Zandra Rhodes: Rainbow aria

Zandra Rhodes, British fashion icon and high priestess of pink panache, wafts into town for "The Pearl Fishers" and two events in her honor.

Designer Zandra Rhodes’ exuberant use of color isn’t confined to her costume designs.

Zandra Rhodes is still in the pink -- and the orange, and purple, and blue. Now 69, the fuchsia-haired British fashion icon has thrown her expansive imagination into a second career as an opera costume and set designer.

On Saturday, Rhodes' work will be on display for opening night of Georges Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers," being staged by the Minnesota Opera. The production premiered in San Diego in 2001, where Rhodes lives part of the time, and has run in several cities since then.

Looking at the world through Rhodes' eyes is to see a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and patterns inspired by history and cultures from around the globe. Her influences range from ancient Egypt to the Empire State Building. For "The Pearl Fishers," which is set in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), she went on location to sketch medieval palaces and wall paintings of historic ethnic garb.

"I'm never without my sketchbook," Rhodes said from her London studio, taking a break from packing for Milan, where she is launching a new line of shoes. "I go around drawing all the time. I could just as easily be doing a fabulous drawing of hostas by a lake in Minneapolis as a temple in India."

Rhodes, one of Britain's most honored designers, continues to produce at least two fashion collections a year. A notable scene-maker in the swinging '70s, she also received the title of Commander of the order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth. Although her fashions aren't widely available in the United States, she still has a worldwide cult following, particularly among the well-heeled.

To Rhodes, there's no such thing as a color overdose. For "The Pearl Fishers" -- she also has designed for productions of "Aida" and "The Magic Flute" -- she gave the costumes a traditional feel in their cuts and the way they connote high and low classes, then let loose with a rainbow riot. High priestess Leila wears fluorescent pinks and oranges, chieftain Zurga embroidered turquoise and Leila's lover, Nadir, purple batik. The throng of peasants in aqua mirrors the sea.

Dale Johnson, Minnesota Opera's artistic director, said he loves Rhodes' design for its extravagance.

"The moment the curtain opens, she takes you right into a fantasy world," he said. "She doesn't try to be realistic, yet there is a realism to the set that catches your eye."

But Rhodes' costumes look more extravagant than they actually are: "We bought cheap, plain saris in India and brought them back to London to print on," she said.

Erica Burds, who manages the opera's costume shop, is impressed by Rhodes' screen printing, her ability to see the big picture with a painterly eye, and how she weaves her mark into all of her pieces.

"She puts her own stamp on the costumes by re-creating specific designs she has used throughout the years, like a certain animal-hide print," Burds said. "You can see her signature in the fabric, like the squiggly lines she uses to symbolize waves."

Rhodes finds the music in "The Pearl Fishers" to be "far prettier" than that of Bizet's more popular opera, "Carmen."

"Once you add in the music and the lights, the atmosphere is incredible, but it's hard to concentrate on what they look like."

Rhodes' new sideline is a far cry from the runway. Voices, not outfits, are the stars of these shows, and working with opera stars is quite a switch from fitting supermodels.

"Opera singers are fantastic because they're so appreciative," she said. "It's a fun challenge. You have to make sure the costumes make them feel great, and I like not always to be dressing someone skinny. To make someone with a larger figure look and feel like a fairy princess is quite wonderful."

She opened her own textile museum in London in 2003. Her famous clients have included Princess Diana, Freddie Mercury and Sarah Jessica Parker, who wore an ethereal Rhodes dress on "Sex and the City."

"I've never seen the episode, but it's the one where she meets Baryshnikov," she said. "I just remember it as being pretty skimpy."

Rhodes' famous tresses have been pink for many years, though in the 1970s she wore a green wig. She likes pink because "it's so easy to feel dramatic this way. When I've let my hair go nearly blond I feel a bit boring. Also, the pink seems to last the longest."

Does she plan to ever change color again?

"Not at the moment, but you never know," she said. "One wants to keep an element of surprise."

For Rhodes, that should never be a problem.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

THE PEARL FISHERS

When: 8 p.m. Sat. Through Oct. 4. • Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washingon St., St. Paul. • Tickets: $20-$150. 651-224-4222. www.mnopera.org.

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  • AN EVENING WITH ZANDRA RHODES

    What: A lecture on costume design and fashion sponsored by Friends of the Goldstein, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Minnesota Opera.

    When: 6 p.m. today.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $25- $35. Reservations required. 612-333-6669.

    PUNK AND PEARLS WITH ZANDRA RHODES

    What: Music, dance and Rhodes fashion are blended into a salon event sponsored by vita.mn.

    When: Two seatings, 7-9 and 9-11 p.m. Friday.

    Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.

    Tickets: Free. Reserve a seat at www.mnopera.org.

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