Design for Living

Classic Arts Features   Design for Living
A conversation with designer Peter J. Hall, who created the costumes for the Dallas Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos this season.

Legendary costume and scenic designer Peter J. Hall has contributed his talents to more than 70 Dallas Opera productions over the past four decades, as well as to many of the world's other great companies.

Playbill: What was your first Dallas Opera production?

Peter J. Hall: I think it was in the 1959-1960 season. Franco Zeffirelli was doing Alcina, among other things, and I came to supervise costumes.

Playbill: What was the company like in those days?

Hall: It was La Scala West. I thought I had gone back to the 18th century, I must be honest. There was a group of people in Dallas who were so supportive of the opera that it was a bit like court theater. I remember rehearsals in which some of the supporters brought chicken in aspic and champagne! It changed its character when things became more corporate. That early phase was fun, but you can't sustain that level of personal involvement forever. Time marches on.

Playbill: So how did a nice boy from Bristol, England, wind up in the world of opera?

Hall: As a child, I was always attracted to the theater. Near the end of the Second World War, I came out of the army and wanted very much to get into the theater in London. My mother said, "I'm coming with you" (laughing). Well, my first day there, I found a job as an assistant stage manager for a musical called Gay Rosalinda. It was based on Die Fledermaus and, I think, had been done in New York as Rosalinda. So in a sense I began in opera. The show ran for a long time. I did some other things and then started designing for the same company.

Playbill: How many different hats have you worn?

Hall: Many years ago, starting in Bath in the fashion business, I was very much taken with furniture and antiques. Eventually, I opened an antique store in London. This was many years ago. But I always came back to the theater; I think one knows from an early age what's going to happen to you.

Playbill: It was an interesting period in British theater, right after the Second World War‹a time of great rebuilding and hope, yet everyone knew that the old world was gone. How did that affect your outlook as a designer?

Hall: A certain type of English musical was fast disappearing. With Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun, the West End was taking quite a different approach to theater. What was best about the period were the extraordinary people working in it, designers and directors‹Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler and so forth‹doing beautiful work. I became a traditionalist and even now I'm not awfully fond of doing operas in pig iron and setting them in Bosnia, or whatever. I like re-creating past things with a fresh approach.

Playbill: You seem to be telling us you're a romantic.

Hall: Probably, yes, I guess so. I enjoy the re-creation of the past. Fashions change but I have found that the traditional approach is also correct from a practical point of view. Most of the shows I've done for The Dallas Opera are rented out to other companies for many seasons to come. The ones done in a more contemporary idiom are more difficult to place. Lots and lots of people still prefer that the opera be "The Opera."

Playbill: And there's the other problem, too, of course. You put somebody in contemporary dress and five years later, it's no longer contemporary…

Hall: …or fashionable. Exactly. There's a vogue among many young designers now to go out and shop for stuff. And instead of designing they take something that appeared in a magazine that week. In part, I blame the art schools that are not really teaching them how to design. They're teaching them how to go and shop, which is lovely… but….

Suzanne Calvin is Associate Director of Marketing/Media and Public Relations for The Dallas Opera and frequent host of Inside The Dallas Opera on WRR.

Recommended Reading: