds. “But there’s also a sparkling magic to it that I want to bring to it that I’m not sure anyone’s gotten yet.” Creating that requires the constellation of a few things—influences you can see, a bit, in his winter collection, “Central Park Story Book,” which Mizrahi described in terms of “fairies and witches in Central Park” and “Avedon meets Avatar…where the glitter foxes, diamond crocodiles, and sequin sting rays roam freely.”
He says that Night Music’s first sung overture, “where someone strikes an A on the piano,” always suggested to him “this idea of a fairy tale that’s going to be told again, like Brigadoon.” There’s also an undercurrent, very apparent in Smiles of a Summer Night, the Ingmar Bergman film on which the musical is based, “of the sun never setting, and driving you mad, and the magic of that.” Then, Mizrahi says, there was the theatrical setting itself.
“When I walked through that beautiful little park in St. Louis,” he says, “then walked into that kooky, magical theater with the thrust stage, I thought immediately of lovers running through the forest and climbing up trees.” Which led to thoughts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and “these Shakespearean fairies who live in the forest, Peaseblossom and Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed… That’s the coup de théâtre that I’m trying to strike here. It’s these kinds of vagrant Swedish fairies living in the forest, telling a tale of Desiree and Fredrik.” Once that love story begins to unspool, Mizrahi again walks between worlds, weaving together the spangle-gowned Scandinavian fairies and some very concrete Edwardian history. He envisions Desiree, played in this production by Amy Irving, as Anna Held, the European stage actress who was, for a time, Flo Ziegfeld’s lover.
“She was the toast of Paris, and nobody quite knew exactly her origins,” Mizrahi says. “She kept saying she was Parisian, but she wasn’t; she was Polish, and she was Jewish. She migrated with her family to Paris, and they were gutter people, living hand-to-mouth. Somehow, she got involved with a Yiddish theater troupe and became a huge star. I kept obsessively reading about her, and then it struck me: It was Desiree. It’s exactly the same period, the same incredible self-invention–slash–not conventional way of living in the world.” (Mizrahi says he’s going to have the actress read biographies of Held; compare photographs of the two women, and you’ll see similarly heart-shaped faces and expressive eyes.)
Of course, for someone who loves New York so ardently, who has worked at the Met and has produced his own shows, the natural question is: Why make your directorial debut in St. Louis?
“It’s like this cozy kind of opera hamlet,” Mizrahi says of Opera Theatre. “Last year, I worked at the Met with [mezzo-soprano] Stephanie Blythe. She was waiting to go onstage during dress rehearsal, and I was talking to Tom Watson, who is the wig master there, and also at Opera Theatre. I was telling him I was hoping he was doing the wigs. Stephanie turned to me and said, ‘Are you working at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis?’ And I said yes, and she said, ‘God, like everyone in the world works at that damn thing!’ So you see, everyone in the world will see this—yet it’s such a wonderful, nurturing environment. It’s experimental enough, it’s polished enough, it’s homey enough, and international enough—it just feels right for me to be working there first.”
A Little Night Music opens June 6 and runs through June 19; tickets are $25–$117. Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 130 Edgar, on the campus of Webster University. For more info on this or OTSL’s other productions—including The Marriage of Figaro, Eugene Onegin, or The Golden Ticket—call 314-961-0644 or go to opera-stl.org.