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“It’s kind of Mall Rats go punk”: The set and costume designs of Carmen on Cockatoo Island

Not your traditional Opera production, Carmen on Cockatoo Island has all the bells and whistles that Sydney expects. Plus incredible set and costume design by Mark Thompson. Gillian Serisier reports.

“It’s kind of Mall Rats go punk”: The set and costume designs of Carmen on Cockatoo Island

Photography by Hamilton Lund.

With an artistic bent that includes sculpture, painting (he was an Archibald finalist in 2009) set, costume and event design, Mark Thompson is very much the modern polymath. Working with the incredibly talented director, Liesel Badorrek, their production of Carmen on Cockatoo Island is set to be astounding.

On his first visit to the island, Thompson recalls the moment of wonder: “We turned the corner and there was this huge area of concrete flooring and a huge corrugated iron walled shed that was as big as a ship, and all sorts of stuff, just all sorts of wonderful things that had been left over and abandoned,” he says. And for Thompson, that was the starting point, with every scrap seen as an ingredient towards the spectacle.

Taking the stance that Carmen on Cockatoo Island would not be for traditional Opera goers, and that the vagaries of weather would come into play, Thompson felt that while the story couldn’t be touched, there was liberty to play: “The demographic is very different. It’s a more alive, younger audience that have wandered down and expect to have an event. And this is very much an Opera Australia event. It’s got all the bells and whistles that Sydney expects, including fireworks.”

Looking around the island and knowing the build would need to be quick, Thompson extrapolated the slightly abandoned feel of the island and put up a scaffold. From there he lucked on old cars: “From those two decisions, the whole design grew. I then thought 44-gallon oil drums with the kind of industrial intent of the island,” says Thompson. Indeed, with industrial layers of the set and the strange pairing of the island’s natural beauty and desolate abandonment, the stage as they say, is set.

Expectations are in fact pushed to the limits with surprises at every turn, including fireworks and motorbikes. Carmen too is not the traditional gypsy, but rather a Frida Carlo styled revolutionary with closer links to Amy Winehouse than expected. “It’s very contemporary. It’s kind of Mall Rats go punk. It’s everything from body tattoos to our Carmen rifting on contemporary design and makeup,” says Thompson.

Bull fighting is similarly stood on its head with capes, but no bull fighting – and a bull’s head on one of the motorbikes! As an outdoor event there is the joy of being able to have fireworks, but also the chaos of wind, rain and navigating crowds to arrive on time. As such the Opera begins in late afternoon and performs through sunset, adding just another layer to the production.

One unforeseen conundrum became apparent when the singers tested the location: “Because of the nature and position of that five/ six storey corrugated iron shed it has perfect sounding board qualities where the sound might be excessive to people living opposite.” This was remedied by shifting the axis of the design and adding walls of shipping containers, which speak to the island’s shipping history.

For any production to be good there has to be synergy and between Thompson and Badorek, you couldn’t wish for more: “I knew that she was up for anything because she is one of the most delightful and most outrageous directors I’ve ever worked with… I knew that I could throw anything from left field and she’d jump up and catch up and catch it with a laugh and probably swear at me, but it would be fabulous,” says Thompson.

Opera Australia
opera.org.au

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