Hidden in the mezzanine floor of the Opera Australia workshop and wardrobe department is the art department. Not to be confused with the scenic art department which looks after set pieces and backdrop work, this team is responsible for art-finishing costumes.
For some shows, that means ageing fabrics or “breaking down” brand new costumes so they look old and worn. For others, it involves dyeing fabrics to create the “perfect red”, painting shoes to suit a new production or creating intricate effects like snakeskin on leathers.
In this well-lit studio lined with paint bottles and jars of brushes, no two days are the same. Renee Bezzina and Jessica B. Watson are currently coated in glitter, as they painstakingly handprint a brocade effect on the redder-than-red costumes for Opera Australia’s brand new Rigoletto.
The old denim factory that houses The Opera Centre has a strange quirk – even two floors below the rehearsal studio, in the art department, staff can hear the operas in rehearsal. Verdi, Puccini and Mozart filter through the pipes and stairwells to provide a soundtrack for everyone’s work.
Costume designer Tracey Grant Lord has drawn beautiful period costumes for Rigoletto, crafted in lush velvets and delicate gauze. From a seat in the theatre, you might notice that each of the principal costumes has a different elaborate printed pattern – on a skirt, on the arms, on the bodice.
What you won’t see from the theatre is just how much work has gone into each of those patterns.
Grant Lord has designed and then hand-drawn individual patterns for each of these prints, drawing on reference materials from centuries gone by.
The design department turn these into stencils – adjusting the size and shape to fit cut fabrics, printing the finished drawings onto adhesive film, laser-cutting each stencil and painstakingly picking out the pieces with a scalpel. If a pattern curves along a hem, for example, the design department have to hand-carve curved stencils.
Up in the art department, Bezzina and Watson lay the stencils out over cut fabric. Using paint rollers, they roll on several layers of paint. First up, they apply a purple-grey shadow. After this dries, they will move the stencil ever-so-slightly to apply a layer of gold. The finished pattern will have a shadow, which helps it stand out from the fabric. Some of the costumes are then glittered, so the pattern will catch the stage lights.
“When we put it next to an embroidered brocade, I actually think our painted prints are more beautiful,” Bezzina says, proud of her many hours of work.
Each layer of paint must be heat-set to withstand the many wearings (and subsequent dry-cleanings) of a stage costume. Once the pattern is complete, the piece is returned to the wardrobe department to sew into the finished costumes.
Bezzina has lost count of the number of stencils she has painted in recent weeks. She juggles the printing work with other art-finishing jobs for Rigoletto and other upcoming works.
On a second worktable, a breathtaking assortment of costume jewellery is laid out flat. Each golden necklace and delicate hair adornment has a slight ombre effect, moving from bright gold to tarnished bronze.
This too is the work of Bezzina and Watson, who are working closely with Grant Lord to realise her vision for Verdi’s masterpiece.
“It’s an absolute privilege to do this kind of work,” Bezzina says. “There is so much skilled labour that goes into each costume – and it’s wonderful that Opera Australia are investing in the Australian labour they have available. We’re even using Australian paints!”
See the Rigoletto costumes on stage at the Sydney Opera House until August 24. For tickets and more information, visit the Opera Australia website.