Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Royal Opera House - Inside Story - From Gory to Gorgeous

One presenter, two film crew, four models, five wig and make-up technicians, five costume changes and one fantasy body art.

Claudia Stolze

Claudia Stolze has been Head of Wigs and Make-Up for 9 years now, and combined with her previous experience at Madame Tussauds, The Royal Shakespeare Company and on tour with The Pet Shop Boys, among others, there is nothing she can’t tell you about wigs and make-up. For example, Stolze was taught by a Japanese in the art of maiko (full white face makeup). Understandably there wasn’t the time to make-up in the traditional way for this evening, but Stolze explained the process. The aim is for the eyes to look like a piece of cut bamboo and for the lips to look like ripe fruit, and for the overall look to be completely devoid of features – like a porcelain doll. To achieve this a Geisha would use a wax over the skin, called bintsuke-abura, followed by a white powder which is mixed with water into a paste from a small pot. One unwhitened area, forming a W at the nape of the neck, is traditionally regarded as an erotic area, similar to glancing a Geisha wrist.

Stolze has built an experienced and well co-ordinated team, some of whom demonstrated their skills tonight. They work exceptionally long hours – they are present for all rehearsals and are always back stage during every performance. The team tonight were – Hyewon Ahn, Carol Begley, Sara Kinzel and Cecilia Oberg, with most of the rest of the department working backstage on the opera performance at the same time. There are also technicians on tour with The Royal Ballet in Granada, some on their way to Cuba, and some just returned from Washington, so there is a lot of long-haul travel to contend with also. The evening was knitted together very well by Cheryl Knight, whose day job is working in Opera Shoes. Her task was quite tricky because she wanted to talk to everyone involved and yet they had to concentrate on their work and finish on time.

Ahn worked on professional life model Miko Abouf, and over the course of two hours covered him from head to toe, front and back, including the inside of his palms, in black body paint. At first I didn’t get the point of covering someone in paint, but as time went on and the final result gradually revealed, it was clear to see that this was an intricate work of her own design, using stencils, spray paint, glitter and crystals. It’s hard to do the work justice in the photographs as the Linbury is renowned for being quite "inky" and Abouf was painted black with not much lighting on him. Nevertheless, I hope you can see some of the patterns which were traced out first, before being filled in – a great deal of work which Ahn told us could take 6 hours or more.

Kinzel had perhaps the most gruesome assignment, which I have not lingered on, working on Opera House HR Manager Greg Jauncey to shred half of his face and shoulder, apply a cone head, yak hair eyebrows and generally make him look unpleasant. It worked. This showed tremendous skill and was unexpectedly quite funny in parts – Kinzel explained how good KY Jelly is for this kind of look, and inevitably Stolze piped up with a story. Turns out, she was in Boots in Covent Garden, asking for 20 tubes of KY Jelly. You can imagine the reaction !

Oberg worked on professional model Annalisa Proto, first of all turning her into an animal with a leopard spot bald cap and then into Koschei the Immortal from The Firebird (after a quick costume change backstage). Both were intricate and at the same time, Oberg explained to us about her background in film and how that helps her work at the Opera House, as almost every performance is now filmed in high definition.

Stolze had the task of turning the department’s Administrator, Tamara Thomas, into an old lady and then into Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly). Quite difficult turning a Western face into an Asian one, the make-up has to be expertly applied. Geisha have ritualised methods of painting the lips alone, according to how long they have been practicing. Begley is an expert in wigs, and was on-hand to apply them at various points throughout the evening.

Most of the questions were answered by Stolze, who is animated and engaging, and ranged from – where does the longest hair come from ? (China), how long is it ? (1 metre), is it very expensive ? (yes, very). One of the questions that regularly crops up is - How do you make-up The Bronze Idol (from La Bayaderé) ? The answer is that it’s quite simple – the dancer is coated with a gold powder mixed with emulsion so that it doesn’t dry and looks shiny. Once coated, he cannot touch anyone else as it comes off on everything he touches. Luckily he has a solo and doesn’t touch anyone ! However, very often there are gold footprints left on the stage !

Stolze passed around one of her brushes – a delicate angora goat’s hair fluffy tailed and very soft brush with a tiny handle more like a stick, with coiled string or something similar along its length. It looked expensive and apparently it was.

This is my second Wigs and Make-up lesson, and what I learned along the way was that you cannot put Asian hair on a European face, it just looks wrong though you can’t put your finger on why; that the technicians prefer to check the symmetry of their make-up through a mirror rather than looking directly at a face which is too 3D to be accurate; that back in the day, wigs were so dirty and smelly that they actually had a "fly-trap" hanging off the back to try to catch any creepy crawlies; that KY Jelly is great for making realistic wounds; that there are perhaps 35,000 wigs stored in the Royal Opera House, in a temperature controlled room above the Linbury; that you can change just about any face shape with shading (though there are limits when it comes to slimming a face); that the technicians have access to several vats full of "Pigs Might Fly" - fake blood; that singers can be more nervous than dancers (understandably) about prosthetic noses or chins; that all of the cold-foam prosthetics are made in house (they don’t have the facility for hot foam so for example, the cone head is made outside but is made up in house); most of the bald caps and prosthetics are made to measure, with a lot of negative casts being made !

This particular evening stood out for me because it was clear from the reception at the end that the audience had thoroughly appreciated the work of the artists, and it was gratifying to see and hear waves of thanks going back to them, and I noticed Stolze, in particular, beaming – justifiably so.

I do hope some of you were there – it’s almost impossible to convey the breadth of knowledge very generously given by all.


  1. Hi Mo. Actually I thought of you on my way home last night - a paddle steamer was making its way along the Thames and was so picturesque that it would have been a perfect subject for your blog !

  2. I found this simply fascinating....superb!! Thank you.

  3. You've captured Claudia looking a bit Dr. Coppelia but the whole article is just fantastic. Sooooo much to learn. I've catch the next one if you tell us about it here first

  4. Thank you all for your lovely kind comments.

    I keep remembering things from the evening and adding them in, so you might want to check back from time to time !

    And... Dr Coppelia ? Surely not ! Claudia has the most wonderful shoe collection - the leopard spot pair Annalise the model was wearing were... you guessed it - Claudia's !

  5. \WOW ! How fabulous was this ? Wish I'd known about it beforehand - I will keep an eye on your website from now on !

  6. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant


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