March 06, 2019

It’s All About the Hair: Creating character with wigs

You wouldn’t want to sit behind these sisters at the opera. Not with That Hair.

But you definitely want to see them onstage at Lyric this month, bossing around poor Cinderella and doing their nasty best to snare Prince Ramiro. (Nope. Doesn’t happen. )

Says Joan Font, the Barcelonan director of the Cinderella (La Cenerentola) being seen at Lyric October 4-30 :  “The characters are created under the gaze of a Mediterranean light with pure, highly exaggerated colors, a deformation that accentuates the personalities of each of the singers-actors and how they evolve within the tale. We see ourselves reflected onstage in our own misery and aspirations; a reflection of the human behavior.”

That reflection is very “fun-house mirror” in this production. What does it take to transform Diana Newman and Annie Rosen, the two lovely Ryan Opera Center singers portraying Clorinda and Tisbe, into the cartoonish shrews in this bubbly bel canto opera? A lot of padding and mountains of hair. 

These coiffes are 100% not the real thing, outlandishly styled synthetic locks in shocking shades of neon yellow and hot pink that will make you scream (with laughter, of course). “The colors in this production are very vivid, and that’s reflected in the wigs,” says Sarah Hatten, Lyric’s wigmaster and makeup designer. “Everyone’s look relates very specifically to character.” In the case of the stepsisters, that would be OVERSIZED. Their makeup, too, is “very colorful and geometric, with hardline cheekbones and noselines. All the colors relate to their costumes.”  Which also are not subtle. 

These cotton-candy-esque confections, a good two feet tall, were constructed in Houston, Sarah explains, with lightweight hard-foam structures to keep them firmly vertical. (There’s not enough hairspray in the world to do that without a solid infrastructure.) Diana and Annie love their outlandish locks and can’t wait to show them off.  As Annie says of her shocking pink wig, “It’s amazing! I don’t fully understand my character till I wear what she wears.”

“More than anything, hair really transforms a character,” Sarah agrees. “It’s really the icing to a costume – if you look at fitting photos of the Figaro and Cenerentola costumes without the wigs they just need something else, and it’s pretty much always the hair. It’s the visual through-line for every production.”  Performing artists look incomplete without their hair, whether it’s wig, a moustache, or sideburns, and it’s the joyful responsibility of Sarah and her crew of 16 to help every singer, chorister, actor, and supernumerary onstage inhabit his or her character completely. 

The Cinderella production arrived at Lyric with sets, costumes, and wigs, so Sarah and her team spent just a few weeks on styling the show’s “32ish” wigs for principal singers and chorus men.  With a new production like The Marriage of Figaro, they went to work in July creating 60 wigs from scratch. Each wig takes about 40 hours to make, and final adjustments were being made right up until the final dress rehearsal. Existing productions usually don’t include wigs, but Cinderella is an exception – which saves her staff precious time.

Surprisingly, Cinderella takes just a few hours to turn around between performances: “There’s not a lot of wear and tear. It’s not nearly as active as Figaro.” For that new Lyric production, it takes a solid day to restyle all the wigs after a show.

Clorinda and Tisbe will sport “a lot of costume and a lot of hair,” says Sarah. “I hope they can get through the dressing-room doors!”

Lyric Opera presentation generously made possible by Margot and Josef Lakonishok, The Nelson Cornelius Production Endowment Fund, and PowerShares QQQ.

Coproduction of Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu, and Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Photos: Brett Coomer (Houston Grand Opera), Devon Cass, Todd Rosenberg