• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Tracy Grant Lord: The production designer making a scene

Tracy Grant Lord: sought after for ballet, theatre and opera. Photo/Adrian Malloch/Listener

Designer Tracy Grant Lord, whose Barber of Seville costumes and set are taking centre stage here, is in international demand.

When Tracy Grant Lord designs the stage set and costumes for a production, she intends them to last for decades and to have many iterations.

Her 1992 production set for Falstaff, originally staged by Australian Opera, is still in use. The set and costumes for Opera New Zealand’s Barber of Seville have had two acclaimed outings already, in Brisbane and Seattle – the opera is a co-production with companies in the two cities and the set and costumes have been shipped from one to the other.

Everything you see on stage has been crafted by hand. The jigsaw of higgledy-piggledy windows and doors stacked on top of one another was inspired by director Lindy Hume’s call for a Seinfeld-ian sense of arrival and departure. They are elegant, but lend themselves to slapstick.

RelatedArticlesModule - Tracy Grant Lord

The richly detailed costumes span the 200 years since Rossini wrote The Barber of Seville, each providing a snapshot of the character’s role in the story, from fusty old fusspots clinging to convention to young lovers pushing social boundaries.

“It’s like a painting or a piece of music,” says Grant Lord of her approach to a project. “There needs to be a harmony inside it; all the elements are there for a particular purpose. We can’t afford to put anything on stage that is not used.”

Ambrogio, servant to Dr Bartolo, is dressed in the style of Rossini’s time. “He is the oldest thing in the show, he is literally 200 years old. When you first see him, he can barely move. He’s very, very funny.”

Bartolo and Basilio are “big, old, whiskered guys” with clothes in the style of the 1880s.

“Berta [the governess] is locked in a very domestic, utilitarian world where she is told what to do, so we’ve given her a 1930s mid-European feel. Then she falls in love and transitions into a much more vivacious character and falls within the brighter end of the world, populated by Figaro and Rosina [the lovers], and they bring the colour.

“You get to the 1950s, and everything is starting to blow open. Rosina’s costume conveys the hopeful idea of Dior’s New Look.”

Grant Lord is a sought-after designer for ballet, theatre and opera, here and in Australia. The day before Barber opens, she is presenting her vision for Opera NZ’s production of The Turn of the Screw, to be staged in October. She has three more shows in the pipeline: a ballet, an opera and a theatre production, which she tracks on a big planner: “I am quite ordered in the way I approach things. That’s part of how I trained – we had to have a go at everything,” she says.

She has certainly done that. She has worked with the Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland theatre companies, as well as Opera Australia. On the dance side, she’s been involved with of the NZ Dance Company, the Scottish, Australian and Queensland ballets and several productions for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. “I came to ballet quite late, but I brought my theatre experience with me and that really informed my ballet work.

“Working in ballet is a completely different experience from working with an ensemble of actors – for obvious reasons, but some that aren’t so obvious. A ballet company is drilled like a military operation, but they are completely supportive. They absolutely rely on each other.

“Acting is much more of an individual situation, and you can’t really over-sauce the pudding; you have to just sit back and serve it. But with the ballet and opera, I get more licence to present an idea visually. They are all different, but I love them all.”

Grant Lord learnt her craft at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre, where she worked for 10 years. When the theatre closed in 1992, she started teaching and, because she had no formal qualification, did a bachelor of spatial design at Auckland University of Technology, a catch-all degree for three-dimensional design that isn’t architecture.

Grant Lord lives in a historic lodge in South Auckland with her husband, David Lord, a linguist fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese. “It’s a big, old ridiculously rambling place and it soaks up a lot of our time and energy,” she says.

“It’s a gorgeous place to be. I will often have colleagues come to visit and we will spend the early days of creating a work there. They get to be in my studio and we muck around in the model box and they love that.

“I’ve got the most extraordinary husband, he loves having these people around and he’s very good at taking care of them.”

Being willing to hop across the Tasman up to seven times during a production’s planning phase means Grant Lord is finding a wealth of interesting, satisfying work, which is no easy thing in her field.

“I must admit things seem to be going really, really well. I’m at a stage in my career where companies know what they’re getting. They invest a huge amount of money in what we are creating and they know that while I will take risks, they are very calculated risks.”

Opera NZ, The Barber of Seville, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, June 6, 9, 13 and 15; Opera House, Wellington, June 29 and July 2 and 4; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, August 1, 3, 5 and 7.

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.