A singular vision: Director Neil Armfield on Wagner and his Ring cycle
By Jennifer Williams
Neil Armfield is an elusive man to catch. When I finally get him on the phone, just a few weeks after rehearsals finished for Siegfried, he is hanging out washing. It’s disarmingly ordinary for a man whose name is regularly attached to masterpieces of the Australian and international arts industry.
A long career directing theatre, opera, musicals and feature films is studded by success after success: an all-star production of Hamlet for Company B, a stunning adaptation of the uniquely Australian novel The Secret River for Sydney Theatre Company, a production of a new opera, Bliss that was so successful it travelled from Opera Australia to the Edinburgh Festival and beyond.
This year, the acclaimed director takes on an opera juggernaut that has bested many a director before him: Wagner’s 16-hour, four-opera masterpiece, the Ring cycle.
Armfield doesn’t pull any punches when I ask about his intention for the work. “I want to produce the best – by which I mean the deepest and richest – communication of the work that has ever been realised on the stage.”
It is a bold ambition for any director, and an especially bold pronouncement given that 15 international opera companies are staging productions of Wagner’s epic in the year of the composer’s 200th anniversary.
Opera Australia’s premiere will be the last in the world this year, and the first in the national opera company’s history.
When Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini first approached Armfield about directing the Ring, the director was hesitant. “I’ve been asked about it a number of times over the years, and I’ve always stood back from it a little. Maybe it was fear. But I think ostensibly it was a worry that it can be done for the wrong reasons, as a display of wealth itself.”
“That’s a great irony,” Armfield says, “given it is a work that argues so passionately against consumption and the accumulation of wealth.”
The European tradition of producing the work has turned into something resembling a technological arms race, Armfield says. “It’s a race to see who can create the most complicated technical wizardry in order to produce the most spectacular version of the story. To me, that means it becomes an empty display.”
He took on the project under one condition: “I didn’t want to shed my way of working, and what I feel art can contribute to our society, in order to produce a multi-million dollar sound and light spectacular. Every image we are trying to create is intended to reveal meaning.”
His staging is quite modest (and at this stage of the proceedings, quite secret). That’s because at its heart, The Ring of the Nibelung is a simple story about love and ambition for the world, Armfield says. “It obviously has to deliver great moments of spectacle, but they have to be absolutely earned,” the director explains. It is important they don’t overshadow the humanity of Wagner’s tale.
“The inner child will get to enjoy the fairytale of the Ring, but the mythical beings that populate this tale are masks for real human emotions and real human stories,” Armfield explains. It is the job of the director to draw those connections for the audience.
“We need to understand them as creatures of mythology. There is a giant, who puts on the Tarn Helmet and transforms into a dragon. Wotan is a God in trouble, who has a deep, deep consciousness of love and beauty, but is also touched by greed and a desire for control.
“But we also need to be able to see ourselves in them. Wagner himself wrote that it is essential that everyone can see themself in Wotan. He is a sense the everyman, he is the creator, he is Wagner, he is any sentient being that watches the work. To identify the humanity of these characters, in spite of the mask of God or giant or dwarf, is fundamental to the work.”
Armfield has set his Ring ambiguously, “nowhere other than a stage”. It will be a contemporary story, he says: a tale about the destruction of the natural world, the extinction of the species, and what humans give up to pursue their desire for control.
“But set against that, there is a sense of the human population as optimistic, a constant resource of variety and joy,” he says.
The first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold, opens with the dwarf Alberich renouncing love in order to plunder the Rheinmaidens’ gold. There are obvious parallels to the way humans abuse the earth’s resources, Armfield says.
“In order to make money, we are destroying the earth. In order to do that, you have to renounce love, because if you love the world, if you love people, if you truly love yourself, even, you can’t be doing what human beings are doing.”
It will be impossible to hold yourself at a distance from Armfield’s production. It points the finger at us all, holding humanity responsible for the world’s ecological decay. But the director’s intent is not to leave the audience with a helpless kind of guilt. “This is a work that starts with renouncing love and stealing the Rheingold, and then 16 hours later the rivers rise and fire rains down, and the whole thing is destroyed. There is a sense both musically and dramatically that this is a new dawning. Wagner himself saw his revolutionary work as a kind of social gesture that would help to clear away greed from which the human race might start again.”
