Every director that takes on the Ring cycle has to be aware of the fact that Wagner’s epic has been interpreted and reinterpreted across the ages. From tattoos and fellatio in Bayreuth this year to the undulating “Wagner machine” from the Met’s 2010 production, Wagner’s four-opera epic has inspired hundreds of interpretations, each one bigger and better and more out there than the last.
For the Melbourne Ring Cycle, director Neil Armfield was determined to take the opposite route. His Ring cycle harks back to the era of the natural scientist: at a time when fossils and insects captivated the public consciousness, and every man, woman and child spent their weekends fossicking for rocks and capturing butterflies.
“If you want genuine taxidermy, you find a dead animal, and you taxidermy it. What we’re doing here is more unusual,” Edmonds explains. “We’re trying to create the illusion of taxidermy with fake animals that look real.”
And the King of the Gods? A taxidermy enthusiast, naturally. In Opera Australia’s first Ring cycle, the powerful Wotan has a taxidermy collection that would put the Australian Museum to shame.
Beasts of land and air converge in his kingdom, frozen in time, impossibly lifelike in death.
The “taxidermy” project began nearly 12 months ago. Designer Robert Cousins worked together with the Opera Australia workshop on a painstaking research and development process, designing and sourcing animal forms. Some were sculpted from scratch by workshop artists, others were ordered directly from specialists in the United States. In Das Rheingold, the animals must fly – so the workshop staff had to take the lightweight forms and add counterweights and reinforcements.
The sheer scale of the Ring cycle has stretched the resources of the workshop department, so the team called in the help of prop-builders and costumiers Marea Fowler and Brian Edmonds in creating a series of mammals. Fowler is a costumier with a very specialist talent: creating anatomically accurate life-size animal forms.
It’s a less gruesome talent than actual taxidermy, as Edmonds explains. “If you want genuine taxidermy, you find a dead animal, and you taxidermy it. What we’re doing here is more unusual,” Edmonds explains. “We’re trying to create the illusion of taxidermy with fake animals that look real.”
Edmonds and Fowler started with 25 life size animal forms, which had already spent months in the OA workshop – being sanded, sculpted, weighted and reinforced. Fowler’s next job was to find the materials that would make them look real: sourcing suede, animal skins, fake fur and stretchy plush furs to best represent the animal’s natural coat.
Edmonds assures me that none of the animals are wearing their own skin. “We’re much better at faking than doing something for real,” he laughs.
It’s a more complicated process than cutting out fabric and sticking it on. “It takes serious research at the beginning to work out how long the fur should be and how it should be laid. Directional fur needs to pull in a certain direction, according to how the animal would move if it was alive,” Fowler explains.
Fur isn’t a uniform length, either, so it’s up to Fowler to work out where it’s short and where it’s longer, and cut the hair appropriately. Colours vary from hair to hair and limb to limb, so for every zebra stripe, there’s someone behind the scenes, hand-painting in a variety of colours to get the look just right.
The toolkit in Fowler’s workshop must be unique in the prop world: containers of teeth and ears and eyes are muddled together against one wall, and bundles of brushes conceal pot after pot of mysterious liquids. “We use raven oil, inks, paints and saddlery finishes to give a shine or remove a shine,” Fowler explains.
“The key is to not get it exactly right”, Edmonds adds. “As with all things in the prop world, you can’t make them too perfectly. You have to put in irregularities in order to sell the illusion. If you do it too well, it looks fake.”
In the Marrickville workshop, Edmonds runs the show while Fowler applies fabric. Two paint artists are striping a zebra while a pattern maker stitches together furs. It’s a delicately ordered process.
“There’s a long logistical process to finishing an animal, especially when it’s on a scale as big as a giraffe,” Fowler says. “The fur has to go before the hooves, the ears have to be cocked in the right direction according to how the animals are positioned, and the hooves have to have the right attitude,” she explains.
Hooves with attitude?
“The animals in the Ring cycle are flying,” Edmonds says. “So we have to make sure the hooves are in an appropriate position, otherwise it wouldn’t look real. You can’t just whack the hooves on and hope for the best.”
It’s the fiddliest part of the project, but also the most rewarding.
“The minute you start adding teeth and ears, they start to look real,” Fowler says.
“Real dead,” Edmonds adds. “It’s just fabulous.”
After nine weeks of intensive work, the forms were returned to the capable hands of the Opera Australia props department. Artists have spent weeks “breaking down” the animal sculptures – roughing up the plush exteriors so they look a little more wild.
The production photos for Das Rheingold will show nothing of the hours behind the scenes in the Opera Australia workshop spent plotting flight paths and rigging each animal. What they will show is the magnificent sight of dozens of astonishingly lifelike animals poised in flight.