When audiences see performers on stage, the character’s effortless physical features are the result of hours of planning, preparation and hard work from Central City Opera’s wig and makeup department. We had the opportunity to sit down with Ronell Oliveri, Central City Opera’s resident Wig and Makeup Designer and Supervisor and get the behind-the-scenes scoop on what she and her department are working on for the 2017 season.
What shows are you working on this summer?
“We’re working on all of them: The two main-stage productions of Carmen and Cosí fan tutte, along with the one-act productions of The Burning Fiery Furnace, Gallantry, and Cabildo.”
With all of those shows, how many new wigs do you need to create this year, and how many wigs can you repurpose?
“We’re going to end up building about fourteen new wigs and we will probably have about 20 re-purposed pieces. Some wigs are very specific, so we have to build them, but other wigs can be reused. We’re also making lots of facial hair, beards, and mustaches for the male performers.”
How do you build a wig from scratch?
“The first step is to meet with the performer and do a fitting, which includes getting a measurement of their head so that we can create a wig mold. Then we build a lace cap out of three different types of lace, and we hand-tie every hair into that cap to recreate the exact hairline, style, and color that we want. It takes about 40 hours to build a wig from front to back.”
What are the wigs made of?
“Everything is human hair, except for two synthetic wigs we are working on. We’re using the synthetic wigs because we want the hair to have a crispy texture, which is easier to achieve with synthetic hair than it is with human hair. Most of the time, we do not use synthetic hair because it’s plastic, so no light goes through, it’s quite a bit heavier, and it’s hotter for the performer. A real hand-tied wig, if it goes unnoticed, is an amazing wig. The best compliment a wig maker can get is when the audience doesn’t even recognize the performer is wearing a wig.”
You’re also designing the makeup for all of these shows. What are the most important things to consider in creating a makeup design?
“I can have an idea of what I want Carmen to look like, but I need it to also work with the performer’s bone structure. Often times I’ll look for pictures of people that have similar bone structure to the performer.”
You have wig fittings for your singers, but do you have the chance to try out makeup designs on singers as well?
“Often, we just have to go for it. They’re adjusting the lights until the final dress rehearsal. You have to go with the flow and try to adjust where you can; it’s a really fluid process. If there’s something I would like to change, we can do it during the dress rehearsal, so everything’s correct before opening night of the performance.”
Walk us through the preparation process for each performance.
“We’ll never have more than thirty minutes with each principal singer. That’s thirty minutes to prep their hair, get them in a wig cap, do their full makeup, get the wig on, and get them out the door. It’s all hands on deck, trying to help everybody with whatever they need. I try to work with every single person before they go on stage. We’re everywhere our performers need us to be.”
How did you start your career in wig and makeup design? What are some of your career highlights?
“I was a performance major in a stage makeup class and my teacher offered me a job at the Chicago Lyric Opera. I went and did one show, and then I did every show for the rest of the season, and the whole next season. I’ve had really wonderful mentors from the beginning, and I’m lucky that my education was through hands-on apprenticeships. I was the assistant for Tom Watson, head of the Wig and Makeup Department at the Metropolitan Opera, for eight years. I’ve worked in film and was nominated for an Emmy in makeup in 2007. I was creatively involved with all of these interesting people: singers and costume designers and directors. I feel incredibly spoiled and lucky all the time that this is what I do and what I’ve done for so long.”
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from being a wig and makeup designer?
“Patience. And you have to be slightly selfless. You need to be in it to make the show it’s best. We’re here to get these people onstage and have them feel as good as they possibly can about themselves. My dad was a singer, so I feel like I’ve always had a lot of respect for performers, and I want to make it as perfect for them as I possibly can.”
What’s your favorite part about working at Central City Opera?
“I love the history here. It’s so cool to be in one of the oldest working opera houses in the country. And it’s a real experience here. There are opera houses that I’ve loved, but there’s no real tradition like they have here.”
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in pursuing a career in wig and makeup design?
“I think they should apprentice. Find someone to teach you. College is great, get a degree, but when you get a degree in this, you’re still going to need an apprenticeship. Even if you might not get paid a lot, you will work at a professional place with professional people, and that’s priceless.”