Wunderkind Nico Muhly’s sensational opera Two Boys—about the direst consequences of online catfishing—came to the Metropolitan Opera in 2013, when the composer, then 32, was the youngest to have been commissioned by the storied company.
Now Muhly is back at the Met with his interpretation of Marnie, with a sparky libretto by Nicholas Wright, adapted from Winston Graham’s dark 1961 novel about a young woman with a tortured past who builds a career on compulsively embezzling money from her various employers before changing her identity and moving on through a series of small regional towns and cities in Britain. (Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 movie of the same title, starring an unforgettable Tippi Hedren, softened the book’s ending and moved the action to the States.)
The opera, a coproduction with the English National Opera, which premiered it last year, is imaginatively staged by director Michael Mayer. Although it denies us any classical operatic arias, Muhly’s music has a lyric sweep and eerie disquiet that suggests the book’s period weirdness, as well as Hitchcock’s own chilling oeuvre, and indeed other movies of the era (the staging of a fox-hunting scene, for instance, recalls the frigid camp of the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady). The splendid mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Marnie embodies that depth in her nuanced characterization (aided by a quartet of “Shadow Marnies,” who represent her multiple personalities).
Marnie’s relationships are all fraught and abusive to varying degrees, from Mark Rutland (Christopher Maltman), a businessman who traps her into marriage, and his abusive playboy brother, Terry (the marvelous countertenor Iestyn Davies), to the mother (the magnificent Denyce Graves), who resents and torments her, which makes the subject especially timely in the #MeToo era of reckoning.
The creative team—set designer Julian Crouch, with projections by 59 Productions, lighting by Kevin Adams, and costumes by Arianne Phillips (making her Met debut)—play with the imagery of 1950s jazz records, with images of Marnie in some of her different incarnations blown up large like Mad Men advertising hoardings. The creative team worked together on the 2014 revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the rompy new musical Head Over Heels.
“They had me at Marnie,” recalls Phillips, who had long revered the movie and it’s high-style costuming by the legendary Edith Head. “It’s in my repertoire!” She notes that she has referenced its “inspiring cinematic imagery” for projects such as a Steven Klein shoot with Madonna, with whom she has collaborated on image-making and tour costuming for decades. “I’m a newbie to this scene—I’m so grateful to Michael [Mayer] for having brought me along for the ride.” She recalls that when working on the English National Opera version of the production (which featured Sasha Cooke in the title role), she would pop into Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, across the way from the opera’s home at the London Coliseum, to look at Tudor portraits for inspiration. “It was such a creative time,” Phillips says, “it’s so amazing when different projects feed each other in this way.”
The opera has been three years in development. “It’s an entirely different process from filmmaking,” Phillips continues, “where they hire you and say, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’ ” (She is currently nine months into shooting the new Quentin Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, set in 1969, and starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Al Pacino, and had to race back from the Metropolitan’s opening night for a weekend shoot in Los Angeles.) “It’s luxurious to have that time to really live with the material and, of course, the music and the libretto, and my schedule is so topsy-turvy that it was perfect. I never ever dreamed I would have the opportunity to design an opera, and Nico [Muhly] is so special. He’s creative in all realms from his head-to-toe Rick Owens looks to being a fantastic cook. He often cooked for us in his flat in London.”
Color was a big part of the design for Phillips: “We used color to help guide the audience on where to focus on the action.” She, for instance, puts Marnie and her quartet of “Shadow Marnies” in brilliant Technicolor hues so that the characters pop from the dreary mid-century British landscape of austerity browns and grays worn by the chorus. “Marnie is so presentational,” Phillips adds, “her veneer is so important to mask this emotional world.” Marnie, the character, makes costume history at the Met with an unheard of 15 changes (it is just as well that Leonard’s dresser, Susie Gomez, used to work with Julie Andrews on Broadway and is a master of the quick change).
When Phillips first re-watched the movie, she was struck by how Prada-like Head’s aesthetic was, and admits that “the stylist in me wanted to have a little piece of Prada in the show.” So she reached out to Miuccia Prada and her team, who designed Marnie’s low stiletto heels and the voluminous purse that hides her secrets. “Marnie’s handbag is such an intrinsic part of her character.”
As the English National Opera doesn’t have a complete dedicated costume workshop, Phillips entrusted some of the menswear to the Savile Row tailor Chris Kerr, who worked with her on Kingsman, and some of the women’s costumes to Jane Law, who worked on Andrea Riseborough’s impeccable clothes when she personified Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s W.E., and also on Julianne Moore’s costumes in Kingsman. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” says Phillips. The Metropolitan Opera, however, has an important costume department of its own, and Phillips relished working with the department head Elissa Iberti, and with her own invaluable associate, Robert Bulla, as they remade the costumes for a different cast.
“It’s an incredible, incredible department,” she says, “and I really relied on their expertise—their cobblers and milliners, tailors and cutters, the team that age and dye the fabrics. Working with them was my biggest thrill: It was like being a kid in a candy store.”
Phillips had already produced her costume designs when she decided to explore the Marnie movie material at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, and was delighted to discover not only the costume sketches from Head’s studio but Tippi Hedren’s hair and wig designs by the renown Parisian-based hairdresser Alexandre. “There was some real synchronicity,” says Hedren, “the movie character of Marnie’s sister-in-law, for instance, wore a dress in a similar tangerine we used for one of Marnie’s costumes.”
For the curtain call of the Met’s premiere, Leonard brought out the diminutive Hedren, a figure of enduring glamour and beauty who is an improbable 88 (she is Dakota Johnson’s grandmother). “It took my breath away,” says Phillips, who, like many in the company, had no idea that Hedren was in the house. Backstage, Hedren discussed working with the legendary Edith Head on her own Marnie costumes, and how collaborative the designer was. “It was beyond thrilling,” says Phillips, “I was drinking in every word.”