Opera Australia – So Much More Than Voices

Here at The Culture Concept Circle we love the arts and fashion. You can imagine then just how excited I was to be invited to experience Opera Australia’s costume department. A private tour no less!

Located in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, the gorgeous Art Deco facade of Opera Australia (OA) hides an amazing treasure trove behind its Elizabeth Street walls.

And not just treasures of the choral kind.

It’s also about the incredibly talented artists that develop the stunning costumes, facial hair devices and wigs that set the tone for the productions we enjoy on the stage of the iconic Sydney Opera House.

The singers may have the voices, but the scene must be set.

Without the talents of the costume and wig team to interpret the vision of the director and the designer, we could be in any location, in any era.

The job of the costume department is to transport us, sometimes it’s dramatic and obvious, other times it is a subtle journey.

This is a decision that can take up to twelve months to design, a collaboration between director, designer and the costume department.

Whilst waiting for my tour to begin, I am entranced by operatic voices rehearsing on a higher level, both physically and spiritually.

Angelic notes float down the stairwell beckoning me to explore this hive of creativity.

It would be hard not to be productive in this setting.

While waiting for my guide Sarah Wilson, senior publicist for OA, I am greeted by the enchanting Susie Bennetts.

She is the first face I see, and her divine demeanour sets the tone for my experience.

Sarah arrives, she is a font of information.

Before I know it I am whisked downstairs to meet Lyn Heal, Director of Wardrobe and Wigs.

Quitely confident, you can tell Lyn is in control of the whole process, which could easily spiral into chaos.

It’s her twenty year extensive experience with this company that lets Lyn gently guide her team of approximately thirty hard working pattern cutters, seamstress’ and milliners.

They achieve the amazing results that we, the audience will enjoy.

Most of the teams credentials are either from costume construction course at TAFE or NIDA.

The workroom is bursting with beads, colourful threads and shiny sequins.

Sewing machines sit, like a line of centurions on guard at the ready for Lyn’s command.

When you think that two thirds of the budget goes towards costumes and wigs and one third to the sets, there is much riding on the shoulders of this department.

And it’s not just the principal singers they must look after.

For example there is a singing chorus of forty eight, and twelve actors (non singing roles) for Don Giovanni.

They all have to be fitted and kitted out.

Sir David McVicar’s production sees one outfit each for the chorus and four costume changes for the actors.

A fit for the winter season will start at the end of summer, 5 to 6 months ahead.

Stephanie Paglialonga is the Head of Manufacturing Wigs. This is also a time consuming job.

The wigs are made from scratch using predominately human hair imported for Asia and Germany.

The wefts arrive already coloured, but it is up to this team of four to weave their magic and it can take up to forty hours to produce one wig.

While I was there, Carla D’Annunzio was working on the look for Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the lead role in Don Giovanni.

First the singers head is measured, and a block built up with cork to create the perfect shape.

Then starting at the nape, the hair is woven onto a mesh base.

After this has been done, it is then styled into the desired look.

It is a fascinating process that requires patience and a deft hand.

On a second visit Carla was styling bass baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes wig for Opera Australia‘s all new production of Mozart’s dramatic work Don Giovanni.

I can’t wait to see the finished work when I get to see this fabulous opera.

Speaking of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, I passed him in the reception area. We shared a smile, and let me tell you his presence off stage is just as commanding.

With the winter season about to kick off, Lyn, Stephanie and their respective teams have four operas to prepare for.

This winter sees Rigoletto (26th June – 24th Aug), Otello (5th July-2nd Aug), Don Giovanni (25th July-30th Aug) and The Elixir Of Love (11th-31st Aug) on the playbill.

Each season there is one new and three revived productions.

Opera Australia has an incredible archive of costumes, which means they can be revived for future productions.

It also means the creative process for the new production can start up to a year prior opening night and the team can throw themselves wholeheartedly into the synthesise.

Much thought goes into costumes. It’s not just about the look, this gear has to be practical too.

Imagine you are on stage for a few hours, under heavy lights and makeup.

The set moves and you have to sing AND act.

