Opera does ’20s and all that jazz
> It’s hats off to lively, flapper-era period staging, ’Cosi fan tutte’
Special to The Commercial Appeal
The late Mattie Emma Ridgway was never an opera buff, which adds a touch of irony to her posthumous patronage of opera buffa.
Thanks to her, Mozart’s comedy about fidelity, “Cosi fan tutte,” has undergone a wardrobe update ... kind of.
The Opera Memphis production, opening Halloween night at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, will be staged in 1920s-era attire. The inspiration? Her closet.
The Holly Springs resident was 92 when she died. Her nephew, Paul Hart, described her as a short, “good-sized woman” who loved her clothes.
“She was a clothes horse,” Hart said. “And she was a child of the Great Depression. If you’ve never known anyone of that era, you know that they never throw anything away.”
When Hart and his wife, Peggy, went to settle his aunt’s estate, they couldn’t believe what she’d socked away over the years. In addition to the pristine copy of the Memphis Press-Scimitar the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, 14 sets of dinner plates (not including the fine china), and a kitchen “three feet high in junk,” she also had an 8-by-10 foot closet stacked floor to ceiling with clothes amassed over her lifetime.
“She kept the shoes in the original boxes they came in,” Hart said. “Some of them hadn’t been worn more than once or twice. She had an amazing collection of hats, all stacked in hatboxes. They were too good just to give away to Goodwill.”
Hart called his daughter’s best friend, Amanda McGee, who has sung in the Opera Memphis chorus for three years. A team of costumers was subsequently dispatched to Ridgway’s house to check out the trove. They made off with an assortment of perfectly maintained hats and costume jewelry.
When Opera Memphis began planning its first production of the 2009-10 season, staff members suggested a 1920s theme. They already had the appropriate headgear.
The company’s new costume designer, Sona Amroyan, says that the hats became the basis for the women’s dresses that had to be made.
“We couldn’t use all of the items she left us,” Amroyan said. “For some reason, many of her hats are very wintery, and the show is more summer than winter. But the ones we did use dictated the color of the dresses.”
Artistic director Michael Ching believes the Jazz Age theme has livened up an opera that hasn’t been performed by the company since 1992. “Cosi fan tutte” was the first work that Ching conducted as head of Opera Memphis.
“We think we’ve found a way the audience can relate to it in terms of the sexuality of the women,” Ching said. “It’s an era when women were becoming empowered. It makes more sense to me.”
Ching said that any staging of “Cosi” needs to be theatrical, not just “pretty-sounding Mozart.” In this production, the orchestra is on the stage, rather than in the pit. Performers were hired who could look and act the parts.
First-time Opera Memphis director Eric Illner said that the 1920s approach resonated with him immediately.
“It’s allowed me to imagine all those vintage portraits of women,” Illner said. “Those pictures with the wonderful poses with hats and cigarettes. They were people enjoying life and enjoying who they were.”
Visual elements of flapper culture combine with references to Charlie Chaplin and popular dance of the period. He hopes the second act will have shades of “The Great Gatsby.”
Hart said that even though Mattie Ridgway didn’t know much about opera, “she would be pleased that her clothes were being put to good use. She left something that the community will benefit from.”
Matthew Lau (as Don Alfonso), Karin Mushegain (Dorabella) and Teresa Eickel (Fiordiligi) perform in Opera Memphis’ 1920s-era version of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” Saturday and Tuesday at GPAC.