Designer Marcel Wanders discusses his passion for the Opera

Words by
Sphere Life

28th November 2019

We talk to the leading Dutch designer and art director about his personal favourite operas, composers and theatres in our latest Pleasure Pursuits interview

Dutch designer Marcel Wanders creates architectural, industrial and interior pieces and is head of his eponymous, 40-strong studio in Amsterdam. He has created pieces for many renowned brands including Baccarat, Louis Vuitton and Puma. His latest collaboration is with Bill Amberg on a series of bespoke hides.

What first sparked your interest in opera?

I once visited La Scala in Milan with my family and I remember my father =standing on a chair in an empty theatre singing a Schubert aria to my mother. I was captivated by his passion, his conviction. I was so impressed by the amount of pure emotion that can be expressed through opera.

Who introduced you to opera?

Well, my long-standing love for opera was actually the result of my love for a young woman who was my girlfriend at the time. She introduced me to the opera and I fell in love with it.

Which are your favourite operas?

I very much enjoy Tannhäuser by Wagner, Madame Butterfly by Puccini and Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera. Beyond the influential aspect, what mostly draws me to these operas is how controversial, rich and exciting they are. I think they remind me of the kind of design that I strive to do — maybe not controversial as a goal
per se, but certainly surprising, human and unexpected.

Who is your favourite composer?

Wilhelm Wagner, a German composer and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas.

Who do you consider to be the greatest singer, living or dead?

To me, that would have to be the soprano, Maria Callas.

And what about the best librettist?

I love many, but if I had to choose, I would select Lorenzo Da Ponte. He started as an Italian opera librettist and poet and has 28 operas to his credit. He was even a priest. But he is close to my heart because he wrote libretti for three of three of Mozart’s most celebrated operas: Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così Fan Tutte.

Which are your favourite theatres?

That is an easy one to answer: La Scala in Milan, the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam and the MET in New York.

Do you have a favourite place to sit?

I love to sit in the middle of the theatre.

Do you have any rituals when going to see an opera?

Yes, I love to walk there. When I am in Amsterdam, there is a café just around the corner from the theatre where I like to go and sit — it’s where the musicians meet and talk about music. The café is a real insiders’ place, where the love for music unfolds.

Which operas do you like to listen to at home?

I listen to Puccini, Wagner and Beethoven.

Are you a purist or do you appreciate modern retellings?

I love contemporary reinterpretations. I like to be open-minded and allow each story to affect me as it is meant to. I have no preconceived notions for any operas I attend.

Would you like to design opera sets?

I would love to design the MET in New York — but not just the set, I would design the entire experience, from the moment people arrive. I would want to make it a destination.

What is the most extreme length you have gone to to see an opera?

I remember flying to New York on a six-hour flight for the Christmas performance of [late soprano] Jessye Norman. I had no sleep, but I was immediately invigorated once I got there. I am so glad I didn’t pass up the chance.

What would you do to get more young people attending the opera?

I think to attract young people to the opera is not in itself an interesting idea  — it’s better that young people have their own area of music. I say this because opera needs “ears with kilometres” — ears that have heard a lot of music and experienced a lot of life. Opera is about the complexity of human emotion.