Opera does ’20s and all that jazz

> It’s hats off to lively, flap­per-era pe­riod stag­ing, ’Cosi fan tutte’

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Stage - By Christo­pher Blank

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.

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