In fact, Wagner wanted the theatre to burn along with the Gods at the end of Götterdämmerung, wherever the Ring was staged. Armfield assures me that the Arts Centre Melbourne has nothing to worry about – “not unless there’s a terrible malfunction!”
There is a tendency to think of the Ring as an epic, as a monumental undertaking. And in terms of its length, its difficulty, its sheer scale – it is. But it is perhaps better understood as a chamber piece, Armfield contends. “The work is extremely intimate. Most of the time in the Ring is taken up with scenes between two or three characters. It’s a family story about dealing with destiny. About responsibility. About consequences. Big things are being negotiated, but if you don’t get those moments intimate and true, that’s when it becomes boring and declamatory.”
Armfield believes his job as director is to take Wagner’s masterpiece and try and work his way into a fresh light on the story.
The only way to do that, he says, is to work without comparison. In a lifetime of watching opera, Armfield has never seen a full Ring cycle, and is unfazed that his version will be the last in a long year of Rings for a small portion of the audience who follow the Ring around the world.
“It’s a basic principal that you have to tell the story as though you were telling it for the very first time. It’s my job to reach into the work and help it to come to life.”
Pietari Inkinen on the power and passion at the heart of Wagner’s Ring cycle
Some people have a passion so deep that it radiates from their face, glimmering out as they dwell on the object of their affection. Asked to speak on the subject of their passion, words spill out too fast for punctuation.
Pietari Inkinen is one such man, and the subject of his passion is a man that has for two centuries inspired nothing less than love or hate. That subject is Wagner - loved for his music, his storytelling, his genius; hated for his arrogance, his bigotry, his insistence on disrupting and upending the traditional operatic forms.
Wagner’s magnum opus is The Ring of the Nibelung, a tetralogy that amounts collectively to fifteen hours of opera over four nights.
“People always talk about the length of the Ring,” Inkinen muses. “But you get somehow immersed in it. Die Walküre starts, and it feels like it’s over in 10 minutes. You get submerged in this sound world before a single word is sung.”
It’s a musical sound world that captivates audiences all over the world – some, so deeply that they will travel the world to find a new production, a new singer, a new company with a new take on Wagner’s epic. In 2013, Opera Australia will produce its first Ring cycle in Melbourne, and Pietari Inkinen has been engaged to conduct all three cycles.
The young Finnish conductor has been drawn to Wagner’s unique “sound world” since he was a child, an intense pull that he can’t quite put into words.
“Wagner's music has this dark side that’s like nothing else, and such heavenly moments too, for contrast. Performing it is a pleasure, it has such rewards. There’s such a scale of expression and emotion and colour in the orchestra. How did he do it? It’s Wagner at his best, where he evolved to in his career. It’s so uniquely rewarding, and such a pleasure,” Inkinen stops as he tries to explain, pausing to correct himself.
“No. Pleasure is the wrong world. It’s more like – after you’ve heard it, at least for a while, you can’t listen to anything else. You are so soaked in this world. It’s not in your head, it’s in your whole body. You’re covered with it.”
Inkinen’s effusiveness on Wagner is neatly countered by his pragmatic approach to the gig itself. The operas may run for 15 hours in total, but for a conductor, the preparation is no different to any other performance, he explains. “It always starts with the score.” From a physical perspective, the experience of conducting the cycles is not unlike a marathon. “I just try to keep in shape, and look after myself during the rehearsal period so that I am fit enough for the performances.” And the prospect of conducting a huge, Wagnerian orchestra? Hardly daunting for a maestro who has built his career conducting the symphonic works of Bruckner, Strauss and Mahler.
“Anyone can study this music at home, as much as you like,” Inkinen says. “You can read every single thing about it that has ever been written, but when it comes to pulling this off from the pit, it is crucial to have experience handling an orchestra of this size on a regular basis.”
The conductor had been due to conduct the Ring in Palermo this year, in a split season beginning with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and ending with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the end of the year. With this in his calendar, Inkinen has been “soaking” in the score for several years. When the acclaimed Palermo production was aborted after just two operas due to funding constraints, Inkinen was bereft at the thought of not completing the Ring this year. “But Opera Australia’s production is in the exact same period I was expecting to be conducting in Palermo, so it is just amazing how things work out. In many houses, like Palermo, you perform two of the Ring operas at a time. But when you rehearse and then perform all four in succession, it’s like nothing else. It’s a massive challenge, a massive undertaking, but it’s just amazing when you pull it off.”
