Until his tragic suicide at age 40 in 2010, British fashion designer Alexander McQueen inspired shock, awe and sometimes controversy with his vibrant designs, from his lower-than-low-rise pants for men to his brilliantly hued, marine-inspired manta dresses for women. His runway shows remain legendary in fashion circles (1995’s Scotland-inspired “Highland Rape” scandalized; a Kate Moss hologram floated above a 2006 show), and he designed costumes for dancers and touring musicians, including Bjork and David Bowie. All of which offers essential ingredients for an opera, especially when paired with the dramatic highs and lows of McQueen’s personal life.
This Friday, a staged concert of “The Passion of McQueen,” a new opera still in development, will be presented at Boston Court Pasadena. The score accompanying William Nedved’s libretto, which imagines McQueen’s final hour, was composed by Kentaro Kameyama — a classical pianist best known as a fashion designer, thanks to his 16th-season win on “Project Runway” in 2017.
Director Diana Wyenn explains that the core creative team started workshopping the piece and “mining the opportunities in the libretto” in November. “It keeps evolving.”
A full-scale treatment of “The Passion of McQueen” would incorporate more visual and technology elements to better express McQueen’s design aesthetic, but Friday’s performance will feature only lead vocalist David Castillo, mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell (singing as McQueen’s mentoring friend Isabella Blow), and Kameyama on piano. Not unlike script-gripping actors who deliver lines of developing plays at Boston Court’s annual New Play Reading Festival, Castillo and Southwell will reference their books in performance. Portions of the piece will be staged, however, and the show will also include a visual installation onstage of several Kameyama-designed creations. Wyenn says they’re excited and grateful to finally get feedback from an audience “and see how this piece resonates.”
Not surprisingly, considering the unconventionality of its subject, “The Passion of McQueen” does not fit into snug categories. It’s more than a recital, but it isn’t a typical, musically uninterrupted opera either.
“It’s not your standard opera by any stretch of the imagination,” Wyenn says with a laugh. “It is very much an opera, but there are book scenes embedded in the piece that move the story forward and deepen the relationship between the characters. We’re pushing on the boundaries of what you would expect of opera, and I think that’s something that’s very necessary.”
For his part, Kameyama considers its nascent mix of music, fashion, theatre, dance, and technology a natural expression of his most “important vision.”
“I want to bring fashion people into music, and I want to bring music people into fashion,” he explains. “I was a classical pianist, I know fashion people don’t really care about this kind of music; they listen to Lady Gaga and those kind of people, but they’re afraid of going into the classical music which I love, which is something I want to share with everybody.”
Likening it to how he’s tried to bring his Japanese culture into American fashion, Kameyama, who still teaches at FCI Fashion School in downtown LA, says he wants to facilitate more such connections between the realms of classical music and fashion: “I think I should be the one to do that.”
He’s less comfortable when asked to discuss the genesis of “The Passion of McQueen,” making general comments about “going with the flow” and valuing spontaneity over analysis when making art.
“I try to guess and I try to feel and imagine things more than I try to know things,” he says. “I think it’s more fun. People read about Alexander McQueen and think they know so much about him; but no, really, unless you kind of feel something from his art, it doesn’t mean anything. Information is not knowledge.”
Wyenn more specifically links sensitive aspects of Kameyama’s music and Nedved’s libretto to McQueen’s culturally savvy designs, and points out that the fact that Kameyama is “not as embedded in the world of performance” as the rest of the team makes their work more fun.
“Hearing his thoughts on how this can manifest onstage, and how we can incorporate fashion, is one of the most exciting parts of this collaboration to me,” she says.
“Kentaro’s music is gorgeous, and quite elaborate, and has the underpinnings of things that feel very ornate and kind of classical in a way, yet incredibly contemporary. Which I believe is what McQueen was doing — he was pulling from all these sources and creating something new and shocking and titillating. The other beautiful thing is that William has embedded all of these references to McQueen’s work, to the ‘crack-revealing bumsters,’ and to how he used to sew his own hair into the labels of his clothing. So even though we are exploring the final hour of his life, we are also honoring and being inspired by all the moments that came before in the work that he crafted.”
“The Passion of McQueen” at Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Friday, March 1; call (626) 683-6801 for information. bostoncourtpasadena.org, kentarokameyama.com, dianawyenn.com