The Opera Centre on Elizabeth Street houses some of the theatre world’s greatest treasures. The Centre’s highly skilled designers, makers and visionaries work on five or six shows at once. For the wig and wardrobe departments, each opening night has been over a year in the making.

Urban Village stopped by the Opera Centre and caught up with residents Stef Paglialonga and Rebecca Ritchie. Stef is head of wig manufacturing, and Rebecca is acting head of wardrobe. They were busy packing up the costumes and wigs for La Bohème, bound for Melbourne.

La Bohème is very period, lots of finger waves on the wigs.” Stef sits at her desk, next to a polystyrene head covered in lace netting. “The show requires 56 wigs, and we make them all from scratch.”

It takes around 40 hours to make one wig. First, a mould is taken of the individual performer’s head. From this mould the wig’s base will be sewn from a special kind of lace. Then, Stef and her team will knot every single hair individually into place.

“You can buy wigs, but they won’t be the same quality,” she says. “They won’t be bespoke, and will probably be synthetic. We only use human hair.”

Image by Walter Maurice.

Stef was trained in Germany, in wig making, make up and special effects. The industry isn’t as big here as it is in Europe, she says, in fact here it’s a dying art.

“We haven’t had a trainee in about three years. People aren’t interested anymore, which is a shame.”

Stef shows me to the wig storeroom, its walls covered in hair from floor to ceiling.

“We also do facial hair, of course,” Stef says as she brings out a board covered in moustaches. “Sideburns, beards, eyebrows, bald caps – everything that has to do with hair, basically.”

I ask Stef what she loves about her trade, one that requires so much skill and intricacy. “I love being able to change people into completely different characters. I love the transformation; I think it’s really important to help the singers get into character.”

In the wardrobe workroom I find Rebecca, who has been with the Opera Centre for nearly thirty years.

“I came here in ‘89 to do some casual work on Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème and realised that wardrobe was what I wanted to do. I went and studied at NIDA, came back here for two week’s work experience and never left.”

“Luhrmann’s Bohème was such an incredible show to work on because it was so successful. It was made out of nothing; op shop clothes. Working on it in that grimy way of finding clothes and making them look ‘50s, transforming them, was quite a new thing for me.”

Each piece of wardrobe requires a huge collaborative process between the director, designer, buyer and the team of makers. On any one garment there might be seven or eight pairs of hands, Rebecca tells me.

“I love the grimy glamour of the La Bohème world, the 1930s seedy Berlin nightclub. And all the clothes reflect this, they’re all a bit sad.

“When we started the costumes were all brand new; shiny sequins, net, frills, feathers. They were very cabaret. Once they went through the art department they got a very heavy treatment of black spray to really highlight the world they came from.”

It’s easy to get swept up in the stories and characters these clothes embody, and the cultural history spanning hundreds of years threaded into capes and gowns.

“The skills of this workroom are very unique,” Rebecca tells me as we talk about theatre’s technological advancements. “I don’t think it will ever go away from being a hand-done manufacturing process.”

“There’s talk of putting digital screens on stage, and new light tracking systems that require singers to wear receivers on either sides of their costumes. Theatre is a very special world; it’s got to happen there and then. I think there’s only so much technology you can include before it loses that spark of a live performance.”

La Bohème is showing at the Opera House on New Year’s Eve, then from January 2 until March 28, 2019. Visit their website for more details.