Sydney Opera House

"You want sequins? You got sequins!"

‘You want sequins? You got sequins…’

Tess Schofield on her costumes for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour


Allerta: This La Traviata production is set in the 1950s. Could you tell us more about the thought process that went into deciding on this particular “take” on the opera?

Tess Schofield: Staging La Traviata on Sydney Harbour seemed like an incredible challenge and an amazing opportunity, not just because it’s lavish, but because it’s outdoors: we’re creating a large-scale entertainment, and what better place to do it than on Sydney Harbour, with the beautiful Opera House behind, fireworks in the sky, glittering water and a late-summer evening? In Sydney [director] Francesca Zambello and I started talking about what the production might be. We were keen to make the opera more contemporary, but it wasn’t really until February 2011, when I went to New York and we explored different eras, that we decided on one that would sit comfortably with La Traviata. The 1950s was a time where strict social morality smashed up against sub-cultural underworlds, which is what happens when the morality represented by Germont’s world  destroys the love affair between Alfredo and Violetta.

How do a costume designer and director settle on a “shared” vision?

Francesca and I had previously worked together on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and when I met her in Sydney in 2011, the first thing she said to me was, “You want sequins? You got sequins!” because I’m always doing the grungy operas at OA! Then I went off and commenced my research, and listened and listened and listened to the opera and analysed it, all the time honing my understanding of the piece. Then I went to work with Francesca in New York, where we spent several days going over visual references and looking at and listening to each Act in isolation, discussing what would and wouldn’t work on Brian Thomson’s stage. Afterwards I returned home and started drawing. Francesca provided feedback. In opera it works like that – we’re all in it together. 

Many designers do their sketches on computer but you prefer to make your drawings by hand. Why is that?

 I guess it’s part of my process. I like to mix the paint, do the designs, crumple them up if I don’t like them, eventually put them all up on the wall, wake up in the morning, walk down the hall with a red Texta and strike off the things that aren’t working, or rework things and throw in new colours. It’s important for me to be able to see the whole opera come together at once, because the audience experiences the whole thing at once.

What sort of research do you do for your costumes?

I’m a bit OCD about my research; I do big graphs and break-downs that track the characters’ movements to get a sense for who’s on stage for how long, when they exit and when they re-enter, and who they’re on with. I also spend a lot of time in libraries, looking at fashion, art, photography and in this instance, dress-ups, Mardi Gras and couture fashion of the time. The Internet is brilliant, but there’s nothing like being in a library and discovering images, because they’re not necessarily the images that everybody else is seeing.  

How have your costumes been influenced by the outdoor setting and by Brian Thomson’s set?

There are practical considerations, a lot of stairs and access is by water only for instance, so it quickly became obvious that hemlines for La Traviata’s large chorus were going to have to be quite far off the ground. Setting the opera in the 20th century was the obvious solution to that. 

I also had to think about silhouette. The stage is light in colour, being a mirror, and behind it is the night sky, which is dark. If the men were to be in regular black tuxes, you wouldn’t see them against the night sky; all you’d see would be a collection of tiny heads, So in Act I I put the male chorus in white dinner jackets.

You’ve mentioned that you chose fabrics that reflected light well?

Yes, especially in the party scenes.  Violetta’s dinner party in Act I, for instance, is a very sophisticated affair, and to reflect that I’ve used satins and taffetas and organzas that have a lustre to them that will spark off under light, as will Swarovski crystals. Shimmer adds a polish to this production.

Tell us more about the Mardi-Gras themed costumes in the final Act?

While Violetta is dying and the house is being dismantled around her, there’s a Mardi Gras going on outside. It’s in the music, but traditionally it’s not visually represented. In the very long final Act, on this very large stage, Francesca and I decided to inject a haunting element of nostalgic and frantic energy. So you see a small group of wild revellers racing through the streets of Paris, heading off to some larger event.

It’s up to Wardrobe and the Costume Designer to ensure that the budget is met. Could you tell us a little more about that? 

Lyn [Heal], OA’s Wardrobe Director, did the initial break-downs, based on my designs. We then started the process of trimming the fat. Ultimately, if my costumes don’t fit the budget, either I have to change them, or the budget has to change - we just need to work out where the give and take needs to be. I’m flexible and very experienced, so I can do smoke and mirrors [laughs], but ultimately it’s Verdi’s story that must be honoured and of course our audience.

When designing your costumes, to what extent are you influenced by the appearance and body shape of particular artists? 

It’s very important to know who the cast are, and physical body type comes into it. In this case we have beautiful Emma Matthews singing Violetta. She has a lovely femininity and sensuality about her, and I’ve really tried to honour that in my designs for her. 

You’ve worked in theatre, opera and film. In terms of costume design, how is opera different from the other two?

Opera has music! Music adds another level of inspiration. I can’t design an opera without listening to the music; I’m constantly listening to it, and much to my son’s disdain I’m sometimes singing it as well. There’s also the scale of opera. I’ve worked on 20th-century operas that were quite like plays in their orientation towards simplicity and drama, rather than opulence.  La Traviata is lavish and tragic and epic and complicated; a whole world in three hours. Love is the pulse of the whole world, Alfredo says in Act I. That’s a great mantra for this piece.