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Photography: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Prada at the Opera

Giuseppe Verdi’s Attila premieres tonight at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with costumes by Miuccia Prada.

One of the first designers who worked for the theatre, ballet and opera was Charles Frederick Worth, followed soon after by Paul Poiret, while Coco Chanel’s work for Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Antigone” (1922), and later on for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ production of “Le Train Bleu” (1924), marked the first collaborations between a designer and avant-garde artists. Throughout the 40s and the 50s the connection between fashion and the stage continued with Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior. Yves Saint Laurent was instead introduced to the ballet world by legendary choreographer Roland Petit, and, in more recent decades, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Versace, Rei Kawakubo, Missoni, Armani, Valentino, Viktor & Rolf and the late Alexander McQueen, all contributed with their creations to opera, theatre and ballet performances.

The connection with fashion and the world of opera was strengthened in the last few weeks thanks to new collaborations: Emanuel Ungaro designed the costumes for Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” (The Clemency of Titus), while Christian Lacroix’s created Baroque-evoking designs for “Agrippina” by Georg Friedrich Händel, currently on at the Berlin State Opera.

So far Miuccia Prada had never tried her hand at costume design if you exclude the 'virtual' futuristic creations that appeared two years ago in the mecha anime film “Appleseed: Ex Machina” directed by Shinji Aramaki. Maybe missing her early years spent studying and performing mime at the Teatro Piccolo in Milan before she took over her family’s business in 1978, Miuccia Prada teamed up with Pritzker Prize-winning Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron – the architectural duo behind London’s Tate Modern, the Beijing National Stadium and Prada Aoyama Epicenter in Tokyo - and lent her costume design talent to Giuseppe Verdi’s “Attila”.

Written in 1846 and first premiered at La Fenice Opera in Venice, the opera debuts this week at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Riccardo Muti, directed by Pierre Audi and featuring an international cast. Verdi’s ninth opera, based on a German Romantic play, takes place in the mid-fifth century and explores the collapse of the Roman Empire under the barbarian invasions of Attila the Hun’s hordes. The opera follows the vicissitudes of three Romans who set against Attila (Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov), warrior woman Odabella (Lithuanian-born soprano Violeta Urmana), her lover Foresto (Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas) and general Ezio (Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez). 

The opera features very contemporary topics, from political instability and freedom to the contrasts between the old and new world and the clash of religions, symbolised by the encounter between Attila and the Pope. Such themes deeply influenced Miuccia Prada and Herzog & de Meuron who tackled them through their post-Apocalyptic costumes and sets: the tragic fate of the main characters and of Verdi’s anti-hero Attila is symbolised for example by the rubble and destruction that surrounds the main characters, by the juxtaposition of the forest to the ruins and the artificially green military lights that shine on the stage. The costumes contribute to make the opera vibrantly modern and more relevant to the times we are living in: Miuccia Prada’s designs comprise long distressed leather coats in a rusty brown and black palette that calls to mind Prada’s A/W 09 collection, tribal feathered cycling helmets and dresses in dusty sack-like fabrics that remind of the colour of the ruins surrounding the characters and reference Miu Miu’s Spring/Summer 09 designs that, fashionistas may remember, were covered in fraying holes as if the wearer caused them while running away from some sort of natural catastrophe.       

Attila” is one of ten Verdi operas that have not previously been performed at the Met and, thanks to its intensity and high drama, this new production will certainly rekindle the passion and emotional attachment of opera fans for the Italian composer, while the main themes of the story – love, hate and revenge – together with Prada and Herzog & de Meuron’s costumes and sets have the potential of bringing new and younger audiences to this time-honoured art.   

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Attila” premieres at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on February 23.