Already intimately acquainted with the orchestral score of the Ring, Inkinen has spent the intervening months “getting into Wagner’s life”, as he puts it. “I’ve been reading background material and studying the sources and the material that Wagner drew his ideas from.” Although schooled in German, Inkinen has also been studying the language of Wagner’s libretti, which “is not the most straightforward German!”
“I try to understand as much of the language as possible, down to the last word, learning what the deeper meanings are and what’s going on. The more you read, the more your understanding grows with it, and when I conducted Die Walküre in concert and then in Palermo it got deeper and deeper. It will only improve during the rehearsal period.”
The Ring is driven by the orchestra with long passages building up to a climax, delicate transitions and a flow where everything is connected to everything else, Inkinen says. “You have to learn how to handle the orchestra, to save something and hold back, so that you still have a little bit more to give when it really matters. You have to calculate the powers required to build up to a climax.”
The conductor’s unique challenge is to see all of the detail in the big picture. “We have a good saying in Finnish, like you have to rise above it all. You have to become like a pilot and see the whole big art of the thing. The first time you open these scores, it’s like jumping out of a plane, and it’s so big and overwhelming. But you just have to float above it all and see the millions of details.”
Wherever the Ring is discussed, much is made of the great forces of Wagner’s orchestra, and the need for the conductor to ensure the singers can be heard over the din. But Inkinen is quick to defend Wagner from this misconception. While he says he is sensitive to the need to hear the singers, he believes the score as it is written provides for that need. “If the orchestra plays what is written, then it is usually not a problem, unless there is a problem with the stage acoustics. It’s only that the orchestra can get excited in some places. In those key moments, where the singers need more help, I have to make sure I am ready, the orchestra is alert and they play what is rehearsed so we don’t overpower the singer.”
On the flip side, Wagner writes an orchestra with “power like nothing else”, Inkinen says. “You cannot play it too quietly!”
While the most famous tunes of the Ring are found in Die Walküre, Inkinen’s favourite of the four operas is Götterdämmerung. “I am so much looking forward to conducting it, it is the most rewarding.”
The fourth and final instalment of Wagner’s Ring was finished more than 26 years after Wagner began the first, Das Rheingold. “In this 26 years, he found what sort of composer he was,” Inkinen says. “Rheingold presents many of Wagner’s gifts, leitmotifs that prepare the way for what comes after, but it’s somehow not as rich and powerful musically as Götterdämmerung.”
Wagner composed Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and the first part of Siegfried before taking a break to write Tristan and Isolde. “It’s somehow more glorious, with a more luxurious texture than Das Rheingold – and that’s the great thing. He is even better when he arrived at Götterdämmerung.
“It took a long time, an incredibly long time, and that’s the unbelievable thing about the Ring cycle. He managed to keep the structure of the piece even though it took him so long. It’s mind-boggling. How did he manage to compose four such operas, and write another in between? It’s ridiculous. Can you imagine trying to do that?”
The young maestro doesn’t have to. His job is perhaps harder – as the man with the baton, it is his job to take the audience on a passionate journey through Wagner’s masterpiece, to make them feel what he feels.
“It takes you on a journey that shoots you up into the air, it takes you with it in a way that ... I don’t know ... there is nothing quite like it.”
In the news
Susan Bullock: Lady of the Ring
From Limelight Magazine
Opera Australia's Brünnhilde talks to Clive Paget of Limelight about her rise to fame and fortune and Ring cycles old and new.
How did you first know that you wanted to be an opera singer?
I went to watch my brother in the chorus of the Pirates of Penzance. I was still in primary school but I loved it. I really wanted to get on the stage. I didn’t decided there and then but it obviously sparked something off in me. I didn’t really decide I wanted to do it until I was about 17. I grew up in the northwest of England and the Royal Northern College of Music has a Saturday morning school. I went along as a pianist and I had to have a second study. I didn’t play any other instruments and my brother said, “Oh you can sing in tune. You just have to sing a couple songs to fulfil the requirements.” So I pitched up, sang my songs and then they said, “Would you mind coming back this afternoon and singing to the Head of Voice?” Well, I said, “Wait a minute I’m here as a pianist”. They said, “We want you to do singing, but you can still have piano lessons.” Even then I didn’t actually go on to study singing full time. I went to London University and did a music degree.
