Sydney Opera House

Wardrobe makes Lakmé swan sail

Wardrobe makes Lakmé swan sail

At the Opera Centre in Surry Hills, Set and Costume Designer Mark Thompson (pictured right), Wardrobe Director Lyn Heal and Wardrobe Buyer Miranda Brock have gathered to meet with a group of art and textile design students. The aim is to show them how Wardrobe went about creating the colourful confection that is Opera Australia’s Lakmé production, opening at the Sydney Opera House on August 24.

Thompson begins the proceedings by holding up a one-page synopsis of the libretto. This represents the beginning of his design process. “I don’t read music, so that’s what I start with – words,” he says. Once he’d done his preliminary reading, it was time to sit down with Lakmé director Adam Cook to nut out the details of the approach that they were going to take.  

Cook’s brief had been to create a “pretty” show. “Which wasn’t difficult,” Thompson says. “We had all of India and 3,000 years of history to draw on. The production is a mish-mash, which was always the intent – going to opera is not an art history lesson; if the concept is convincing, the audience will buy it.”

Lakmé is set in 19th century India, but 21st century India is where Thompson travelled after his initial meetings with Cook. He returned with 50kg of books, sourced from a bookshop in the foyer of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. “There was a wall of books on Indian costumes, jewellery, head gear,” he laughs, adding that, “when you’re looking for inspiration, you can’t have too many books and the pictures can’t be too big.”

Back home he sat down and drew some sketches (“I use a stylus on a pad; drawing with a mouse is like drawing with a brick”), and afterwards it was time to confer with Wardrobe Director Lyn Heal and Buyer Miranda Brock. The trio’s initial brief was to  cost Thompson’s ideas and negotiate what the designer refers to as “the battles of the budget”.  Grown men can cry, he says. “Quite easily, when they’re not getting their way.”

The threesome systematically worked their way through each design, establishing what each component consisted of and budgeting accordingly. Compromises were often called for. For example, some of the costumes that Thompson had envisaged consisted of layers upon layers of fabric, with many metres of trim. But since the labour cost of sewing on large amounts of trim would be prohibitive, Brock, whose job it is to source everything from fabric to shoes to false nails for each production, asked Thompson to draw some of the trim that he’d envisaged on a piece of paper, which she despatched to a Bangalore fabric weaver. Some weeks later several boxes of fabric that looked as if it had rows and rows of trim sewn on, arrived at The Opera Centre.

Brock also sourced “a pile of vintage saris”, bought at markets in India and cut up to use as trim.

At this stage of the process, Thompson adjusted his designs where necessary. “I use the 20-foot rule,” he says. “Squint your eyes, step back 20 feet, and establish that you can still see the detail. If you are able to, people in the back row of the theatre will be too.” If he could not, stripes and other details were enlarged. 

In the end, everyone got more or less what they wanted. “Costume drawings are really just plans,” Thompson says. “As a designer you need Wardrobe’s expertise to turn your 2D images into 3D costumes that look fantastic on stage.” And on performers. Wardrobe Director Lyn Heal says: “The designer doesn’t always know the body shape of the performer who is going to wear a particular costume – it’s up to Wardrobe to adjust sketches to make sure that every costume looks good on every singer.”

Among the most challenging items on the Lakmé costume list were the men’s turbans. Says Heal: “They were a bit hard because you can’t expect singers to tie them every night, which means you have to put them on a base.” Getting that to look natural took some work. Of course, the world was a different place when Lakmé premièred in 2006 – the Internet, for example, was not as developed as it is today. Thompson says: “Now you can type “tie turban” into YouTube and you’ll get a collection of videos showing you exactly how to do it – some even come with music.”

Heal tracks down international artists’ measurements, and experience has taught her to approach the last opera house where a singer performed, rather than the artist’s agent. “Agents might give you five-year-old measurements, which can be a bit of a gamble,” she says. 

Over the years, Wardrobe has acquired a wealth of knowledge about what works and doesn’t work when creating costumes for opera singers. Heal has learned, for example, to use hooks and eyes even if a costume is going to have to be changed in minutes. “Velcro might be faster but it makes a noise and conductors complain,” she says.

When the curtain goes up on Lakmé this month, audiences will be delighted by its beauty and splendour. A few might stop to think – for a second – of the skill and effort that went into making it so. As Thompson says: “Wardrobe is like a swan sailing serenely across the water…only those who work here know that under the surface, we are pedalling madly.”


Lakmé is showing at the Sydney Opera House from 24 August to 21 September: Click here for more information and tickets.