Opera Queensland’s The Merry Widow set to dazzle with 1920s costume designs
The Merry Widow has been described as “a shimmery, all-singing, all-dancing Broadway show”. (Supplied: Opera Australia)
One of opera’s most lively and colourful productions is set to open in Brisbane, bringing with it all the glamour and flamboyance of the Parisian Art Deco period.
Graeme Murphy’s exuberant production of The Merry Widow stars tenor David Hobson as the dashing Danilo and soprano Natalie Christie Peluso as the enchanting Hanna.
Set in 1920s Paris, it follows the romantic twists and turns of a beautiful farm girl-turned-wealthy widow whose cash-strapped community want her to remarry a local suitor.
This heavily beaded dress is worn by Hanna and is being adjusted to fit Natalie Christie Peluso. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)
Unlike most operas, The Merry Widow features plenty of rollicking dancing along with jovial singing and has been described in reviews as a “shimmery all-singing, all-dancing Broadway show”.
With so much activity, intrigue and romance, all the elements to inspire dazzling wardrobe design were there for Opera Australia’s costume designer Jennifer Irwin.
“It’s a dream period to design,” she said.
“Art Deco was so decadent and the fabrics were beautiful and most women looked fabulous.
“It’s the most fantastic show to design because it’s a three-act play and every act is different but very beautiful.”
Hand-stitching features on many of the delicate costumes. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)
Head of wardrobe Karen Cochet worked in France and Switzerland for 25 years before joining Opera Queensland eight years ago.
“I love it so much because they’re making opera young and lively,” she said.
“It’s not just standing there and singing; people are actually moving and acting and it’s really, really exciting.”
Head of wardrobe Karen Cochet has worked with opera companies in France and Switzerland. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)
The team of costume makers and wiggies (hair and make-up crew) are busy making final preparations for opening night on June 22.
They are adjusting waistlines, hemlines and wigs, and in some cases making entirely new costumes to fit a performer.
That’s because the production has been travelling around Australia as part of the Opera Conference with different cast members in each state.
“We’ve got several principals and dancers that aren’t the same, so if the costumes don’t fit, we have to make total new ones for them, so we’re in the process of doing that at the moment,” Ms Cochet said.
This beaded gown was created overseas as the work required would take months to complete. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)
In Brisbane, one of the most colourful and ornate costumes is being adjusted to fit Peluso’s tiny frame.
“Because this is so heavily embroidered and beaded, we’ve had to unpick all the layers then replace them,” Ms Cochet said of the gown.
“We’ll then get Natalie in for a second fitting so we can make sure what we’ve done on the mannequin is good for her. It’s hard work.”
At least four costume makers are working on adjustments and preparations. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)
Hanna’s costumes are the most complicated and detailed, with some costing upwards of $2,000 each.
With so much dancing, consideration is made for footwear, long trains and seams.
“The boots are all handmade and are really tight and are a proper ballet boot,” Ms Cochet said.
“The tuxes for the male dancers have gussets under the arms; everything is adapted so they have no restrictions on movement.”
Even Opera Queensland stars get heel blisters from their shoes. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)
The operetta’s first act is set at an embassy ball with the men sporting tuxedos and the women dressed primarily in black and gold gowns.
Act II is set against the backdrop of a Monet water lily painting with the women dressed in florals and soft colours, while Maxim’s is the scene for Act III with lots of silver, black, and mirrors.
Books of 1920s fashion are informing and inspiring the costume team. (ABC Radio Queensland: Jennifer King)
With a cast of 50 singers and dancers, approximately 110 costumes will be put on and taken off during each performance.
And the cast sometimes have only 30 seconds to change.
It’s a similarly tight schedule for makeup coordinator Jodie Taylor who said she was lucky to get 20 minutes per person.
Some of the women in the cast are makeup artists themselves and do their own, as does the chorus, so she only needs to do the principal performers.
Makeup coordinator Jodie Taylor is looking forward to creating looks for the new production. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)
“We have to be quick and we have to know the design very well,” she said.
“Shows like this, the 1920s, have amazing makeup design and don’t come along very often so I’m going to have a lot of fun with it.”
The operetta, written by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, was first performed in Vienna in 1905.
Since then it has been performed thousands of times on stages across the world by some of the biggest — and smallest — opera companies.
It was also adapted as a three-act ballet by the legendary dancer Sir Robert Helpmann and first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1975.
Seven performances of The Merry Widow will be held at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC from June 22 to 30.
There will be plenty of colour and movement in Opera Queensland’s production of The Merry Widow. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jennifer King)