King Street revival edges toward Read Brothers

Charlestonians gathered outside the new Read & Dumas store at the corner of King and Spring streets when the store opened in 1912.

Designer and director John Pascoe has stories to tell about the legendary soprano Joan Sutherland, about how she didn't like her costumes to be too heavy.

After working with Renee Fleming for so many years, he likely has that star soprano on speed dial. For opera lovers, Pascoe's reality is the stuff of dreams.

But that's because his reality begins with a dream.

"When I'm working on an opera, I don't see it in parts: I dream it," he said. "I listen to recordings until I'm in it. All day, every day. I think my housekeeper goes crazy listening to the same arias. And when I'm inside it, I suddenly see how people look."

Pascoe said he realized his latest fantasy as the director and designer for "Flora, an Opera," which opened Saturday as part of Spoleto Festival USA.

Set in 1735, when the opera first premiered in the Dock Street

Theatre, "Flora" tells dual stories of a young woman's struggle for independence from her cruel uncle and of a poor man's fight against the oppression of the aristocracy.

Pascoe's aesthetic conveys the story through color, texture and a heavy dose of whimsy.

On the surface, the opera's exposition is literal. Sir Thomas Testy is indeed testy and the male lead, Tom Friendly, is, yes, friendly.

Pascoe stayed true to the unembellished nature of the narrative, adding intensity instead of complexity to the costumes.

"When John designed the clothes, he had the character in mind," said Tyler Duncan, who sings the role of Friendly. "The color motifs relate to each other, but we all have our own palettes. I find that inspiring."

Flora and Friendly together personify the light and youth of spring, shown in the earthy browns and golds of their costumes. This is particularly true of Flora's wedding dress in the final act, a full peachy lace skirt beneath a silk over-robe in gradient shades of green, yellow and pink.

In contrast, Flora's imposing uncle, Sir Testy, wears the dark tones of shadows and stones.

Hob, the peasant, exists between the two poles in mossy shades of green.

The Spoleto program and website display images of Pascoe's watercolor sketches, which immediately reveal the designer's emotional perspective on nature.

"Those sketches are beautiful, sellable, frameable masterpieces," said Carolyn Kostopoulos, the costume supervisor who turned Pascoe's vision into a reality, a process that started in January. "I work with designers in New York who give you a doodle on a napkin."

Kostopoulos and her team rented, pulled, purchased and built about 35 costumes. With her long-standing relationships at international opera houses, Kostopoulos isn't used to scouring rental companies and other houses to piece a production together. But she said the budget for "Flora" challenged her to match most of Pascoe's designs with premade costumes. Her team only built six of the looks.

"I always strive for costumes that don't look tortured into existence," she said. "I want them to look like they made themselves."

Nigel Redden, Spoleto's general director, emphasized to Pascoe the importance of staying within the appropriate time period for this production. He said "Flora" is part of a larger celebration of Charleston and Spoleto's history.

"My guess is this is a much more elaborate production than what they had by candlelight," Redden said, "but I still thought it should bear the hallmarks of the 18th century. It would have been very wrong to do 'Flora' in 2010 costumes. We needed to conjure up the time."

Pascoe said historical accuracy was always important to him, even when he was a student at the Wimbledon College of Art in London. With age and experience has come an understanding that the character comes first.

"One's aim is to find the best version of the costume to get the best performance out of the artists, so they feel fully empowered," Pascoe said. "The design isn't just in my head. It really only exists on stage."

Phillip B. Crook is a Goldring Arts Journalism writer. Reach him at pbcrook@syr.edu.