One of the most elaborate productions LA Opera has staged in recent years was John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, directed by Tony Award winning director Darko Tresnjak (who returns to stage a new production of Macbeth in September). The story follows the ghost of Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette), who while trapped in the spirit world, bitterly reflects on her final suffering. Her favorite playwright tries to entertain the melancholy queen with the continuing adventures of his beloved characters from The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. But sneaky Figaro refuses to play by the script, breaking free from the opera-within-the-opera in a surprise bid for a better life. The opera turns history on its head as love attempts to alter the course of destiny.
With many different worlds to incorporated into Tresnjak and costume designer Linda Cho’s overall vision, The Ghosts of Versailles was a complex, multi-layered, and rewarding show to style.
Darren K. Jinks and Brandi Strona – masters of their wig and makeup crafts – took on styling Ghosts of Versailles and succeeded to dramatic effect (both are nominated for tomorrow’s Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards).
Most operas require hair and makeup styling from one era or “world.” Take La Boheme, for example. Our production sets the action completely in 1880s Paris and so the singers’ hair and makeup reflects that time period. The Ghosts of Versailles is another beast entirely. It’s a show comprised of four distinct worlds: The Ghost World, The Figaro World, The Turkish World, and The French Revolution World. Thus, With the help of an expanded team (10 principal hair/makeup artists and 13 additional hair/makeup artists for chorus members) Jinks and Strona created (and managed during show dates) 47 principal wigs, 55 chorus and supernumerary wigs, 41 sets of facial hair, and several different makeup looks for the show’s 82 cast members (including principal artists, dancers, and supernumeraries). Productions normally have half the number of wigs and makeup looks needed for Ghosts.
Like any other art form, hair/makeup styling starts as a concept and there’s a great deal of planning involved. Since it’s such a feat to stage an opera, the production staff normally plans for new productions at least one or two years in advance. Such was the case with The Ghosts of Versailles. Styling ideas for Ghosts began 12 to 18 months before the show opened, with additional dramaturgical work occurring during the three to four months before the show. The extensive dramaturgy (ie. historical research) included watching films set during the time period for ideas (Tresnjak and Cho were inspired by film such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Stephen Frear’s Dangerous Liaisons) as well as researching the French Revolution era to come up with hair/makeup styling that not only theatrical, but also matched period norms.
These norms differed based on the worlds. Here’s a breakdown of some of each world’s hair and makeup style.
The Ghost World
This style needed to be otherworldly in terms of beauty. Each ghost has the period makeup, greatly stylized to emphasize a ghostly glow. This included using pure white, synthetic hair (though opera wigs are normally made from real hair), paling faces and adding purplish powder to add a bruising affect to the makeup, and also finishing faces off with a luminizing powder.
The Figaro World
Starkly different from the ghostly glow look, wigs and makeup for the Figaro World had the heightened of classic old opera. This means stylized winged eye liner and a “pancake” base makeup (water-based foundation applied with a wet sponge) and heavily styled wigs (solid colored wigs with tight waves, very structured). The Figaro World is meant to portray a heightened realism and Jinks and Strona’s styles certainly did that.
The Turkish World
The Turkish World (led by Patti LuPone’s character, Samira) is another beast altogether. Wigs and makeup in this world took theatricality even further. It consisted of heavy, dark (borderline cartoon-like) makeup, long moustaches for male characters, raised eyebrows, black synthetic wigs, specialty body makeup, and even custom applied tattoos to mimic the aerialist’s actual tattoos.
The French Revolution World
The French Revolution world is the most natural of the four worlds in Ghost of Versailles. It is mirrored after what the real era would have been like and not heightened for theatrical purposes. Singers wore no makeup, besides the powder added to make them look like they had dirt on their faces. Wigs were made to look ultra-realistic and styled limp and grimy. It’s the gritty, real world to the fantasy of the other worlds.
For The Ghosts of Versailles, Jinks and Strona were challenged to create various wig and makeup styles for all these worlds within one production, while also simultaneously planning for the five other mainstage shows in the 2014/15 season. It’s a complexity that Jinks and Strona have dealt with before, as both have been with LA Opera for over 10 years. They cite Grendel and our upcoming The Magic Flute as other challenging shows, but also say that they are the ones they’ve loved working on the most.
Considering it takes around 60 hours to build a fully custom wig (with an estimated 60,000 hairs to be knotted in each wig), I’d say Jinks, Strona, and their whole team’s work is nothing short of extraordinary. “It’s amazing what we produce for a quick walk across the stage,” Jinks and Strona say.