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Costume Design, Opera, Aida, Male Zulu Dancer, Robert O’Hearn, Watercolor, 1963


Robert O’Hearn (1921-2016)
“Aida,” Ballet Zulu, Met Opera
American: 1963
Watercolor and graphite on paper
Signed in pencil lower right, titled lower left
12 x 9 inches

Original costume design by Robert O’Hearn for a male Zulu dancer in the 1963 production of the popular Verdi opera Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The traditional stylized tribal costume incorporates a red, black and white feathered headdress and skirt, and white feathered decorations at his knees, wrists, and elbows. The upper left corner of the page has a small sketch of the back of the skirt. The choreographer, Katherine Dunham, was the first African-American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. She was known for incorporating African, African-American and Caribbean dance with traditional ballet to create what became known as Dunham Technique. Her choreography for this production incorporated those moves. O’Hearn’s costume is similarly inspired by a traditional indigenous African style specifically for Dunham’s ethnographic choreography. O’Hearn donated a companion Zulu dancer “Super Feather Cape” costume design from this production to the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City, now displayed on its website.

Product description continues below.


Aida is an Italian opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi that been a beloved standard in the operatic repertoire since its debut in 1871. It has been performed more than 1,100 times at the Metropolitan Opera alone since 1886. The story, concerning a kidnapped Ethiopian princess named Aida, takes place in the Old Kingdom of Egypt. This particular production of 24 performances, directed by Nathaniel Merrill and featuring Birgit Nilsson as the heroine, opened on October 14, 1963, with Georg Solti conducting. A review at the time described the production as “lavish” with “an opulence of design.”

Robert O’Hearn was an American set designer, for theater, ballet, and especially, opera. He designed 13 productions for the Metropolitan Opera between 1960 and 1985. Educated at Indiana University, he designed productions for the Brattle Theatre at Harvard University from 1948 to 1952, and began working regularly on Broadway starting in 1953. He also designed productions for the New York City Opera, New York Shakespeare Festival, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and other American and European productions. From 1988 until 2008 he was a faculty member at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was an influential choreographer, dancer, and anthropologist, known as the “Matriarch of Black Dance.” The daughter of an African-American father and French-Canadian mother, she began her career earning bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago, as one of the first African-American women to attend the school. She studied traditional Caribbean dance with a foundation grant and began creating her own choreography based on folk and ethnic choreography in the 1930s. She moved to New York and in the 1940s founded the company Katherine Dunham Dance where she developed her signature Dunham Technique. Dunham herself also performed with her company and in several films. She also authored several books. Dunham received numerous awards and honors during her lifetime including the Kennedy Center Honors and the Presidential Medal of Arts.

Condition: Generally very good with the usual overall light toning, handling, wear associated with a working costume design.

Provenance: An extensive private collection of opera designs, mostly for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City.


“Drawing, Costume Design: Super Feather Cape, for Aida, 1963.” Cooper Hewitt Museum. (23 June 2020).

“Katherine Dunham Biography.” Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities.” 2011. (23 June 2020).

“Met Performance CID: 196000.” Met Opera Database. (23 June 2020).

“Robert O’Hearn.” Wikipedia. (23 June 2020).

Additional information


20th Century