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Martha Mann returned to theatre design with a production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 2017.Bruce Zinger

Back in 2010, I was browsing among the art books in Toronto’s Nicholas Hoare bookshop when a penetrating baritone voice – apparently directed toward me – said demandingly, “Surely you’re too busy to read!” I turned around and found myself confronted by a stately woman, swathed in black, wearing enormous dark sunglasses and multicoloured buttons as jewellery. Her physical presence was perhaps even more formidable than her voice. It was my first official encounter with the great doyenne of Canadian theatre design, Martha Mann.

I had seen Martha at a distance at numerous opening nights and theatre functions over the years, but knew her only by reputation. I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied, but not unaware that our chance meeting provided me with an exceptional opportunity. I managed to stammer something to the effect that it was an honour to meet Ms. Mann, and that I was in fact embroiled in planning a new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Atelier. I finished with a rather timid statement that it would be a thrill to have her design costumes for the production, although I knew we could never afford her. “You’re right,” she answered, “you can’t afford me, but my life has been so taken up with film and television of late, I’d love to return to a production of Mozart. Let’s talk.” Our meeting marked the beginning of a relationship that would blossom into hours of conversation with this remarkable woman of the theatre who proved to be a storyteller and raconteur par excellence.

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Mann won the Dora Award for her design work in the production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.Bruce Zinger

Martha’s 60-year career in the theatre included major productions for New York City Opera, the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, the National Arts Centre and Kennedy Center, and multiple Gemini Award-winning television credits. She seemed to remember every detail of every project, and sitting and talking at her enormous dining-room table was like having a lesson in Canadian theatre history.

Martha’s design standards were as formidable as her memory. I recall an anguished phone call at 6 in the morning during which Martha told me she had lain awake all night agonizing over buttons, and the dearth of suitable buttons to be found in Toronto. In the end, she contacted a friend at the Met Opera who shopped for Renée (Fleming!), who sourced buttons for her in New York that finally met her approval. Another day I was summoned to her home for “an extremely important meeting,” and was presented with close to 20 swatches of white cotton as Martha went through the pros and cons of which weight and texture would be best for the dancers’ sleeves in the Figaro finale. She simply willed you to care as much as she did. She was like a force of nature and resistance was futile.

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Mann's designs for Opera Atelier's production of Der Freischutz (2012).Bruce Zinger/Handout

This was typical of Martha’s obsession with layers of detail no audience member would ever see; the buttons invisible from the first row, the finishing only a couturier could appreciate and the endless fittings with our singers and dancers. All these small details, so seemingly trivial when taken individually, became part of a bigger picture that spoke of Martha’s respect for her fellow artists and her fierce belief in the discrimination of the audience. (“They may not see it – but they’ll know!”)

Martha died on May 27, at the age of 80. The last time I saw her was at the opening of our 2017 revival of the Figaro she had designed for Opera Atelier – for which she received a Dora Award. She must have lost 100 pounds since I had last seen her, and from a distance, she seemed diminished and frail. When I spoke to her at the after-party however, she once again loomed larger than life. “I’m rather pleased with how the designs have held up,” she boomed. “But we must do something about the socks worn by the male chorus. In retrospect, those stripes were a mistake. What are you doing next week?”

Martha Mann’s award-winning designs for Opera Atelier’s production of Don Giovanni will be featured in the company’s fall production at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. The opening night will be dedicated to Mann’s memory.