Sydney Opera House

Smoke and Mirrors


Smoke & mirrors: rejuvenating a 20-year-old production


When Don Giovanni opens at the Arts Centre, Melbourne early next month, Teddy Tahu Rhodes (featured above singing the 'Champagne Aria') will once again scramble down the ladder leading from Donna Anna‘s bedroom, dressed in the most famous pair of leather underpants in Australia. Taryn Fiebig (Zerlina), will bat her eyelashes at the Don, tossing her waist-length blonde plait as she does so. And Hyeseoung Kwon (and later Nicole Car) will look sad and dignified in the stark black gown that Donna Anna wears after her father’s untimely demise.

Carl Friedrich Oberle’s costumes for the late Göran Järvefelt’s Don Giovanni production, which recently celebrated its 20th birthday, returned to Sydney and Melbourne this year after four years of interstate and overseas travel. Getting them ready for OA’s revival of this much-loved production, was no small undertaking.

When preparing to assemble the costumes for an upcoming production, wardrobe coordinators begin by watching the OA video production of the show, and afterwards use the “costume bible” to assemble the many different ensembles. In Don Giovanni’s case, Wardrobe Coordinator Bronwyn Jones, who sourced and assembled every shirt, dress, cravat, hat, wig and boot required for the production, knew that she had a long journey ahead of her after these preparatory steps. 

“Putting such an old production on stage takes a lot of work because costumes take considerable wear and tear over the years,” she says. In Don G’s case, the production had recently travelled to Houston and Perth, which caused even more attrition.

Another complication in this revival was that the show was being filmed during its Sydney run. This meant that Wardrobe had to consider detail that on stage, as opposed to on camera, would not be visible. And since film creates a permanent, close-up record, it had to accommodate the concerns of singers who – not unreasonably – wanted to look their best for posterity. 

Thus, several costumes had to be remade. “Darning or sewing marks caused by taking seams in or letting them out, are invisible on stage but not on camera,” Jones says. Zerlina’s corset (top right) had been altered many times over the years, and this time Wardrobe invested in a brand-new one.

Jacqui Dark’s red silk dress (second down on the right), worn by Donna Elvira for most of the night, was another notable remake. Jones says: “It gets a roast chook thrown at it every night. Teddy tries to aim just past her, but he’s not very good at missing and even though Jacqui is very good at ducking, often some grease from the chicken ends up on the dress. It usually lands somewhere on the bodice, and fabric protector doesn’t stop the grease from sticking. You need a couple of days at the cleaners to get that sort of mess out. Since audiences see her in the dress all night, we decided to make a new one.”

But remakes are not always necessary. Some costumes were spruced up by respraying or dying them. And some needed little alteration.

Rhodes, for example, could use the set of costumes that he wore in the 2007 revival. “We only had to replace the breeches – they usually go first, around the knees. But Don Giovanni is a very energetic show and Teddy works very hard in that costume; next time he’ll need a complete new set.”

Conal Coad, who has performed Leporello in this production before, likewise only needed new breeches, and Stephen Bennett, Leporello in the second cast, performed the role years ago and still fitted into his old costumes. Taryn Fiebig has covered the role of Zerlina for a previous run, so she had a set of costumes that fitted her, even if Wardrobe had to replace her corset.

Covers who sing a few performances at the end of the run each required a set of costumes, which called for more remakes. 

The chorus costumes in Don Giovanni were pulled from various rustic-looking productions dating from the 1980s. “We start off by going through existing stock, to see what we can use from there,” Jones says. “Generic” costumes from all over the repertoire are stored at the Opera Centre. In Jones’ office at the Opera Centre, where pieces from various ensembles are draped over computers and costume bibles, some of the labels indicate that they hail from productions as old as OA’s 1980s’ version of Tales of Hoffmann.

In Melbourne this spring, there have been more remakes, even though the cast and second cast are almost identical to the Sydney one. “There’s a big chorus change in Melbourne and we had to fit and alter the costumes for them.” Jones flew down to help Melbourne Costumier Maruska Blyszczak fit all the actors and on-stage musicians  – 29 people in all – who are from Melbourne.

An even bigger undertaking than remaking so many ensembles, was reknotting the front of all the wigs and fitting them with very fine netting (invisible on film) to keep them in place.

But after almost a decade with OA, Jones does not get flustered. “I felt a little anxious about Don G because it involved filming of such an old production. But in the end it came together. It always does.”