She weighs 15 tonne, stands 18 metres tall and behind her famous visage is an engineering feat of aluminum, steel and polystyrene. She’s Queen Nefertiti and she’s just moved into her new digs for the next four weeks: a floating opera stage on Sydney’s harbour.
Many months of research and plenty of sleepless nights have gone into the construction of the queen, the centrepiece of the outdoor set for Opera Australia’s upcoming production of Verdi’s tragic Egyptian love story, Aida.
The man charged with designing and maintaining this gargantuan head, along with dressing a cast of 86 singers, dancers and actors, two live camels and their cameleers and an orchestra of 50, is Mark Thompson.
No stranger to opera or large-scale events – Thompson worked on the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Doha and is a regular opera designer – he admits this production has thrown up some unprecedented challenges.
Director Gale Edwards was after a large and arresting Egyptian image to capture the audience’s attention. “There are only two images in the world that everybody associates with Egypt and that’s Queen Nefertiti and King Tutankhamen. He wasn’t right, so we decided to use his mother instead!” says Thompson. He has seen the real sculpture, housed in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
Thompson began by making a 3D clay head resembling Nefertiti, then used a 3D model of scans of the museum sculpture before dividing it into sections that were shaped into an aluminium outline. Big lumps of polystyrene foam were then shoved in between and carved back by a sculptor to reveal Nefertiti’s face.
The head was so large no workshop could hold it in its entirety, so she could only be worked on in sections. “I was shitting bricks because I couldn’t see what it was going to look like when it was finally together, and the first time it was put together was when it was out there in front of everybody [at the media call]. I was trying not to show any emotion but I was panic stricken!” Thompson says.
Premiering in 1871, Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was written at the height of his political phase. What appears to be a story of love, betrayal and death in fact hides a deeper truth. A passionate nationalist, Verdi was intent on ridding his beloved Italy of the ruling Bourbons, and composed an opera about invading armies and power-hungry rulers.
Edwards and Thompson were only too happy to incorporate this reading into their interpretation. Their version features soldiers dressed in recognisably 20th-century uniforms that reference North Korean generals and Italian and German fascists.
The setting at Mrs Macquarie’s Point presents unique challenges. Weather aside (the queen is built to withstand a 200-kilometre wind event), the stage is steeply raked to maximise sightlines and can become dangerously slippery at night.
“In Sydney, after sunset, anything outside on the harbour attracts dew and moisture, so by 9pm people are running around on a skating rink,” Thompson says. To combat this the paint is mixed with pumice, sand and sawdust, and the varnish also contains sand and sawdust. Dancers have abandoned their standard high show heels for near-flats designed to give the illusion of height. And all performers have shoes with non-slip topee soles. Other old-fashioned stage tricks of lighting and costuming are incorporated to give the illusion of intimacy to an otherwise vast set.
The 300 costumes are inspired by the colours and designs of Africa, from where they were sourced, and include 600 metres of printed African fabric, 400 metres of uniform fabric and 2000 “jewels” hand embroidered onto headpieces and accessories. The Kardashians even make an appearance, all gold lame, jewels, (seemingly) towering heels and big hair.
“We wanted the Egyptian court ladies to look fantastic but sycophantic and belonging to a world of vacuous privilege. The Kardashians are part of the zeitgeist, they’re all tits and teeth and big hair, shoulders and frocks,” Thompson says. “It suited the metaphor and narrative we were playing with. Then we teased it out to make it even bigger than your stock-standard Kardashian.”
Above all else Thompson hopes all Sydneysiders, not just the opera cognoscenti, will see the production.
“This is an event for Sydney, not opera-goers. It’s got fireworks, bling, champagne, Kardashians! It’s open, it’s accessible, and you can have a drink while you watch it. It’s the best way to consume opera.”
Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida runs March 27–April 26. Tickets are available here.