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Sydney Opera House

Dressing the Widow

When audiences watch Amelia Farrugia (Hanna) glide across the stage in the arms of David Hobson (Danilo), gorgeous in her black velvet ball gown, the last thing on their minds is the origins of the gown. Yet every costume in the The Merry Widow has a history.

Being a co-production with Opera North, Merry Widow costumes were shipped out from the UK in the run-up to the production’s opening this winter. Several did not fit the choristers or soloists for which they were intended, which meant that Wardrobe had to remake them.

Sourcing fabric to produce replicas of original costumes can be tricky, but in this instance Wardrobe Buyer Miranda Brock had an easy run: “Opera North had bought its fabric from a London online store, and we simply ordered ours from there too,” she says.

Once the fabric had arrived at the Opera Centre, cutters began the task of turning designer Leslie Travers’ sketches into costumes. The process usually presents a few hiccups: for example, a chorister’s Royal blue gown was found to be too bright in relation to other costumes and had to be dyed a shade of indigo. The “zarossi” embroidery on the bodice of the Pontevedrian folk dress that the widow wears in Act 2 was catching on everything and had to be lacquered to stabilise it. And there were the shoes, which did not emigrate from the UK with the rest of the production (shoes seldom do). Brock sourced 50-odd pairs of black boots from a US Wild West re-enactment website. To make them look ‘villagy’, Wardrobe added a shaped leather cuff to each boot.

The widow’s magnificent black silk velvet ball gown was made from scratch, with dozens of Austrian crystals painstakingly sewn onto the bodice. The train was fitted with a loop, so that when waltzing in the gown, Farrugia is able to hold it up to avoid tripping over it.

Working simultaneously on several productions, Wardrobe co-ordinators had to keep their wits about them to ensure that all accessories – gloves, hats, wigs, jewellery, boots – were ready for the fitting.  Afterwards, each component was labelled, tied together, and despatched to the theatre.

The Merry Widow is playing at the Sydney Opera House until November 2011, and at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, in May 2012.

- Annarosa Berman