When the British designer Tom Pye was first brought on to the creative team of “The Hours,” a new opera by Kevin Puts that had its premiere at the Met on Tuesday, it was just for the sets.
But that was before he learned that the opera, like the 2002 movie inspired by the same Michael Cunningham novel, had pulled out all the stops when it came to filling the principal roles: three women strewn across the 20th century whose fates seem united by a mysterious connection to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” In Joyce DiDonato, the Met found its Virginia; in Kelli O’Hara, its despairing midcentury homemaker Laura Brown; and in Renée Fleming, its high-powered Manhattanite book editor Clarissa Vaughan.
“When I heard the castings, I was like, ‘I’m doing the costumes as well,’” Mr. Pye said.
Although he “loved it when it came out,” Mr. Pye, 54, had scrupulously avoided the film, which received an Academy Award nomination for Ann Roth’s costume design.
“It can be really distracting, if you’re trying to design and find your own image for everything,” he said.
In a recent interview, he explained his vision for the three women at the heart of “The Hours.”
Virginia: ‘Mustards and Burnt Oranges and Olive Greens’
While adapting Mr. Cunningham’s sprawling, multigenerational story for the stage, one objective quickly became clear: to help the audience not lose track of who’s doing what where — and in which decade.
“In the book, it’s very ‘one chapter, one chapter, one chapter,’” Mr. Pye said, referring to the episodic structure of Mr. Cunningham’s novel. “In the film, they get to play a bit more, and this is like five times more.”
Knowing there would often be several characters singing onstage at the same time made Mr. Pye want to be “as simple and direct” as possible.
“So I’ve been very, very clear — or, I’m trying to be very, very clear — in the color palettes and the worlds of the costume and the sets,” Mr. Pye said, “so that you know you’re in Virginia’s world, you know you’re in Laura’s world, so that even if the singer doesn’t stand exactly in her world, her color palette follows her, and she can be free onstage to be a little bit more complex.”
To create a coherent palette that would follow Virginia throughout the performance, Mr. Pye looked to the Bloomsbury group, an informal collective of thinkers and artists, so named for the bohemian London neighborhood many of them called home.
The real-life Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, belonged to the group, which had “a really specific palette,” Mr. Pye said, pointing to the work of Bell and Duncan Grant, a fellow painter she took up with in a Sussex farmhouse called Charleston. “You see these sort of tertiary colors — mustards and burnt oranges and olive greens.”
Laura: ‘The Opposite of Virginia’
If audiences are meant to associate Virginia with the autumnal and the earthbound — “natural pigments that you believe could be made from natural products,” as Mr. Pye put it — the character of Laura occupies a completely different wedge of the color wheel.
“There’s nothing natural going on there,” he said.
For Laura’s palette, Mr. Pye took inspiration from Technicolor in an effort to project postwar optimism. “They’re not normal colors,” he said, comparing them instead to Cadillacs and 1950s diners. “They’re all quite man-made, manufactured — the opposite of Virginia.”
Clarissa: ‘Go as Simple as We Can’
To outfit the character of Clarissa, a professional woman living in Manhattan at the end of the last century, Mr. Pye drew on his own memories of the late 1990s, including some of his first jobs in New York theater. He was mostly doing sets then, he recalled, which at the time meant a lot of glass walls, glass boxes and “reclaimed everything.”
“All we ever did back then was minimalism,” he said. “It was lots of empty stages.”
“I was looking at Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan, and all those great designers that were working then, and it’s so minimalist in the color palettes,” Mr. Pye added.
According to Mr. Pye, the 1990s sensibility was defined by an instinct to pare down: “‘Let’s strip everything back, let’s go as simple as we can,’” he said. “So that’s what I’ve done with Clarissa.”
Wearing white and often standing before a plain wall, Clarissa frequently functions as a sort of monochrome barrier between the more colorful worlds of Virginia (stage left) and Laura (stage right). To Mr. Pye, there was something satisfying about the overall visual effect.
“There’s a purity in that, and a modernity in it,” he said.
The famous first sentence of “Mrs. Dalloway,” Virginia Woolf’s landmark novel that forms the spiritual backbone of “The Hours,” contains a clue to the opera’s signature motif: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Clarissa also begins her day with a trip to a flower shop, where she buys roses (herself). Seizing on that connective thread, Mr. Pye spied an opportunity to make the theme of roses “echo, and sort of bounce down the decades.”
“Both Laura and Virginia are wearing rose prints, but I wanted them to be complete opposite ends,” he said. To create the pattern on both Virginia’s and Laura’s dresses, he turned to wallpaper, not textiles, from their periods. For Virginia, he found two promising options, both from the 1920s, in a Smithsonian digital archive.
“I liked the roses on one and the background on another, so I pulled them together and changed every single color,” Mr. Pye said. The result is a custom-printed fabric that, while not vintage in the traditional sense, is nonetheless “very, very ’20s” in spirit. In contrast with the “quite tight, very Deco” florals of Virginia’s dress, Laura’s own “very ’50s” pattern was adapted from a Sanderson wallpaper and features big, splashy roses.
The three women of “The Hours” are also distinguished by their costumes’ silhouettes — no two quite alike, and each a reflection of its decade.
The dropped-waist silk dress Mr. Pye created for Virginia would have been a familiar style in the 1920s, with a relaxed feel befitting a woman living and writing in the countryside. “I wanted it to be soft and to have movement,” he said, adding, “the Bloomsbury group were all artists, so it didn’t want to feel too structured.”
There’s a certain postwar extravagance to Laura’s look: With wartime privations largely a memory, a woman like Laura could enjoy a skirt that was full for fullness’s sake. “Suddenly, it’s: ‘Let’s use five times as much fabric as we need to make a skirt, just to enjoy the opulence of that,’” Mr. Pye said.
The nipped-in waist and voluminous skirt of Laura’s house dress hark back to an hourglass silhouette innovated by Christian Dior: “It was that famous Dior dress — the white jacket and the big, full skirt — that was really radical after the ’40s, and after the war. Suddenly we’re going back to something more optimistic.”
For Clarissa, each detail seems to communicate ease and confidence — the rolled-up sleeves, the functional pockets of her skirt.
“There’s certainly a bit of that ’80s power dressing that would’ve continued into the ’90s, particularly for a woman of her status,” Mr. Pye said.
In early conceptions of the character’s costume, Clarissa wore pants. But Ms. Fleming wasn’t crazy about the idea, Mr. Pye said, and it was ultimately dismissed as a bit too on-the-nose.
“This feels stronger,” he said.