What distinction does the Barga Bel Canto Festival share with New York’s Metropolitan Opera? A brilliant soprano in the lead role of Verdi’s “La Traviata” — and the spectacular period costumes she and her fellow cast members will wear when they perform at the Teatro dei Differenti on September 5 and 12.
The soprano is Sally Li, Bel Canto’s founder, singing the part of Violetta, whose arias made legends of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. The source of Sally’s mid-19th century gowns is even more legendary: Angels the Costumiers, the London-based firm that has dressed the most glittering stars on the professional stage for 175 years.
In addition to its achievements on behalf of the Metropolitan and the top-rung theatres of London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, Angels has won no fewer than 36 Oscars for Costume Design since 1948. In 2015 alone, four of the five films nominated for Best Picture were Angels clients, including the winner, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Their clothing — along with jewellery and accessories — has been featured in “Star Wars,” the Harry Potter films, “Titanic,” “Gandhi,” “Gladiator” and “Chariots Of Fire,” as well as the acclaimed television series “Downton Abbey” and “Game Of Thrones.”
Angels’ immense 160,000 square-foot headquarters in London has 15 rooms of designers, tailors and seamstresses, working away over vaults where more than eight miles of rails are hung with finished costumes.
What brought Angels to Bel Canto is the convergence of two remarkable family histories. Its origins lie in the emigration of Central European Jews to England. Its setting is Barga.
THE LIFE AND LOVES OF MARIKA
No one is exactly sure how the former Marika Szucs discovered Barga. Her daughter Caroline thinks it was sometime in the 1960s, when her parents were both working in the garment industry. Marika began making trips to Italy then, away from the pressures of London’s hurly-burly fashion trade and an unhappy marriage.
What we do know is that she met Achim “Joe” Rotter, a leather goods merchant, in those same years. After her divorce from Caroline’s father, the Italian holidays were all with Joe, “the love of her life,” a friend recalls. In 1978, they bought a house between Tiglio and Filecchio, and by the mid-1980s, Marika and Joe were spending several months each summer in Barga.
They were bright lights in an earlier expatriate generation, a community enamoured of Italy in general and the Garfagnana in particular. Its ranks counted many accomplished artists and musicians. Marika had been sent from her native Hungary to Vienna at the age of 18 in 1931 to study painting. Joe was a violinist, and would often pass his evenings as an honorary fifth string in the world-renowned Amadeus Quartet, one of whose members had a home in Barga.
Marika’s itinerary between her Vienna education and her idyllic sojourns with Joe in Barga is an epic of tragedy and triumph, a personal version of the catastrophe that befell European Jewry with the rise of National Socialism and Hitler’s Final Solution. In the late Thirties, she and her first husband, Ernst Loew-Beer, a Czech industrialist, fled to London, leaving behind almost all of their possessions. Their marriage didn’t survive the crushing traumas that followed. Marika found herself alone in a Britain where she spoke little English — working as a housemaid and serving as a fire warden during the bombings that left much of London in flames during the Blitz.
Her mother and maternal grandparents perished at Auschwitz. Her father vanished for seven years, finally making his way to London in 1947 after internment in two Nazi labor camps, the final cataclysm of the Allied invasion and a journey to Budapest on foot across the ruins of Germany, Austria and Hungary.
In 1946 Marika married Werner Eversfield, who had escaped Berlin during the Holocaust. She established an organisation to train and find employment for widowed refugees, and business firm that manufactured belts, buckles and buttons. They had a daughter, Caroline, before her second marriage began to fail and Marika fell in love with Barga and Joe Rotter.
Just a few years later Caroline met Geoffrey Marx, and Marika’s saga joined the history of Angels.
SEVEN GENERATIONS OF ANGELS
Daniel Angel, a tailor, had emigrated from Frankfurt in 1813 to London’s Covent Garden district, then one of the city’s most notorious slums. Like Marika 125 years later, Engel spoke almost no English and left a continental Europe in ruins, laid waste by the Napoleonic wars. He began his career in Britain peddling second-hand clothes from a pushcart . Eventually the cart grew into a shop, where he and his son Morris began specialising in better-quality garments discounted to affordable prices.
In 1840, an actor approached Morris in search of costumes for a stage play. By the 1880s, he and his own son, the second Daniel Angel of London, were the principal costumers for the storied West End, home of the most venerable theatrical houses on Earth, In 1913, one century after the family settled in London, Angels dressed its first film cast. Down the road, 36 Oscars awaited.
It steadfastly remains a family operation. Current patriarch Tim Angel, his wife Eleanor, and their children Jeremy, Emma and Daniel run the show, now in its seventh generation. Geoffrey Marx is its Finance Director. Eleanor Angel is his sister.
Geoffrey and Caroline began spending their summer holidays in Barga with Marika and Joe in 1984. Joe passed away a decade later, suddenly and quietly, in the hills where they had spent their happiest years. “He sighed once, looked at my mother, and was gone,” Caroline recalls.
Marika followed him in June, 2014, four months before her 100th birthday. Her friends in both Barga and London recall her not as a victim of loss and tragedy, but as an exuberant lover of life and of art, including opera. Through high moments and devastating crises alike, “she maintained an incredible, infectious charm,” says Geoffrey.
BIRTH OF A PARTNERSHIP
Ten months after her death, Marika’s oil and pastel landscapes were featured in an annual Spring painting exhibition at London’s Holland Park, the thirty-second successive year that her work was shown there. Sally Li sang at the opening. Geoffrey and Caroline had been moved by her voice when she performed in Barga. One thing led to the next.
Geoffrey came to Barga last November to discuss “La Traviata” over a six-course feast at the Osteria with Sally, her husband (and Osteria proprietor) Riccardo Negri and Barga resident Helen Fentimen, who had approached Geoffrey with the costuming idea in October. At the time, she served as Bel Canto’s administrative director. They were joined by mayor Marco Bonini, the pianist Julian Evans and acclaimed baritone Bruno Caproni — who also own a home in Barga and are featured performers in the Bel Canto cast this year.
Soon afterward, Angels offered to provide the costumes at steep subsidies, as part of its corporate commitment to supporting the arts. Geoffrey and Caroline covered the remaining costs, as well as shipping and insurance. The world’s most celebrated costumers became Bel Canto’s partners.
“It’s about Marika,” Geoffrey says of that partnership. But Marika herself would doubtless agree that it’s about the first Daniel Angel too.
Article by Frank Viviano
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).