|Chorus members model the|
masks for Review Magazine
When you buy tickets to an opera called A Masked Ball, you expect to see masks. Our new production by Spanish company La Fura dels Baus, which opens at the Sydney Opera House this month, will not disappoint audience members who made this assumption – designer Lluc Castells’ 190 hand-made creations, which turn the singers wearing them into expressionless, cloned numbers, took our Art, Millinery, Wardrobe and Props departments a year to develop and produce.
Head of Art Steven Vella smiles when recalling his first encounter with La Fura dels Baus: “I saw a really outrageous production of theirs in Sydney in the 1990s; it was performed in a huge, dark room and there was raw meat and blood; audience members were chased with trolleys and they were running and screaming. It was really out there.”
Vella was thrilled when he heard that OA was producing the new Masked Ball – or Ballo, as it is known in the opera world – with the Spaniards. Working on the production turned out to be even more stimulating than he’d expected. Even if it had its moments.
Once Vella and his colleagues had studied Castells’ highly detailed bible of drawings, the first challenge was to find suitable fabric for the masks and hoods. By the time Castells came to Sydney in early 2012, Art had come up with prototypes made of deusith, a soft, thermo-moulding plastic material imported from Germany. Originally each singer was going to have four different masks, but Castells, who speaks little English and communicated via a translator, simplified the design to one flesh-coloured mask worn over a hood, plus a separate chrome mask for the ball scene.
|Soprano Tamar Iveri in rehearsals|
with her mask
Vella had sleepless nights over the chrome masks. He and his team had come up with a prototype from the same deusith that they’d used for the flesh-coloured items, which they sprayed, but Castells wanted chrome as shiny as that of the mag wheels on a new Ferrari. “The only way to get such a finish was to have the masks electroplated,” Vella recalls. “We tried that, but the heat damaged the material. We then tried plastic, but heating the mould melted it. Finally Props and Art made flexible fibreglass resin versions of the masks. We spent many hours sanding them to get the perfect finish before sending them for chroming.”
The hoods presented obstacles of their own. Vella had sourced a wetsuit-type fabric for them, but each time he dyed a piece it would come up a different colour. Spraying the fabric produced the desired result, so that Millinery was finally able to make the hoods.
Both masks and hoods had to be ready for the chorus fitting in October 2012. Kimberley Harford, a freelance designer recruited to help, and to whom Vella handed over the project once the developmental stage had ended, remembers the angst that the first fitting caused. “We were cutting it fine because two days before the fittings we still hadn't received all the materials, but in the end everything arrived and I managed to mould the masks in time.”
Harford cut the back pieces with a pair of lace scissors, while an artificial flower manufacturer cut the complicated deusith front pieces. She then moulded and assembled each mask based on individual singers’ head measurements.
|Mask and hood|
She connected the front and back pieces of each mask with rubber bands reinforced by elastic. “I made 20 deusith samples to find out what type of glue would stick deusith and rubber band together, and the answer is, no glue will do that – we ended up using rivets,” she says, with a laugh.
A chorus fitting is not for the faint-hearted, as each mask had to be modelled on the face that was going to wear it. Harford says: “Singers’ costumes have to fit perfectly to enable them to sing well. In Ballo it was not just the mask, there’s the hood as well, and the fit of one depends on the other.”
Looking back, Vella and Harford agree that the journey to opening night was stressful at times, but that they’re absolutely thrilled with the end result. “It wasn’t until they put on the suits and the hoods and masks that you really got the idea,” Harford says. “It looks amazing on stage.”
After its Sydney run, A Masked Ball will travel to Melbourne, and then to four other opera companies around the world.