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Evolving with `Manon'

'50s styles parallel the character's journey, costume designer finds.

October 08, 2006|Diane Haithman

IT'S the 1950s -- but like no decade you've ever seen before.

Susan Hilferty, costume designer for "Manon," says she and director / choreographer Vincent Paterson updated Jules Massenet's 1884 opera because the progression of fashion in the '50s parallels Manon's transformation from innocent gamine to jaded socialite. But the designer, winner of a 2004 Tony Award for "Wicked," says the opera's 400-plus costumes represent the "dream '50s," a deliberately heightened reality.

For Act I, Hilferty tried to recreate a sense of a society still recovering from World War II. "I used what I call 'bruised' colors, as if everything had been wet and damaged," she says. Manon wears a modest white coat and Mary Janes -- but a defiantly bright-red beret.

Later, a more sophisticated Manon appears, still in white but a dress of decidedly more fashionable cut. The candy-box couture of the Paris street crowd, Hilferty says, is not postwar darkness "but color, light, the sense of the availability of anything you could want."

Hilferty says her next job was to welcome Manon to the decadence of Paris' Hotel Transylvania -- now with platinum hair, spike heels and clinging gold dress a la Marilyn Monroe. Hilferty says. She wasn't trying to re-create Monroe, but adds: "She's all those '50s blonds. They represent over-the-top sexuality."

How did soprano Anna Netrebko feel about the shorn hair and prison gown of Manon's final scene? "It was not even a question," Hilferty says. "She said, 'Yes, it's perfect.' "

Diane Haithman

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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