Puccini's Madama butterfly opens on a hillside near Nagasaki ("Collina presso Nagasaki"). Mine began at a corner table of the Mercer Hotel. I hadn't seen director Anthony Minghella since I designed his tuxedo for the 1997 Academy Awards. Then, out of the blue in 2001, he left a message at my studio: "Meet me downtown. I have some business I'd like to discuss with you." Over lunch he told me about his idea for a production of Madama Butterfly with the English National Opera. "Han Feng," he said, "can you imagine how absolutely beautiful those costumes could be?"
I had never designed for the theater before, so I sought out the great costume designer Tony Walton. He talked me through his drawings and sketches for Our Town, Anything Goes, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and he gave me his blessing: "Han Feng, I do believe you can do anything!" And then I was off.
I bought mountains of books on Kabuki. Tore out pages on Japanese dress and naval costumes. Spent hours at the Japan Society and called the naval headquarters in Washington, D.C. Japanese folk dancers, samples of David Hicks wallpaper, fashion spreads on John Galliano: All was inspiration.
I thought only about how beautiful it would be. It was Anthony who reminded me, "Han, we have a story to tell." I saw Cio-Cio-San's red wedding gown as a contemporary twist on tradition. "Too sophisticated," Anthony explained. "She is an innocent fifteen-year-old." Then there was the Ambassador's multicolor tie: Too happy. The black suit, too waitery. A red cardinallike helmet? Too Catholic. And he was right!
On opening night at London's English National Opera last fall, I saw my sketches come to life. Butterfly's black coat with fuchsia peonies was my favorite; Anthony told me the pink-and-white-striped kimono was his. And then, bolts of red silk streamed across the stage in the final, tragic moment.
The reviews the next day called my costumes "a riot of color." The run was completely sold out.
Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly, with costumes by Han Feng, opens September 25 at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Clothing Inspired by Madama Butterfly
The Madama Butterfly influence is clear in Han Feng's new collection, from the hot-pink and green scarf that recalls Butterfly's kimono to the bloodred silk robe that echoes the tragic dénouement. From $325 for the peony-print scarf to $2,000 for the Butterfly coat; 212-331-1390.