January 2006

A designer of talent, humour and passion


Designer Kristian Fredrikson, who died on 10 November 2005.

My first meeting with Kristian Fredrikson involved a portfolio of costume designs for the theatrical presentation of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

My immediate reaction was fear; fear that I would not meet up with his obvious talent in the rehearsal room. Tolstoy was superbly served in this evocation of early 19th-century Russia.

War and Peace was presented on the stage of the Melbourne Russell Street Theatre with the appalling restrictions of a tiny platform without wings or flies. However, on opening night the Berlioz trumpets sounded to begin the play, the huge doors Kris had designed opened and the audience gasped as the cast of Russian nobility swept on stage revealing a three metre-high multicolored detailed Russian icon behind them. Later on, in the course of the play this icon turned into a charred and black skeleton of Mother Russia.

Such imagery became the signature of this designer, who, over the next 40 years would influence every young hopeful who came in contact with his work and ideas.

It would be a decade filled with designs for drama before our partnership on the opera stage began with a production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The planning for this production and those that followed including Don Giovanni, Lucrezia Borgia, Falstaff, Otello and the triumphant Turandot with Graeme Murphy began with Kris, not simply as designer but as a conceptual partner.

For young designers and for those who work on the craft and finishing preparations for a production, Kris reigned supreme. His knowledge not only of the line required in a frock but what materials to use in order to achieve the best effect became legendary within the profession. Often seen with a paint brush in his hand, he knew how to finish a canvas in the best way and many people in the workshop were grateful for his willingness to work with them.

No tribute to Kris can be given without acknowledging his friend and often co-designer, Fiona Reilly, who worked by his side, Her words sum up his greatness and his humanity: "Kristian left an artistic legacy that will live beyond his years on earth in the form of his stage productions still performed, his exquisite renderings and his works on film. However, I feel that an even greater gift was the legacy that lives on in those he worked with, inspired and taught.

As a raw 21-year-old I joined him at the Melbourne Theatre Company and was able to observe for the first time the way in which he made those working for and with him dig deep into reserves of artistry, skill and creativity that perhaps even they were unaware of. Like many others - milliners, scenic artists, cutters, stage carpenters - I created for him articles of great beauty and technical skill that came from places within me hitherto undiscovered. He demanded much and, because we wanted to travel his wondrous journey with him, he received even more."

The same was true of his teaching. When I brought him to the Western Australian Academy for Performing Arts to work with my costume, design, props and scenic students, even I was amazed at his effect on them and the care which he took to encourage their talents. He of the hallowed costume rendering went back to stick figures to explain to a young costume maker the way in which a dancer's body in a tutu moves and how a fledgling designer should pour all their sensuality and passion into Macbeth's costume pose.

Kristian Fredrikson's costume design for Joan Sutherland in the title role of the 1977 Australian Opera production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.
Kristian Fredrikson's design for Osmin in the 1976 Australian Opera production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus em Serail.

When Kristian died many knew of my closeness to him and used me as a conduit to direct their own feelings on his life and death. Many of the people who contacted me were those at the "coal-face" of our business - costume makers, scenic workshops, hairdressers, props makers - people who had been enriched by working with him. They knew that he valued their work and enriched their work experience.

This attitude is perhaps best summarised by an email which I received from the head of the costume department at Houston Ballet who wrote (to paraphrase) that Kristian had a great vision and to fulfil that vision he needed the help of many people and that it was his gift in life that he inspired you to want to go on that journey with him.

His awareness of music had much to do with his creations. His work with both ballet and opera revealed his sympathy and understanding of the needs of both singer and dancer. The music dictated everything he designed and artists grew to love him. He was always on hand for the fittings of a diva in a new role. Conscious of the strain for her in a large role he would make sure nothing hindered the performance in the use of light materials so that they remained easy to wear and yet still managed to inspire the singer on stage.

Always ready for whatever crisis should occur in the preparations for a production, Kris always remained calm and helpful to both artist and director. One memorable night at the first dress rehearsal for Don Giovanni we discovered that the Commendatore suffered from vertigo which prevented him from delivering his last scene from atop a high arch. As Kris and I gazed at each other, somewhat concerned, as his presence there was for the last moments of the opera, we came to the answer almost in the same breath. Within a few hours he dressed an extra with the same dimensions as our singer into a double of the costume, placed him high on the arch with the singer below, giving the production the added advantage of allowing the Commendatore to appear, seconds after his last singing entrance below, far above us, opening his great wings, to the astonishment of the audience.

Kris would appear at many rehearsals, sitting and listening for a while and then quietly leaving to go back to the workshop, filled with the song of the opera in his heart.

The dance was perhaps his greatest love and his last years were spent almost entirely in this art form. His last year was a true celebration when he designed the three great Tchaikovsky ballets: The Nutcracker for the New Zealand Ballet, The Sleeping Beauty for the Australian Ballet and Swan Lake for Houston.

His work with the choreographer Graeme Murphy in The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Turandot remains totally original in concept and result. The two ballets were given a totally new story line and will, I believe, become legendary within our profession. Kris and Graeme worked as one to achieve this.

In a career that spanned 40 years it might be expected that towards the end his talents might have faltered somewhat but the astonishing thing about Kris was his constant creative output. Till the last weeks of his life it poured out of a passionate man who believed the meaning of life lay in the arts.

His legacy of passion, humor and talent will live on in the hearts of many people in the world of drama, opera and ballet. A young designer's scholarship will be formed to honour his name in the coming weeks.

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