Maybe you have a couple of costume changes.

These have to be fast, the performer is counting on his or her outfit to be easy to get on and off.

This is in the hands of wardrobe, and any dramas need to be ironed out before the curtain goes up.

No one can miss their cue in a live show. There is no margin for error.

This department treads a fine line between keeping all parties happy.

Some productions will include off-beat ideas, as in The Turk in Italy, where swimsuits were an integral part of the look.

Not every participant on the stage may be comfortable with scanty gear, so it is up to Lyn and her team to create a happy compromise.

Last time Teddy Tahu Rhodes sang the leading role in OA’s Don Giovanni he wore short leather shorts, rather than the scanty leather ‘speedo’s’ his former colleague Baritone Jeffrey Black had worn in the role.

Fabrics for Opera Australia productions are sourced from around the world, with some beading and embroidery carried out in India and Asia.

Ditigal prints are manufactured here in Australia and the heavier brocades and intricate fabrics are often sourced from Germany or England.

There is very little wastage in this workroom and scrap bags abound, ready for quick fixes if a little first aid is needed.

Some of the construction is done off shore in places like Bangkok, Thailand for the chorus e.g. soldiers uniforms.

This saves considerable time and money.

We mustn’t forget footwear.

An important base for any outfit, many of the shoes are handmade by a company in Germany called Harr. They have been in the business for four generations and over 100 years.

As you can tell, from top to toe the wardrobe and wig team are an integral part to any production.

Personally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the team at Opera Australia for welcoming me into their exquisitely creative world.

Next time you find yourself enjoying a wonderful night out at the opera, look a little closer. 

Opera Australia is all about so much more than voices.

CiaoJo Bayley, Fashion Elixir, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Opera Australia

480 Elizabeth Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
T: + 61 2 9699 1099
F: + 61 2 9699 3184

Website: www.opera.org.au


Chief Executive Craig Hassall
Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini
Chief Operating Officer Narelle Beattie
Associate Music Director Tony Legge


Wardrobe/Wig Director Lyn Heal
Wardrobe Production Manager Rebecca Ritchie
Wardrobe Production Coordinators Bronwyn Jones
Wardrobe Buyer Miranda Brock
Wardrobe Administration Coordinators Trish Burt, Cassandra Pascoli
Wardrobe Technical Supervisor Thorsten Ohst
Costumiers Zahara Bin Saleh, Maruska Blyszczak, Mathilde Montredon, Theresa Muellner, Beryl Waldron
Head of Manufacturing Wigs Stefanie Pagliaonga
Costume Alterations Supervisor Susannah Keneally
Costume/Wig Makers Cheryl Ball, Julie Beach, Renee Bezzina, Patricia Butterworth, Angeline Cheah, Lynn Coubrough, Carla D’Annunzio, Adelie Delajot, Sonja Forza, Olivia Goodbee, Kate Herrett, Teresa Hinton, Lauren Kenyon, Sara Kolijn, Emily Lewis, Eva Lu, Laura Panyioto, Sharyn Pierce, Hanneke Raahuis, Erika Schwarz, Lynda Southon, Tracy Whelan, Rebecca Willis
Wardrobe Assistant Nicole Artsesos
Costume Storage Supervisor Bonnie Harris

Images: by Jo Bayley



1 Comment

  • olive lawson says:

    Dear CultureConceptCircle: thank you very much indeed for the inside look at Opera Australia’s workrooms in Surry Hills. How fascinating that the Wig makers use human hair. I suppose it is taken from living donors, not the dead – a ghoulish notion- and I do hope not from desperate sales of children’s hair by impoverished families in poor societies. I have a personal interest in the shelves stacked with bolts of fabric: as about 10 years ago I moved and purchased a large quantity (about 20 metres)of Sydney-sky blue silk, which I planned to use in interior decoration of my new flat – soon realising that my handy-woman attempts to cover boring ceilings with imitation sky was not going to work, so I gave the fabric to Australian Opera. I wonder whether they have used it, or if it still is rolled up on the shelf in your pictures. Olive L.

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