As rehearsals begin for our Triple Bill featuring Rameau's Anacréon and Pigmalion, we sat down for a chat with costume designer Melanie Leirtz.
After graduating from The Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Creative Arts, Mel was resident costume designer at the Ballarat Arts Academy (now Federation Uni) from 2008 to 2013. Mel designs and makes costumes for both theatre and film and has worked with many leading arts organsations including Bell Shakespeare, Legs on the Wall, BighART, Malthouse Theatre, Australian Ballet and Victorian Opera.
Mel recently received a Sydney Theatre Award nomination for her costume design for Sport for Jove’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (see picture below).
When discussing Mel's process and approach to designing costumes for opera, here's what we discovered.
Have you ever costumed an opera before? If so, which operas?
This will be the first time I have designed for opera. I have spent many years making costumes for Melbourne Opera, Victorian Opera and more recently Sydney Chamber Opera with Notes from Underground.
Have you listened to, or experienced much opera?
I come from a musical family so I was introduced to opera very young. I have been lucky to have seen many operas in Sydney and Melbourne and also in Munich where my family is from. Whether it is a lavish, traditionally presented Verdi or Mozart, stark modern interpretations or Monteverdi presented with puppets and singers, the opera has always been a part of my cultural diet. I find the combination of music and theatre intoxicating.
What was your inspiration for the costume design?
The inspiration came from needing to tell a story. In our case the story that weaves the three operas together and allows the audience to experience them as a whole journey. We have set the evening in an art gallery and given the performers archetypes or characteristics that fit within that world. The aesthetics of the operas can therefore spring directly from works of art. The classic masterpieces depicting Bacchus and ancient greek revelry for Anacreon or the intricate decorative opulence of baroque paintings of pairs of lovers for Pigmalion for example.
What’s the design process?
The design process has been very collaborative. Alicia (set designer) and I have been talking with Crystal over Skype for months deciding the best way to present these three pieces. It was decided very early that it was important the operas sat within a bigger picture, allowing them to become greater than a sum of their parts. We have created a whole world that the performers inhabit but there are restrictions in this also. It needs to be completely feasible that our characters slip from one opera to the next. Our job is to give them the tools to do so.
Are there any practical considerations when working with singers?
All performers have their own specific needs and this - and the needs of the production - are taken into consideration at every step. Whether it is as simple as a mask that might cover too much of the face and muffle sound or a costume that restricts movement in a particular way, all choices have to serve both the production and the performer. I feel that opera is becoming increasingly theatrical and more is being expected of the performers in terms of interesting or different presentation styles and movement. I have found that good communication is vital in the early stages of the production and most performers are willing to try anything!
Are you busier than usual with three operas to costume?
Yes! Because we are creating a whole world, we need to create a base character costume that rings true to this world but also all the elements that the performers add to create the characters for each of the three operas. It is an ensemble piece where all the performers and the chorus create the shifts between the scenes and the operas onstage in full view of the audience. The magic is seeing the magic be created.
Are there any common elements between the costumes / characters played by various singers?
I have given a distinctive pallet to each of the operas that help define the characters that the performers inhabit for each opera. This helps us create the mood of each opera but also makes it easy for the audience to see the different characters even if they are being performed by the same singer.
To read more about Mel and her work, visit https://www.theloop.com.au/melanieliertz/portfolio