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Singing the Praises of Hollywood's High Fashion

Costumes * Armani, Gucci, Versace and other design houses give a new 'Rigoletto' the Tinseltown look.


The Los Angeles Opera's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto" has gone Hollywood.

In the opera, which opens tonight, the lascivious duke has become a studio mogul; the hunchbacked Rigoletto, an agent; and the assassin Sparafucile, a stuntman.

When costume designer Johann Stegmeir began sketching the principal characters' wardrobes, he had an obvious starting place--the look of Italian designer Giorgio Armani, the unofficial uniform for entertainment industry executives. Stegmeir, 34, imagined his moguls, agents and yes-men in fluid jackets, supple pleated pants and dark shirts and ties--all Armani signatures. (Thankfully, none of the men wears that other symbol of latter-day Hollywood--a ponytail.)

Stegmeir, who has spent nearly six years as an assistant in the opera's costume shop, sent his conceptual drawings to Giorgio Armani's office. The designer and his staff immediately realized they could dress some of the principals.

"It was almost as if he had sketched the Armani collection," said Wanda McDaniel, the Beverly Hills-based senior vice president of special events for Armani's West Coast operations.

"Mr. Armani is a real opera buff. So it was a natural fit," McDaniel said. The designer has box seats at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan, where his design house is based.

It's not unusual for designers of Armani's stature to boost their prestige by teaming up with high-profile theatrical events. Armani, who has contributed clothes to numerous theatrical productions, including a London production of "Cosi fan tutte," is particularly fond of "Rigoletto," he said from Milan through a translator.

"What drew me to this project was the clever idea of putting a modern spin on a classic opera, and 'Rigoletto' is one of my favorites.

"I like working with creative people in different fields. When I received Johann's sketches in Milan, I realized what they wanted was essentially present-day Armani. We all agreed that all they needed to do was pull from my current collections," Armani said.

The designer donated suits, shirts, ties, coats and a few women's items, including a beaded blue-striped top, to the production. In all, McDaniel estimated the value of the donation near $100,000, which included a kickoff cocktail party earlier this month at Armani's Beverly Hills boutique.

The designer's participation allowed Stegmeir to stretch his low-six-figures costume budget and subsequently "raise the level of the production up," he said.

Stegmeir also bought original looks from Gucci, Versace, Thierry Mugler and Dolce & Gabbana, plus some knockoffs of their designs. The opera's costume shop made a pair of green sequined capri pants to resemble a pair of $8,000 Dolce & Gabbana originals.

Interpreting designer looks has its challenges for the theater. Armani's clothes are often subtle in shape and color. The characters' dark clothing, Armani and otherwise, often blends in with the gray, film-noir backdrops by set designer John Stoddart. In key scenes, Stegmeir chose light-colored clothes for the principal characters so that they would stand out.

"It's difficult to create modern dress and have it be theatrical," Stegmeir said. "In a movie, the camera zooms in and does a lot of your work for you."

Armani dressed the principal cast members, mostly men, and was fairly selective about which characters would wear the clothes, although Stegmeir had creative control.

"They wanted beautiful people to be in their beautiful clothes," Stegmeir said. Rigoletto, the hunchbacked agent, and Maddalena, a woman of loose morals, don't wear the designer's clothes, for example.

Some characters dress less expensively, notably Rigoletto (played by Haijing Fu), who wears a standard trench coat, dark suit, white shirt, striped tie and contemporary, small, round-rimmed glasses. His daughter, Gilda (played by Inva Mula), floats across the stage in a baby-blue silk slipdress and matching cardigan assembled by the opera's costume shop.

Stegmeir still needed clothes for chorus members and wanted to add another element of Hollywood's uniform--sunglasses. He called on Los Angeles-based optical firm l.a. Eyeworks, where co-owners and designers Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds agreed to contribute 50 pair, valued at $25,000 to $30,000, to the production.

"In Hollywood, sunglasses are the quintessential modern-day mask," Gherardi said. Dark shades become the contemporary substitute for the masks in a pivotal scene.

McReynolds and Gherardi aren't opera buffs, but she says they are "big fans of the culture of our city." They also created thousands of cardboard 3-D glasses for the "Monsters of Grace" digital opera by Philip Glass that played at UCLA's Royce Hall last year.

"It's been our position for many years to align ourselves . . . with popular culture as it unfolds in our city," Gherardi said.

The donation to "Rigoletto" is the largest so far for l.a. Eyeworks. "We can't wait to see how these show up," she said. "It's very, very cool."

Valli Herman-Cohen can be reached at valli.herman-cohen@latimes.

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