In the world of costume design, there are two extremes. For each production they take on, designers can place their aesthetic anywhere on a spectrum from banal reality to utter fantasy. Their designs are for the stage – a place where belief is suspended and imagination takes shape.
Designer Alice Babidge sits squarely at the reality end of the spectrum – she likes to design a world that the audience recognises and understands.
“I don’t necessarily want to create the kind of traditional fantasy that people are accustomed to seeing on stage. I create pictures of a world that we know and we live in.”
Designers can place their aesthetic anywhere on a spectrum from banal reality to utter fantasy.
It’s an aesthetic that sits well within Director Neil Armfield’s vision for Opera Australia’s first Ring cycle – a vision that sets Wagner’s epic tale of the fall of the Gods in a very human, contemporary world. In the crates of Ring costumes lurking in the Arts Centre corridors, there is nary a horned helmet in sight.
“It’s not completely banal, there is a sense of theatricality and notions of theatre-making at play,” Babidge says. “But the costuming and the aesthetic are made up of recognisable archetypes from our society.”
Even within Armfield’s ‘poor theatre’ approach, there is room for extravagant gestures, Babidge is quick to explain. (That said, the close-knit design team are diligently keeping most of their key concepts under wraps).
In the first of the four operas, Das Rheingold, the story opens with three ethereal creatures of the river.
“They’re these amazing, glistening, gleaming beacons”
Often depicted as mermaids, Babidge has taken a more symbolic route, clothing the three singers in dramatic showgirl outfits. “I had this idea about drawing on traditional conceptions of performers,” she explains. “Showgirls are incredibly recognisable as performers but also as figures of desire – which is what these Rhinemaidens represent. They’re these amazing, glistening, gleaming beacons that Alberich is drawn to.”
Babidge was looking for a means to present this notion in a way that seemed real. “The showgirl outfits do present them as beautiful, unattainable notions of womanhood. But we also know that they are women in costumes performing a role.”
The carefully chosen colour palette and eclectic textures of the showgirl outfits reference the maiden’s watery home, the River Rhine. In tones of pale blue, aqua and milky white, the skimpy outfits evoke a sense of water. “They’re covered in crystal, so they glisten. There are tiny shell shapes on their corsets,” Babidge says. “The feather headdresses look like fountains and they have these little trains that are a bit like waterfalls. Then, of course, you give it over to the performer and it all comes down to the way they use it.”
Costuming is a collaborative business, Babidge says.
“The performer has to feel like it’s the right thing, and feel like it’s real.”
“When you’re working with clothes, it comes down to the person wearing it. The performer has to feel like it’s the right thing, and feel like it’s real.”
Ultimately, the costumes have to fit into the world the director and designer have created, a world that speaks to Wagner’s magnificent music. “Seeing the pictures all come together on stage is a big relief,” Babidge admits, as the days before the stage orchestral rehearsals are days filled with nerves.
Once the dress rehearsals begin, it is over to the performers, and all that is left is for Babidge to enjoy her part of Wagner’s world. “I knew bits and pieces of Wagner’s music before I embarked on this project. But I’ve grown to develop this incredibly deep affection for the music of the Ring. There are some sections that I just find incomprehensibly beautiful.”