In Conversation with Chopin's Piano Costume Designer
With over 20 years of experience at her back and having worked with the likes of the Commonwealth Games, ACMI, the Australian National Museum and Melbourne Theatre Company, we were utterly thrilled to have award-winning costume designer Christina Smith jump on board for the production of Chopin's Piano, which premieres on 16 December.
We caught up with Christina to learn about her work process, where she drew inspiration from for her work on Chopin's Piano, the hurdles she faces on productions and how she overcomes them, and much more. She even shared her design illustrations, which you can see paired with the finished product below.
What were your initial thoughts when you learned about the Chopin’s Piano production?
I’m always delighted at the opportunity to design to music! Music is such a gift to a designer as it speaks to the subtext of a work, offering a more lyrical gateway into the piece than text alone. Being able to conjure costumes through the act of drawing to music was too good an opportunity to pass up. I was also intrigued by the overall concept including having to design for a concert pianist which was a first for me. In addition, the casting was inspiring and it was thrilling to learn that two women were to be cast as the performers.
What are the first steps you take when starting a project?
The text is my launchpad, and I need to understand both how it works and how it feels in order to begin my design process. There are logistic and pragmatic concerns related to the structure, but more crucial is understanding what the words tells us about the characters and the piece as a whole. There are clues embedded in the dialogue and in the form of the language itself that require considered and repeated interrogation.
Left to right: Chopin, Denise Restout, Brancusi, Henri Lew, Liszt, Delacroix, George Sand, Peggy Guggenheim and Wanda Landowska
Can you tell us about any inspiration you sought out when designing these costumes? Were there any designers/historical fashion icons that you drew inspiration from?
Along with my usual forays into the time period that I would normally undertake on a project like this, I also needed to research historical characters. For Act One I focussed primarily on paintings of the period, though for the character of George Sand I strayed from historical accuracy to look at the idea of androgenous dressing across the 20th century (particularly after the advent of photography). In my work, period accurate research serves as a starting point only, and I’m very comfortable to veer away from it in order to support the storytelling. I have no interest in recreating clothing that could belong in a museum, instead I’m concerned with capturing the spirit of the time and, more importantly, the essence of the character.
The production covers different periods of time without multiple costume changes. How does this impact your work and what do you do to portray these time periods in the production?
This aspect of the production is the core of the design concept. The costumes must be able to tell the story within this format, with the performers needing to seamlessly transform into different characters multiple times. In order to preserve the rhythm of the piece, the costumes must therefore evoke the characters rather than literally describe them. They are an indication to the audience, and a means to support the work the performers are doing on stage (whose skill is the main device for these transformations).
Left to right: Illustrations of Chopin costume, Susan Prior and Aura Go
Left to right: Illustrations of character costumes and Aura Go
How do you set the multiple characters and the two acts apart? What changes should we look for between acts?
The two acts are purposefully quite different in their look, with a contrast in both the colour and texture palette. This serves as a visual cue to the audience that we have been transported to another time, though there are still strong links to the costuming language used in Act One. There is a flipping of roles, with Aura taking on a majority of the character roles requiring a reversal of approach to her costuming. There is also a large shift in the way we experience time with Act One taking place over the course of 10 years and Act Two spanning over 50 years of the (fast moving) 20th century.
Can you tell us about Aura’s costume changes throughout the production?
In Act One, Aura’s costume is almost entirely static (apart from a jacket and hat) as she plays one character - Chopin. Her look is reasonably accurate to the period, though we also discovered during rehearsals that it was very easy to play piano in! The tails of the coat sit beautifully over the piano stool, and the deep cuffs and generous sleeve allow for unrestricted movement at the keyboard. In the second act she needs to perform ‘character gymnastics’, changing character and time period effortlessly and at great speed. This required the design decisions to be clean and simple, resulting in a stripping back of the layers of the costume from Binder with his dustcoat to the simplicity of Denise Restout’s timeless silhouette. Aura was remarkable at negotiating these changes as she has an uncanny awareness of where she is and what surrounds her at all times.
Left to right: Illustrations of character costumes, Susan Prior and Aura Go.
Left to right: Illustrations of character costumes and Susan Prior.
What were some of the biggest challenges on this project you faced along the way?
The show was designed during Melbourne’s last lockdown, with construction of the costumes and sourcing of props needing to also occur during this time. Whilst it was relatively easy to conceive the design with director Richard Pyros over zoom, the sourcing of materials for the costumes and props was much harder – we were at the mercy of the post and the 5/10/15km radius! Costumes for performance also require a series of technical and precise fittings, and these had to be delayed due to the public health orders until right before rehearsals. This left little time for construction, though we were very fortunate to have the great skill of Isaac Lummis and Janice Chalmers (our wardrobe supervisor and cutter) to ensure it was completed on time and with a beautiful finish. When we were able to fit with the cast, it was all done behind masks - I recall meeting Aura in the park on the way to rehearsals one day late in the process, and she remarked that she had never seen my face before! Very strange times indeed.