Peter and the Wolf

Isaac Mizrahi takes on Prokofiev's narratorial legacy.

For the past three years, Isaac Mizrahi has teamed up with New York City Opera maestro George Manahan, the Juilliard Ensemble and a rotating cast of guest visual artists to create a new (Nutcracker-free) holiday tradition with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series. We chatted up the tuneful fashionista about his involvement with this evergreen musical fable.

How did you first become involved in working with classical music?
People don’t know that it’s something I’m obsessively in sync to. I’m always listening, following; it’s a thread that takes me to another thing and another thing. So it’s general. You know, when you get into food you go, Oh my God, I never realized that basil is so good, so you feel like using basil in cooking a lot. It’s that kind of a thing, it’s so fluid. I can’t really trace it back, but I can say that things have been motivating me my whole life. Music has motivated everything I’ve done.

What are you listening toright now?
For the past number of months, I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz and a lot of specific kinds of middle-20th-century jazz. And Stravinsky—I’ve been listening to a lot of Stravinsky lately, too. For the millionth time [Laughs]. And Prokofiev of course, because of Peter and the Wolf. My friend Mark [Morris] did Romeo and Juliet this last year so I’m listening to that again. That’s a beautiful Prokofiev score.

How did you first become involved with Peter and the Wolf?
I was approached by my friend Caroline Cronson, who works at Works & Process, and there was a wonderful producer involved called Charles Fabius.... He said, “Would you be interested [in narrating]?” and I thought, Oh my God, this is like my dream job. And I love the chance to work with George Manahan. He’s such an incredibly accomplished musician. He’s very tolerant and lovely to work with. And the Juilliard kids love him.

Did you see Peter and the Wolf as a child?
[In my 30s] I saw Elaine Stritch do it in Bridgehampton [New York], of all places. And it was so great: She made it kind of adult, you know what I mean? It was like Fantastic Mr. Fox, something that was supposed to be for kids but equally for adults. It was like watching an episode of The Simpsons to see Elaine Stritch read it in Bridgehampton. And that was what encouraged me to do it. Because I thought if she can do it, this fabulous, consummate singer and raconteur, if she can do it then I can begin to approach doing it. You know? It would be like getting Ed Koch to do it.

That would be fabulous.
I know, Mayor Koch! Don’t tell that to the people at the Guggenheim because I’ll get replaced. [Laughs]

Sean Connery, John Gielgud, David Bowie and even Prokofiev’s grandson have all narrated this piece. How does it feel to be part of this history?
I sort of can’t believe it. It’s the thing that keeps recurring in my life, and maybe I’m starting to believe somewhere I’m pretty good at it. I did it this summer in [Central Park]. It was this crazy reading with some music students and people from the Vienna Philharmonic. And I read it in front of about 2,000 people, so it was very big. I was shouting. And it was great. And I’m beginning to think now that people think of me as someone who does Peter and the Wolf, and I couldn’t love that any more than is possible to love something.

Each character is represented with its own instrument and leitmotif. What would your instrument be?
I’d love to say something deep and beautiful, like a cello. That would be my favorite thing.

Do you have a favorite part inthe piece?
There is a moment when I’m reading and I have to fight back tears: the moment the duck kind of realizes she’s gone, she’s done for. The way he puts it is so beautifully simple and touching. I swear I have to say, Don’t cry, don’t cry. If you cry when you read Peter and the Wolf, that’s embarrassing.

The kids may give you a little flak for that.
Her theme recurs, that little oboe thing, and it’s so beautiful after those words. So beautiful, so moving.

Isaac Mizrahi narrates Peter and the Wolf at the Guggenheim Museum Thu 10--Mon 14.

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