Opera Queensland is about to open a new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, directed by the company’s CEO and Artistic Director Patrick Nolan. Marg Horwell, who has designed the set and costumes, spoke to Limelight about the design process, her visual references, the contradictions around which she has built the world of the production, and how her opera credits are beginning to roll.
Did you have long discussions with Patrick Nolan about your design approach for this new Marriage of Figaro, or did you know quite quickly what you wanted to do?
When we started this project together I was working in Switzerland just before the start of the COVID outbreak in Europe and Patrick was in Sydney, so we were working on Zoom and often at odd times of the day and night. When it came to presenting the design we were on Zoom again with me in Sydney and Patrick back in Brisbane so it has always been us talking to our screens with me doing flyover shots of the set model on my phone.
Despite working remotely for most of the design period it has been thrilling and effortless working with Patrick from the very start. We’re quite like-minded and are excited by a lot of the same things, and we have a similar sense of humour. We love the small details, we love ALL the details.
I would say the design evolved over time but if I look back at the sketches from our earliest discussions they are not so different to where we have ended up. The design of the show has been directly influenced by the unpredictable nature of the last 18 months and the unrest in the world over that time, I see it so clearly when I look at the finished product.
The costumes look fabulous and modern, with period references. Did you want them to be non-time specific? Or do you feel that they are actually pretty contemporary?
To me the costumes are all very contemporary and are a mix of very recent high fashion and ready-to-wear daywear, uniforms and, of course, all of the tropes and trappings of the modern wedding industry. But, to me, great fashion is always building on very new things and very old things at the same time, it is one of those incredible art forms that constantly redefines itself and reappropriates themes over and over again in new ways. Perhaps this is where you get the period references when you look at the designs.
This design, set and costume, is built around contradictions: it is the very old and the very new existing together in the same space, it is the very wealthy and the working class in the same situations as each other, the tasteful and the tasteless worn all at the same time, it’s antique chandeliers and plastic cups.
I love the complexity of designing like this, striving to achieve a balance of many disparate elements to create an epic collage that speaks to a world at a boiling point. Something historical but also something hopefully relevant to us now.
Where did you look for visual references?
I draw references from all over the place. Some of the most influential for this project have been the documentary Generation Wealth by photographer Lauren Greenfield, Robert Polidori’s epic photography of Chernobyl, New Orleans and Havana, incredible fashionable celebrities like Michèle Lamy and Lucky Blue Smith, and the constant images and social media footage of protests and riots from the last two years.
How many costumes did you end up designing?
I designed around 86 costumes for the show but I think there are 53 in the final production. Most of the extras were changed or cut before rehearsals and I had several versions of the principal characters. I often do a bunch of versions and then edit it down.
Can you tell us about the set you have designed?
The set is a series of incomplete spaces in either a state of repair or a state of decay, designed to evolve throughout the opera. We have situated it in the shell of a formerly grand and resplendent house and over the course of the production it opens up again and again, and fills with objects and people and life until nature forces its way in. It feels simple and huge to me at the same time and it is lit beautifully by Lighting Designer Bernie Tan-Hayes.
When you design, do you prefer to design both set and costumes?
I’ve always considered myself a set designer first and costume designer second but more and more I think of it as all the one job. I love to be responsible for the entire aesthetic of a production – I’m very controlling!
You have done a lot of theatre, but not a great deal of opera – though your costumes for Lorelei were stunning, and you also designed Adena Jacobs’s English National Opera Salome. Are there particular challenges when designing for opera rather than theatre?
The first opera I designed was technically La Traviata that was staged in the tiny downstairs Belvoir space with the fabulous queer theatre company Sisters Grimm – a part lip-synched and drastically reimagined drag version. It’s amusing when you look at my CV and see that was my first foray into opera; it’s astonishing ENO hired me based on that. But Salome was my first actual opera. It was incredible that my first opera design was on such a massive stage. I’m really proud of that work and grateful for that experience.
I have another opera that has been designed for Deutsche Oper Am Rhein in Düsseldorf that is postponed due to COVID. It should have premiered this year but has now been rescheduled to 2023. There is so much work waiting to premiere in Europe from the last 18 months.
Designing The Marriage Of Figaro has been incredibly invigorating and a lot of fun. I’d love to work on more opera, especially the ones where strong women are at the centre of the story.
Opera Queensland’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro runs in the Playhouse, QPAC, 15 – 31 July