Pulse: Chatter: The Opera Company’s High-Fashion Take On Shakespeare

Wherefore art thou Romeo? And who are you wearing?

Grand opera meets Project Runway next month when the Opera Company of Philadelphia stages Charles Gounod’s 1867 version of Shakespeare’s classic tale of young love thwarted by powerful feuding families.

The twist: This time around, the Montagues and Capulets are two high-fashion houses feuding over market share and hype. Juliet, of course, is the supermodel face of her family’s brand. When light through yonder window breaks — strike a pose, girl!

The transformation comes from an Italian director with a Teutonic name: Manfred Schweigkofler. “Manfred tends to take a completely contemporary approach,” says Opera Company executive director David Devan. “When he brought this idea to us, we instantly fell in love with it. And one of the things we brought to the party was that we have these amazing design schools here.”

That’s when a homegrown Project Runway began. The Opera Company enlisted fashion design students at Moore College of Art & Design, Drexel University and Philadelphia University to create the competing clothing lines. Richard St. Clair, company costume designer, gave some stipulations: Juliet’s house will be kind of over-the-top — think Versace and Lacroix — with a color scheme that’s neutral and black. Romeo’s house will feature a much more urban Italian street look — lots of reds and blues.

“We’re going to have 16 winning designs from the three schools,” St. Clair reports. Because Schweigkofler thought it was important to get the authentic runway strut, the Opera Company will add 12 fashion models to the cast — no singing necessary. The winning designs will remain the property of the production, which after its Philadelphia run (February 11th to 20th) will move to three Italian cities.

Oddly, Schweigkofler, who’s based in Europe, “really didn’t know from Project Runway,” says St. Clair. But the Opera Company does, and at the gala “L’Amour & Couture” fund-raising event preceding the first performance, a very Bravo-style scene will unfold to introduce the winning designs. Devan has even invited real Project Runway stars to attend.

We can only imagine what’s next if this high concept works. Perhaps a Verdi classic set in the cutthroat world of cooking competitions? “Lady Macbeth, please pack your knives and go.”