Opera costume maker takes her final bow
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Opera costume maker takes her final bow

Lyn Heal, Opera Australia's costume lady, is retiring after 24 years

Lyn Heal, Opera Australia's costume lady, is retiring after 24 years

Photo: Wolter Peeters

When she retires this week after 24 years as the wardrobe and wig director at Opera Australia, Lyn Heal will no doubt miss her colleagues: Gertrude, Beatrice, Daphne, Nancy and Heidi.

They are the names of the mannequins she and her team use in Opera Australia’s Surry Hills workshop, but they are not standard hourglass figures: most have extra padding to take into account the fuller figure, which quite often goes with the territory of the world’s best opera voices. From divas to chorus members, for over two decades Heal has helped measure up performers pre-performance, then guide her team of fabric dyers and buyers, cutters and sewers to create some of the country’s most elaborate stage costumes.

“Most of the performers lose weight during rehearsals,” Ms Heal said.

As the head of a core staff of 30 costume makers including wig makers and milliners, her workplace is a haberdasher’s dream: metres of fabulous fabrics, bottles of buttons, rooms full of shoes and boots, handmade wigs, hats and headdresses. It’s like a giant dress-up box of garments of elaborate embroidered silks, treasure chests of bling and brocades, tassles and trims – there’s even a pirates wardrobe. It is such a colourful backdrop, Opera Australia will open its scenery workshops doors for the first time this year for it to be used as a performance space when it will stage Metamorphosis from September 26-29.

Lyn Heal with some of her creations for Opera Australia.

Lyn Heal with some of her creations for Opera Australia.

Photo: Wolter Peeters
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The design floor on Elizabeth Street right now resembles a sort of Santa’s workshop of tailors working feverishly with pin cushions attached to their wrists sewing on industrial machines, who are creating costumes for the final production Heal will have a hand in, Aida which opens at the Opera House on July 18.

On her first day in the office in 1994, Ms Heal peeked into the office she now occupies which was then a fitting room for La Traviata, designed by Peter J Hall, the first production she had a hand in creating.

“There were all the hats, flowers and ribbons for the show and the designer was trimming all the hats and I thought as soon as I walked in ‘I am in Heaven here’,” she said.

Ms Heal’s handiwork has been gracing Sydney stages for over 40 years. Before joining Opera Australia she worked for 17 years as a freelance costume maker/cutter, for big musicals such as Guys ‘n’ Dolls, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and a host of movies. She had to bring in 75 sewers to create the costumes for Opera Australia’s 2017 production of My Fair Lady, La Boheme is the opera she has worked most frequently on and La Traviata, the production that was her first, is her favourite. For someone who as a student of fashion manufacturing in Melbourne had only seen only two or three theatre productions in her life, she says she has had a dream run.

Saying goodbye to favourites: costume designer Lyn Heal.

Saying goodbye to favourites: costume designer Lyn Heal.

Photo: Wolter Peeters

“I didn’t even know what opera was back then,” she jokes.

While she says she will miss her colleagues (not just the mannequins) she says she won’t miss her friends’ frequent requests to borrow her creations for fancy dress parties. Last year Heal helped stage an auction and garage sale to find new homes for 90 crates of costumes, some of which dated back to the Elizabethan Theatre Trust which began in 1954. “It was like a clearing out of the closet … but it was hard to say goodbye to some of my favourites,” Ms Heal said.