You won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 1984. What kind of opera repertoire were you singing at that point?
Well, you know, it’s crazy because in those competitions people sing stuff that they should never be singing. They give you a list of things and you’ve got to sing certain songs and arias and you’ve got to have three different programs as well. I sang Senza Mamma from Suor Angelica andLeise, leise, fromme Weise from Freischütz, both of which I ended up singing years after. But yes, in those competitions you sing all sorts of stuff.
Were you performing as an opera singer then?
I was at Glyndebourne. I was in the chorus for two seasons and two tours and then I started at English National Opera. So I was very much still a fledgling. I was covering stuff at Glyndebourne, things like Drusilla in The Coronation of Poppaea, singing a bridesmaid in Figaro, that kind of thing. It was very, very early days and I sort of rolled with the punches. I was doing Pamina, Gilda, Yum-Yum, and then I moved up to Micaela, Tatyana.
So did it come a point where you realised that you might be a Wagnerian soprano? Did somebody tell you?
Well, I’ve had the same coach for 30 odd years. His name is Phillip Thomas and he’s got the best pair of ears I’ve ever met. He knows my voice probably better than I do, to be honest. And he would hear sounds as I developed and as different repertoire brought out different things, different colours. And he would say, “maybe we should look at this now, maybe you should look at that.” And then I was asked to do The Egyptian Helen, which had never been done in England. It was for Garsington Opera. Only in England do we have these crazy places that are like someone’s back garden but it’s really a mansion where they’ve built a theatre. It was by far the biggest thing I’d ever done in terms of length and difficulty. A lot of people came to that, because they were curious about the piece, apart from anything else. And a lot of people came up to me and said, “You should start looking at some Wagnerian stuff.” And Keith Warner, the director, who’s been an old mate and great friend, called me and said, “Right, I’m doing a Ring in Tokyo and I want you to look at Brünnhilde. And I’m doing a Tristan in Germany and in England and I want you to look at Isolde. And I said, “Aren’t you meant to start with a Rhinemaiden or something?” He said, “Well, yeah, yeah… have a look.” I remember going to my coach Phillip, and also to Tony Legge, and saying, “Right, I want you to be human traffic lights. I’m just going to sing this stuff to you It’s very raw. Red is ‘don’t touch it’; amber is ‘possible’; Green is ‘go for it.’” And they both said green, so I had a go.
How did you become a fan of the Ring and what drew you to instigating and supporting the Melbourne Ring Cycle?
I had always been an opera fan but was not interested in Wagner until one night at a function with a friend. We were both commiserating with each other on being the parents of teenage daughters and the traumas involved. He said "I wish I could put her to sleep on a rock and surround her by fire to keep her safe". I was immediately taken with the idea—the perfect solution—and asked him how he came up with it. He told me it was "the Ring" and said it was high time I saw it. He sent me a disc with the highlights of the Ring which arrived just as I was leaving for London—I played it all the way to London and arrived totally won over.
What has been your favourite Ring Cycle or Ring experience to date?
My favourite experience was probably Manaus on the Amazon in the old theatre there. It wasn't the best musically but it was a lovely production and very simple. The singers were mainly young and of course the theatre and location were just magical. It was a very small theatre and very intimate, the performers were so thrilled to be there, and we got to speak to all of them, and the town was incredibly proud to be hosting all these people from around the world. It was just fabulous.
As a Melbourne Ring Cycle Artist Patron, you are supporting Taryn Fiebig in the role of "Forest Bird". What excites you in particular about Taryn in this role?
I have been supporting Taryn for quite some time and I love seeing her perform, I think she is great in any role she takes on and I am so pleased she will be in this production, she has a lovely voice and an arresting stage presence.
What are you most looking forward to about the Melbourne Ring Cycle?
Not being jet lagged when I see it.
Have you picked up any interesting Wagner trivia over the years? What's your favourite tidbit about the great (and controversial) composer?
