Afternoon tea with OA’s Head of Art
One of the most fascinating parts of Sydney’s Opera Centre is its Art Department, hidden away at the end of a steep staircase leading to a rooftop section overlooking Wardrobe. Under the supervision of Steven Vella, who became OA’s Head of Art in 2011, amazing things are created here.
Surrounded by boxes with labels such as “broken fans and spare bits”, “real diamond jewellery” and “secret tiaras”, the softly-spoken Vella strikes a relaxed figure in paint-spattered black shorts and a singlet that reveal a strong, athletic body. “It’s a creative and physically demanding job,” he says.
Having trained as an art finisher on Priscilla the Musical, at OA Vella dyes fabric before it’s cut, and adds finishing touches to costumes after Wardrobe has made them. In practical terms this means that he and his team “break down” garments to make them look older as the evening progresses, airbrush finished garments to give them a slimming effect, create blood spatters on night gowns, paint gunshot wounds on jackets, concoct mud patches that don’t come out in the wash, and make jewellery, buckles, belts, tiaras, gun holsters, daggers and harnesses.
When breaking down costumes, Vella uses sprays, paints and sandpaper to make them look anything from slightly worn to almost destroyed. Fabric may also be shredded or burnt and sometimes, as in Lucia di Lammermoor, costumes require spattering with fake blood. Broken down costumes still have to be able to be washed regularly.
Vella’s first year at OA involved working on all the big new productions, of which Bohème, one of this summer’s major successes at the Sydney Opera House, was among the biggest. Costumes for the street people required a high level of attention. Vella says: “It took three of us weeks to spray and airbrush and grate the costumes, and since they consist of layers, often you’d work on a skirt, overskirt, apron, blouse, scarf, shawl and head piece that are all part of the same outfit.” The prostitutes’ costumes required ageing and the rich people’s outfits, some fading around the shoulders.
As for the principals: Rodolfo wears the same costume in three different stages of breakdown. “He starts off with a little bit of paint and spatter on his costume, and by the final scene his clothes are covered in paint.”
Bartlett Sher’s South Pacific, back by popular demand in September this year, was another huge show for Art. “The native people all required grass coats and tribal jewellery. And when Emile returns after being lost and found, his suit has to look shabby.”
Art collaborates with several other departments. Last year in Gale Edwards’ Salome production, for example, Vella worked closely with Millinery on Herodias’ snake headdress. “[Milliner] Rebecca Willis made the form of the snake and I made the head and put them together, then sent the piece back to her for finishing touches.”
Similarly, Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute production required extensive collaboration, this time with Props. Papagena and Papageno wore corsets made of nylon rod that had to be moulded by heat, then covered in leather and hand-painted. Vella says: “The costumes were like cages shaped to their bodies and opening on stage with the help of hinges. Props made the hinges and we glued them to the cages. It took weeks.”
Although Vella clearly loves his job, he says it can be nerve-wracking. “When something that you’ve never done before comes up, like the masks in Ballo, and you have to complete them on time and within budgetary constraints, things can get tense.” There’s also the unpredictability of the theatre world. “You’d think you’ve finished something and then it goes off to rehearsal and under the lighting it looks too bright and so, you have to change it. And you’re already under pressure to meet the next deadline.”
Vella, who holds a Fine Arts degree and a dress design certificate, is known for his wall pieces created from organic found objects assembled in unusual ways. When he joined the opera just over a year ago, he continued working on his own art after hours, and in 2012 he exhibited with 35 other artists at Newtown’s Lennox Street Studios, plus on his own at the Penrith Regional Gallery. He also recently completed a commission for six pieces in the reception area of a 5-star hotel. But after a year upstairs at Art, he’s put his other career on hold. “It’s too much to be creative all day, then go home and be creative some more. I want to be able to give the opera job my full attention.”