Barbara Matera

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The Independent Online

Barbara Gray, costume maker and designer: born Hythe, Kent 16 July 1929; married 1962 Arthur Matera; died New York 13 September 2001.

For over 40 years Barbara Matera brought the world of haute couture to the world of entertainment. She was probably the most eminent maker of costumes for theatre, opera, ballet, television and film in the world. The costumes that she and her large workroom in New York made were crafted with all the skill, expertise, magic and indeed love as the most glamorous and complex creations of the haute couture houses in Paris. Every costume was unique; they were as beautiful inside as out. Indeed, when in 1996 the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts had an exhibition of the work of Barbara Matera, it was entitled "Inside and Out".

Born Barbara Gray in Hythe, Kent, in 1929, she started working for the Ballet Rambert, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Old Vic Theatre Company. From the workrooms of these distinguished companies she learned the basics of techniques that she was to hone to perfection for the rest of her working life. In London, in partnership with Pat Patterson (née Scott), she started a freelance costume-making company, but in 1960 they moved first to Stratford, Ontario, in Canada and then she alone moved to New York. This was to be her base for the rest of her career.

In 1968 she and her American husband, Arthur Matera, founded Barbara Matera Limited, based on Broadway. Soon she became the costume maker that every producer, director, actor and actress and, most of all, every costume designer wanted to work with.

Later in 1968 the great Hollywood and Broadway costume designer Irene Sharaff asked Barbara Matera to set up in Hollywood to make the costumes for Barbra Streisand in the film of Funny Girl, but after that film Matera returned to New York and continued her work from there.

She and the company made costumes for literally hundreds of Broadway plays and particularly musicals. Most of them involved huge amounts of work, nearly always to very strict deadlines and were always carried out with skill and ingenuity. Even a partial list is a roster of the great Broadway shows: Follies, 42nd Street, A Chorus Line, A Little Night Music, La Cage aux Folles, Dream Girls, Sunday in the Park with George, Nine, Into the Woods, Grand Hotel, Crazy for You, Sunset Boulevard, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Angels in America.

During this time began what was to become surely one of the most enduring professional relationships between performer and costume maker ever known, as well as a friendship. Dame Joan Sutherland's voice remains one of the marvels of the 20th century. For more than 30 years her costumes for most of her operatic roles and her gowns for recital were made by Barbara Matera.

On her retirement from the operatic stage at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Sutherland wore an astonishing green gown; on that day Matera had flown from New York to London with the dress, a surprise commission from Sutherland's husband, Richard Bonynge.

Matera was not only a costume maker for Broadway and opera; for American Ballet Theatre she made costumes for Swan Lake, Othello, Snow Maiden and Gaîté Parisienne (with extraordinary designs by Christian Lacroix). Her long association with New York City Ballet, where she maintained a workroom, included her own designs for Sinfonia Mistica, Tanzspiel, Five and Baroque Variations. She also made costumes for the San Francisco and Houston Ballets, the dance companies of Paul Taylor, David Parsons, Lar Lubovitch and Eliot Field. She just never stopped working.

And yet Barbara Matera was in many respects a woman with no ego. She always wanted to do the very best for her designers, to interpret the costume without drawing attention to herself. Her suggestions in a fitting room were made in a calm and practical way and with tact and charm. She was never the "prima donna" and yet was always in total command, never at a loss as to how to solve a problem but always looking for new ways to work. Never complacent, never satisfied, always questioning, always interested: full of love of the materials, the actors, the dancers, the singers, the work and her devoted workers. She maintained a large workroom of cutters, milliners, beaders, fabric samplers and sewers with herself, as the hub, at the centre of this large organisation housed at 890 Broadway.

The Materas had an enchanting house and garden (she was an enthusiastic and skilled gardener) in Athens, New York State. Who else in the world could have a house where the wallpaper was hung by Richard Bonynge and the loose covers and curtains were made by Dame Joan Sutherland? On her virtually annual trips to the Chelsea Flower Show, her delight in colour, form and texture in the plant and garden world was as great as her delight in the same in the costume world.

All the great costume designers adored Barbara Matera – Irene Sharaff, Theoni Aldredge, Patricia Zipprodt, Tony Walton, Florence Klotz, Santo Loquasto, William Ivey Long, Freddy Wittop, Desmond Heeley and Anthony Powell, to mention only a few – so it was fitting that she should be the recipient of one of this year's Irene Sharaff Awards, set up after that designer's death in 1993 to recognise excellence in costume design. At the ceremony the presenter of the award was Glenn Close, for whom Matera had made the fantastically glamorous costumes for Sunset Boulevard, 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians, all designed by Anthony Powell. But Close chose to wear, not a beaded evening gown and lamé turban from one of those productions, but a frumpy navy suit, made by Matera for one of her first films, The World According to Garp (1982), in which, aged 35, she had played a middle-aged woman. Barbara Matera had helped to make that transformation possible, so that was Glenn Close's tribute.

As well as concert clothes for Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, Mick Jagger, Angela Lansbury and many others, Matera made the purple crystal-encrusted gown that Hillary Clinton wore at her husband's first presidential inauguration.

Tom Rand

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