I have attended many lectures on Wagner and read a few books. My favourite image is of him writing his amazing music wearing a silk dressing gown and ladies’ silk stockings (which he claimed didn't irritate his skin condition) surrounded by drapes of coloured silk. Apparently he was extremely extravagant and loved to surround himself with luxurious materials.
Artist Patron Profile - The Hon Justice Jane Mathews AO
supporting Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde
Platinum Ring Leader, Artist Patron and President of the Wagner Society in NSW, Justice Mathews is a passionate Wagner lover and supporter of Opera Australia. She takes a few minutes to talk about her support of the most exciting character of the Ring - Brünnhilde.
What drew you to supporting the Melbourne Ring Cycle?
The principal reason is because this is such a unique event for Australian Wagner lovers. It's the first time that a full Ring cycle has been held in this country outside of Adelaide, with a world-standard cast and a superb director in Neil Armfield.
What has been your favourite Ring cycle or Ring experience to date?
By the end of the Melbourne Ring I will have attended 43 Ring cycles, but it's not uncommon for one's very first Ring cycle to stand out vividly in the memory. Mine certainly did - it was Bayreuth in 1990, conducted by Barenboim and directed by Harry Kupfer. The cast included John Tomlinson, Siegfried Jerusalem and Anne Evans - it was sensational. Another highlight would have to be Elka Neidhardt's Adelaide Ring in 2004 which I also loved.
What excites you in particular about Susan Bullock (pictured above) in the role of Brünnhilde?
Brünnhilde is by the far the most important female character in the Ring Cycle. She is actually an amazing character who goes through great development and change during the course of the cycle - from the middle of Die Walküre when she meets Siegmund and learns about compassionate love, to meeting Siegfried where she discovers passionate love, and then finally at the end where she again learns compassionate love. Susan is one the leading exponents of the role, and it is such a privilege to be supporting her. We've also become good friends.
What are you most looking forward to about the Melbourne Ring Cycle?
This one is impossible to answer! I am really looking forward to the whole experience. I'm coming to all three cycles so I'm hoping to take on as many of the ancillary events as I can. Melbourne seems to be doing a wonderful job at organising quite a number of these. I am also hugely looking forward to seeing an Armfield production.
Building the Melbourne Ring Orchestra
How does one go about putting together a Ring Cycle orchestra?
We sit down with Opera Australia’s General Manager, Orchestra, Gérard Patacca, to find out how one goes about putting together a Ring Cycle orchestra.
What has been the most challenging aspect of putting together the orchestra for the Melbourne Ring Cycle?
The sheer scale of the Melbourne Ring Cycle has made this process so different to anything we have done before. Traditionally, we have partnered with Orchestra Victoria (OV) for our mainstage seasons in Melbourne. The enormous size of the Ring orchestration means that we are augmenting Orchestra Victoria and their regular casual players with guest musicians from the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras, the state symphony orchestras of WA, Queensland, and Tasmania, as well as OA’s Sydney orchestra, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO). This broad range of musicians from Melbourne, interstate and overseas will create the Melbourne Ring Orchestra.
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra will be co-led by two outstanding Concertmasters, who, as it turns out, are both former members of the AOBO: Roger Jonsson, currently OV’s Acting Concertmaster, and Aubrey Murphy, who is currently working with the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
With 15 hours of music to rehearse and perform, significant sections of the orchestra, including the Strings, Woodwinds and French Horns face enormous physical challenges.
In planning for the project, we have put measures in place to ensure none of these players are expected to perform every complete opera - they have been rostered throughout the cycle so that we can rest certain players for one or two acts at a time. This means the orchestra can sustain the quality and intensity of sound.
This is standard practise for the Ring cycle, but it also means we have engaged many more players than are actually listed in the orchestration. For example, we have 17 1st Violins to play 14 parts, 12 Horns to play 8 parts, and at least one extra player in each woodwind section. In total we’ve engaged a total of 135 players.
When musicians are not playing, they will be ‘covering’ or understudying each other, so that if anything untoward happens or a player falls ill, they can be covered by someone who has had the opportunity to rehearse the part.
How long has it taken?
OV and OA Managements have been in discussion since September 2011 and we have just finalised the availability of all the players.
