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'Project Runway': Austin Scarlett Tries on Opera, Makes It Work

If you're a Project Runway contestant, one of the worst things you can hear Tim Gunn say is that your design reminds him of a "costume." Like not "knowing who you are" on American Idol, the criticism works as a catchall put-down: deployed whenever the host feels you've failed. It's a fair enough complaint when it comes to creating wearable fashions—though there is also a tradition of high-profile designers being hired to create costumes for the stage. Last year, Miuccia Prada sketched the costumes for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Attila. (And no, the reception was not unanimously glowing, as The New York Times called Prada's creations too "sci-fi.")

Now Project Runway alumnus (and fan favorite) Austin Scarlett is getting in on the opera-costuming act. His first foray comes from way out in left field, with the Hans Werner Henze 1970 opera El Cimarrón, or The Runaway Slave. Presented over the weekend at the Greenwich Music Festival in Connecticut, the opera tells the true story of Esteban Montejo—who was born a slave on a Cuban sugar plantation in 1860, and lived to be 113 (long enough take stock of the country's revolution). 

Henze's complex and challenging score—which occasionally breaks into lovely folk melody before turning back into percussive dissonance—also highlights a challenge Scarlett faced in designing the costumes. Anything too fancy (or fanciful) would have punctured the gritty seriousness of the narrative, in which Montejo recalls being beaten by a plantation overseer, and pursued in the forest after his escape. Luckily for Scarlett, in the narrative, Montejo also recalls the the ghosts he's recoiled from in dreams, as well as the women he's loved in real life—providing brief forays into surrealism and romance. In designing the multiple costumes for the four dancers who acted out Montejo's life and times in the production, Scarlett covered a lot of ground with a limited budget. Check out the photo gallery to see how he "made it work." (And if you're the adventurous sort of listener, you can find a great recording of Henze's El Cimarrón here, from Amazon's MP3 store.)