Designing Debussy’s liquid tones

6 Sep 2018

Inspired by the realm of medieval-fantasy and imagery of water, Candice MacAllister’s set and costume designs for Pelleas and Melisande evoke the symbolism and themes of Debussy’s opera.

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Candice MacAllister's costume designs for Pelleas and Melisande

‘Debussy’s music is so colourful, expansive and really gentle,’ says Candice. ‘The story is almost always in darkness, the sense of time is lost, and there is a strong presence of water throughout each scene.’

After absorbing Debussy’s lush music and discussions with the director Elizabeth Hill, Candice developed a set design capturing both the Symbolist origins of the opera and Elizabeth’s desire to use fabric.

The set is made up of sheer drapes and three rotating platforms. As well as being an abstraction of castle turrets, the platforms symbolise the three lovers and their respective worlds.

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Model box for Pelleas and Melisande

‘We’ve used a controlled colour palette,’ says Candice. ‘It’s very muted and through the drapes we’ve tried to echo the idea of liquid, passing time and the gentle movement that Debussy’s music emulates.’

‘It is quite a masculine piece and we wanted to give it the softness that Melisande brings,’ she adds. ‘The drapes are used as another scenic element and have some surprises in them.’

Because of the refined design, lighting is paramount. ‘We’ve made the curtains sheer so they will take light well. It will be our massive canvas for painting colour,’ explains Candice. ‘The elements of the set are quite stark and our lighting designer, Joseph Mercurio, will paint it in a way that brings a lot of atmosphere to it.’

Water is a key element of the opera and Candice explains how her love of wintery beaches and the energy of the ocean helped inspire the design: ‘The interior panels of the three platforms look like weathered driftwood, like they’ve been smashed up against by salt and wind. I was inspired by old jetties and what a castle would be like if it was by the ocean.’

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Model box for Pelleas and Melisande

Pelleas and Melisande will be staged at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, which is conveniently located by the sea. The glass window panels on the side of the theatre’s beautiful proscenium arch provided inspiration for the windows in the set’s platforms, tying the whole look together.

Candice also had to consider the sound at the Palais Theatre. She explains, ‘Because of the timbre of the voices and the size of the orchestra, we had to put the singers as far downstage as possible. The set only goes four metres back in the space and the rest is drapes so, along with the Perspex on the platforms, it all works as shells to push the sound back into the auditorium.’

The opera is set in the mythical kingdom of Allemonde, which allowed Candice to use a range of traditional and contemporary fashion references. ‘I had a lot of fun looking at folklore and fantasy, from the Scottish Highlands of Macbeth to the detailed fantasy costumes of Game of Thrones.’

Another point of inspiration was English painter John William Waterhouse, who is known for his paintings of mythological scenes and water nymphs. Candice was particularly drawn to the textures of the hair and fabric in his work, however she has worked with a more contemporary look for the costumes.

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Costume designs for Pelleas and Melisande by Candice MacAllister

Designing for fantasy also proved a challenge as Candice had to make up her own rules for the world she was creating. Part of this included sticking to a strict colour palette, which includes grey tones taken directly from the set and turquoise tones from water.

Another challenge she faced was designing costumes to make singers look a certain age or gender. The singer performing Pelleas is older than Golaud, who is supposed to be his older brother. To make Pelleas look younger, Candice has dressed him in shorter garments and warmer colours, whereas Golaud wears longer coats, and their father, King Arkel, even longer robes still.

This is also Candice’s first time designing for a ‘pants’ role. She says, ‘It’s always challenging to dress a girl as a boy. It’s a balance between getting a feminine look, because you don’t want her to feel uncomfortable, but she also has to look young and boyish.’

Taking her design concept further, Candice has used the costumes to help show Melisande’s character arc. ‘Melisande has a very different wardrobe from the others and her fabric journey is interesting,’ Candice explains. ‘She starts off with very strong fabrics, such linen and brocade, but as the opera goes on, it disintegrates until she’s left with a very sheer, waif-like look.’

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Costume designs for Melisande by Candice MacAllister

As a long-time fan of Debussy, Candice feels privileged to create a vision for his only opera. ‘It’s the biggest production I have designed, and we’ve bought the most beautiful fabrics. I can’t wait to see it all come to life!’

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Fabrics for Pelleas and Melisande costumes. Photo: Beata Bowes

Pelleas and Melisande was part of Victorian Opera Season 2018.