Were there any specific abilities in the musicians you had to look for?
Some of the guest players we were looking for have already played a Ring cycle or possess special skills, such as playing unique instruments.
What about the special “Wagner instruments”?
Well of course, there are the anvils! The anvil effect during Das Rheingold is created by hitting specially manufactured metal bars.
There will be 6 players for the anvils: 3 percussionists and 3 players drawn from OA’s team of pianists and repetiteurs who will be “moonlighting” for those few minutes from their normal occupations of playing piano in vocal coaching sessions and production rehearsals.
Then there are the Wagner tubas – these are a bit of a cross between a French horn and a tuba. Wagner designed them himself as he wanted an instrument that had the mellow sound of the horn, but richer and heavier with the sound coming straight up the top of the bell like a tuba rather than to the side like a horn. It’s used to amazing effect during key moments of the Ring, most famously in the “Valhalla” motif in Das Rheingold, and can sound quite disembodied.
Opera Australia has purchased a matched set of four Wagner tubas from Germany. Believe it or not, these instruments come from a family owned instrument maker in the town of Mainz on the Rhine! - and, they are gold in colour.
These will be played by French horn players, with some very quick changes between instruments. One of the other special instruments is the bass trumpet, which features in a soloistic role and, contrary to the title, is played by a trombonist. The bass trumpet is about twice the size of its conventional cousin and looks like a trumpet "on steroids".
Finally, there is a contra bass trombone utilised in the Ring cycle which is also a unique instrument. Wagner was the first composer to use it, which was in the first performance of Das Rheingold in 1876, and it now is often heard in Puccini's operas. It is pitched a fourth lower than the conventional bass trombone and lends an epic effect to the all-important low brass of the Ring cycle.
Some interesting Ring-related statistics
Number of musicians in the pit for a standard Opera Australia opera: approx 65
Timpani: 1 player/4 drums
Hours of music: 3
Number of musicians in the pit for the Melbourne Ring Cycle: 92
First violins: 17 players rotating to play 14 parts
Timpani: 2 players/8 drums
Offstage instruments: 14
Hours of music: 15
Building the Ring
Workshop Manager Tim Madden gives us the inside scoop on the mammoth task facing the Opera Australia technical team to build the Ring sets.
When did work commence in the Sydney workshop for the Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013?
The work began immediately after the design presentation in May 2012. The Production Manager, Technical Administrator and myself met to discuss each opera and all the set items required, together with rehearsal requirements, set movements on and off stage, storage, how the cast would move and determined what was possible given the Opera Australia workshop’s very busy schedule.
With four large operas all happening simultaneously, what sort of new challenges are the workshop team facing?
Due to the size of this undertaking, the construction of the set has been outsourced, however we still have a lot of challenges. Specific elements of the set require space for a large flow of people on and around the stage, which has required an extensive site inspection and a 3D model of the space. It is still our responsibility to ensure that the set and props are fit for the task, and that anything that has to be moved on or off stage meets a certain criteria. Certain weight limits and dimensions cannot be exceeded, especially for flown items. It is the production manager’s job to guide the contractor through this process, which in itself can be very challenging.
Could you talk us through the logistics of such a large scale production? For example, sets are being built all over the country, from Sydney to Adelaide - how does it all work and how do you manage quality control?
Various companies were asked to tender and once the tenders had been submitted, a shortlist was made of companies who met the required criteria.
For the Ring Cycle two companies were selected to build the set - one from Sydney and one from Adelaide. The Production Manager will now liaise with these companies to ensure the quality of the production, which means he will be required to review all drawing, discuss methods and approach, manage changes and carry out inspections of the work. He will be in contact with both the creative team and the contractors until the production hits the stage.
In your position, who do you regularly liaise with when working on a project?
When a set is designed and presented it is by no means the finished article. Changes are often required to make it user friendly – for example to make sure the scene changes can be performed in the time allowed. The Production Manager and myself will regularly meet with all parties (designers to engineers) to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Ring Bling : Alice Babidge, Costume Designer
In the Ringmasters series, author Caroline Baum interviews those people driving the creation of the Melbourne Ring Cycle. In 'Ring Bling' she speaks with costume designer Alice Babidge.
