This time last year local designer Kelli Donovan from Pure Pod was making surgical scrubs and masks. This year, the Canberra designer is busy fitting lavish theatrical costumes as the National Opera’s premier performance on April 10 approaches.
She’s among a bevy of Canberra artists collaborating on the return of a home-grown opera company to the ACT. Their production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito was delayed by COVID and hampered by the need for internationally recognised singers like Catherine Carby to quarantine, but is now on track.
The company is the brainchild of international opera singer Peter Coleman-Wright whose long international career includes the English National Opera, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera and Opera Australia, in a wide variety of roles.
Mr Coleman-Wright said that despite being used to heartache and frustration as a performer, that’s “ten times easier” than bringing together an entire production as artistic director during a pandemic.
“We were going to start with Puccini, which was postponed after COVID hit”, he said.
“We wanted something that was safe like Mozart and didn’t need lots of singers, but this isn’t us trying to do the Magic Flute or the Marriage of Figaro. It’s a gorgeous score, not done that often and the messages are so apt right now in the world we’re living in, especially here in Canberra.”
Set in Ancient Rome, La Clemenza di Tito is a story of friendship and forgiveness triumphing over jealousy and violence. The new emperor of Rome, Tito, is much loved by the Roman people, with the exception of Vitellia, daughter of the previous emperor.
She hatches a plot to marry him and makes use of the love for her felt by Sextus, a dear friend of Titus. There are multiple twists and turns, but the benevolent and fair emperor ends up pardoning all the conspirators.
The cast includes singers at the beginning of their careers as well as renowned performers like Bradley Daley, in the title role.
Mr Coleman-Wright intends the company to foster young careers and give them room to grow. The partnership with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra is also key to the National Opera’s success.
“We want to foster a real sense of ownership ownership for Canberrans”, Mr Coleman-Wright said.
“The CSO is theirs and so is National Opera. Canberra has the National Library, the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery and the like. We want people to support the company so it goes from strength to strength and becomes something that draws people to Canberra.”
Costume designer Fiona Hopkins brings multiple design credentials to her work – she’s studied and trained in the UK and worked in Europe but is thrilled to be taking on the challenge of designing costumes for an entire opera.
Mr Coleman-Wright gave her some strong ideas around the ideas of loyalty, trust, seduction and honesty.
That’s resulted in colour blocked themes for each character that must also be harmonious as a whole.
Pleating and Roman references create a unifying theme and Ms Hopkins admits she gets obsessed with the detail and how to make it resonate with the person wearing it.
“I design so I could wear it myself, although there is always a heightened sense of reality in opera,” she said.
“Opera is the cherry on top, it’s the high note for design.”
A team of Canberra makers have worked to realise her vision, which is where Donovan comes in along with several other highly skilled sewers.
Costumes have been tailor-made for the singers although quarantine has led to some unique challenges.
Ms Donovan had to find someone with a similar shape to the male lead for initial fittings. She recruited a friend’s husband who also stood in last year while she was designing surgical scrubs for local doctors.
She’s made the coats and jackets and a sumptuous coat for soprano Helena Dix.
“There are a lot of textures – velvets, pleathers with beautiful detail,” she said.
“This time last year, arts retail and fashion were completely slammed by COVID. Who would have thought I’d be making an opera coat this year?”