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SF Opera’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ Mixes Art Deco Sophistication with Ancient Egyptian Mythology

Organza is not usually associated with “power dressing”. The lightweight, sheer fabric is often used to create cloud-like party dresses; bridal veils; and other clothing with soft and overtly feminine cultural connotations. But when soprano Amina Edris dons the golden organza cape made for the San Francisco Opera’s Centennial Season– opening of the production of “Antony and Cleopatra”, matter suddenly takes on a surprising strength.

“There are certain costume elements that, when on your body, make you aware of the person you are meant to be,” Edris told The Chronicle in her dressing room a few weeks before her debut as Cleopatra. Saturday, September 9. 10. “I would say it’s very obvious with that.”

The creases on the floor suit, designed by Constance Hoffman, are reminiscent of armor as it moves, like joined metal that flexes in battle. The V-shaped top of the cape, worn over a bronze satin robe, folds over Edris’ arms like the wings of an eagle. Mounted for the stage, it is a combination of authority and romantic vulnerability that is at the center of this retelling of the story of Cleopatra.

Hairstylist Claudia Holaday works with Amina Edris in her backstage dressing room at the War Memorial Opera House.

Russell Yip / Special for The Chronicle

Centuries after his death in 30 BC. AD, Cleopatra remains one of the most famous women in the world, and one whose story has been retold and retold. But while the opera is based in part on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, the Berkeley composer’s new work John Adams is not conceived as a simple biographical journey on the Nile.

Director based in Adams and El Cerrito Elkhana Pulitzer set the stage for an opera that explores the cultural lenses through which Cleopatra was viewed and portrays the ruler as one of the stars of antiquity. With the use of projections that reference media ranging from vintage newsreels to classic films, the production seeks to construct a world that shows how the Queen and her Roman lover Mark Antony lived under a kind of celebrity spotlight. that we didn’t know existed before the 20th century. This will be exemplified by sets and costumes that recall the grandeur and glamor of 1930s Hollywood as much as the ancient world.

“These two civilizations, Rome and Egypt, are sort of proto-epic stories,” said set designer Mimi Lien. “One of the things that interests me is the exotification of Egypt and Cleopatra in relation to this Apollonian and masculine vision of Rome.”

Amina Edris (Cleopatra) during the general rehearsal on Wednesday September 7 of “Anthony and Cleopatra”.

Amina Edris (Cleopatra) during the general rehearsal on Wednesday September 7 of “Anthony and Cleopatra”.


Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle
Amina Edris (Cleopatra) and Taylor Raven (Charmian Attendant) during the dress rehearsal of

Amina Edris (Cleopatra) and Taylor Raven (Charmian Attendant) during the dress rehearsal for ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.


Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle


Top: Edris rehearses as Cleopatra. Above: Edris and Taylor Raven (Attendant Charmian) at a dress rehearsal. Photos by Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

The monumental qualities of Egypt and Rome will be conveyed through Art Deco, a style known for its geometric patterns and emphasis on clean designs often associated with classic Hollywood. The ultra-modern work of MGM set designer Cedric Gibbons became a major source of inspiration for Lien’s two main scenic units, which will transform into different sets during the opera. Lien also looked at photos of Gibbons’ Santa Monica home, which he shared with his wife, actress Dolores del Rio, for inspiration. Gibbons co-designed the house with Canadian-born American architect Douglas Honnold, using details such as the stepped and recessed frames around the doorways to help create the illusion of scale.

“When you look at the connection between Egypt in 30 BCE and the Art Deco of the 1930s, you see that Art Deco was literally derived from that,” Lien said. “It was the perfect decision to marry these two eras.”

While Lien and Hoffman cite Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 film “Cleopatra” starring Claudette Colbert as the version closest to the aesthetic of Adams’ new opera, Lien also drew inspiration from a particular image of ‘Elizabeth Taylor as Queen in Joseph L. Mankiewicz. 1963 movie.

“When entering Rome (being pulled over a giant sphinx) she wears this tiered headdress; we used that and that quality of black sphinx obsidian all over the board,” Lien said. “I wanted it to be quite simple and geometric and abstract.”

A dress for

A dress for “Antony and Cleopatra” hangs in Amina Edris’ backstage dressing room.


Russell Yip / Special for The Chronicle
Amina Edris, star of the world premiere of

Amina Edris, star of the world premiere of ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ poses in one of her dresses for the production.


Russell Yip / Special for The Chronicle


Top: A dress for “Antony and Cleopatra” in Edris’ dressing room. Above: Edris in one of his production dresses. Photos by Russell Yip / Special for The Chronicle

For Hoffman, simplicity and geometry were also essential in the design of Cleopatra’s costumes.

“She’s a woman who has been an icon for centuries,” Hoffman said. “I felt a huge responsibility to find out who she was for me, especially in the content of the play. I think Shakespeare humanizes both of them and also examines how power can blind (both) people.

In constructing Cleopatra’s overall appearance, Hoffman was particularly interested in the tension between Cleopatra’s sense of her own humanity as a wife, mother, and ruler and the contradiction that she was raised to believe she was the human incarnation of the goddess Isis.

“I wondered, how does that level of fame, being a deity, how does that interact with your sense of being a human?” said Hoffman.

Of the seven costumes Edris will wear as Cleopatra, several will evoke images related to Isis. These include a feather-like cloak referencing the transformation of the goddess into a bird in Egyptian mythology, a bias-cut pewter dress reminiscent of ancient statuary icons, and a dramatic ensemble in gold that she wears in a ceremonial scene during a film screening.

Edris in his dressing room.

Edris in his dressing room.

Russell Yip / Special for The Chronicle

For Edris, who was announced in the role in May, one of the first times she sank into playing the famous queen was when she donned one of the character’s gold Isis outfits with a headpiece to film a scene that will be shown during the opera.

“They showed me pictures of Abu Simbel and Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings, and then there’s a silhouette of me in this costume with the headdress,” said Edris, who is Egyptian and spent his childhood in the country before moving to New Zealand at age 10. “I think that’s where it changed for me. Both my parents worked in tourism – all these beautiful places, I have seen them many times.

Edris added that right now she feels a huge sense of responsibility to her home country.

“The costume made me feel alive and allowed me to imagine myself being her,” she said. “As I sat in the filmed costume, I began to sing the Egyptian anthem in my head.”

“Antony and Cleopatra”: San Francisco Opera. 7:30 p.m. from Saturday September 10 to October 5. $26 to $450. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, SF 415-864-3330. www.sfopera.com



Tony Bravo is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @TonyBravoSF