An old-fashioned fabric tape measure hangs off a doorknob behind Alice Babidge as we talk on skype. Even at home, the costume designer’s constant tool is always close at hand, ready for one of her so-called foraging outings to op shops or to take to the rehearsal room.
Babidge is one of the hottest costume designers working in Australia today, always juggling several projects across all media, from opera to indie films and theatre not to mention the odd commercial. She seems remarkably unfazed by the challenge of The Ring cycle. It is her seventh opera production but the key members of the creative team are long-time collaborators. She and set designer Robert Cousins are a regular duo and have established a shared visual and verbal shorthand.
For Babidge, the creative process begins with her instinct. ‘When I go searching through my archive of books and magazines and files on my computer, I don’t always know what I am looking for until I find it. But I am trying to build up a profile of the characters I am dressing, looking for archetypes, thinking about their backstory. I will often draw a complete wardrobe for them even if we are only going to see them in one gown on stage, just so I feel I know them completely.’
Director Neil Armfield's production puts the emphasis on an interpretation that is ‘contemporary and truthful. The key to it is its humanity, so it will be a mixture of realism and fantasy. It won’t all be grunge, there will be touches of whimsy. I’ve created costumes that make a gesture to period, so the silhouette will reference the 1940s and 1950s. When it comes to Brünnhilde and the Valkyries you won’t be seeing any breast plates but they will definitely be wearing a version of armour. I see the Valkyries like missionaries or nuns living in closed communities. I also took some ideas from images of women in wartime.’
Unlike some more traditional period productions, singers will not have to endure discomfort through constricting garments. ‘There are no corsets in this one', says Babidge.
‘Instead we rely on some sneaky undergarments,’ she says, grateful for the latest in lycra technology.
There is a subtle psychology to the relationship between the performer and their costume, which Babidge has observed time and time again. ‘It’s like meeting someone. At first you might not get along but gradually you get used to each other and you become friends.’
In case the friendship does not gel, Babidge always has a Plan B.
‘I’m a big fan of a high heel for women but in this production there’s rugged terrain to walk across, so you have to give people options that allow them to be comfortable and look great. I don’t get too wedded to things. My work is only good if the singer or actor can trust it.’
The day after we speak Babidge has to sign off on her choice of fabrics for the production: ‘There’s leather for Freia and Wotan will have the most beautiful suit ever worn on stage,’
she promises, ‘with a phenomenal fur coat so that he looks like a captain of industry or a tycoon. I wanted that extra layer to make him look bigger and to create an impression of aristocracy or wealth,’ she says, adding that for ethical reasons, she only buys vintage furs and is delighted with the quality of synthetic fur in Opera Australia’s wardrobe department.
She sources many items from the ever-diminishing number of authentic vintage shops in Sydney (‘it’s so sad how many of them are disappearing and just sell bad reconditioned 80s floral dresses', she sighs, ‘so I go out to the Central Coast for the day with my assistant and we stop at all the branches of the Salvos and St Vinnies) as well as getting specialist detailing from overseas. Today that means looking at samples of feathers dyed in up to sixty shades from a supplier in Austria. ‘It’s incredible, you can get things delivered now within 36 hours,’ she says of the global network at her fingertips.
‘Some costumes, like the Woodbird’s in Siegfried, will feature a lot of beading. We will get that done in India’, she says, adding that the palette for the production is ‘lots of metallics, gold and silver tones. There’s also a rainbow costume, but no dragon costume,’ she promises.
‘You will be able to distinguish the gods from the mortals because on the whole the gods will look more polished, groomed in terms of hair and make-up , with slightly shinier finishes to their clothes and shoes, whereas the mortals will have a more worn and lived in look’, says Babidge, who loves the process of finishing costumes with selective staining and ageing techniques to break down fibres.
As for the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, Babidge has toned down her original concept: ‘At first I thought of them as victims of a nuclear attack. I had visions of latex suits but I talked myself back off the ledge with that idea’, she laughs.
The Nibelungen will be dressed ‘to represent the modern day working class, perhaps on a factory line, perhaps as miners’, she says, careful not to give too much away. ‘I’ve decided not to dye their clothes but leave them as is. My natural tendency is towards thriftiness which is handy in case we suddenly need more feathers!’