Just in time for Tosca, Opera Tampa’s Emmy®-winning hair designer divulges trade secrets about one of the great characters in opera—the wig.
Dawn Rivard’s impressive résumé of hairstyling and wigbuilding gigs spans from the ‘90s television series Animorphs to this year’s breakaway series The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s worked on the major motion reboots of Total Recall and Carrie as well as made-for-TV movies and several well-recognized films from big Hollywood studios. We know and love Dawn as our hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa, where she oversees, art directs and supplies superior care for the sublime pièce de résistance of any great opera costume, the wig.
Dawn Rivard, wig/hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa.
Caught in the Act: Tell us a little bit about what exactly you do. Would you walk us through a typical job for an Emmy®-winning hair/wig designer?
Dawn Rivard: What I do depends on the contract. There is NO “typical.” I get requested by any number of people like a director, costume designer or technical director because they have a need for a wig or hair or makeup person. It’s my job to figure out how to solve the job’s requirements at the highest level, keeping in mind the built-in restrictions like resources, time or geographic differences. Some jobs are a request for a custom fit wig for a rental, but I can’t do the fittings. In those cases, someone local sends me head measurements and other design references. I put together a wig and send it, crossing my fingers that they have someone good to address the million variables that come up with a wig.
Renate Leuschner, an iconic Hollywood wig builder, taught me years ago you can have a beautiful wig that fits amazing, but if someone doesn’t know how to put it on, you’d never know it’s beautiful and amazing.
Other contracts, like Opera Tampa, require someone who does wigs, hair and makeup design—and has a wig stock. For companies that have full time in-house wig and makeup departments, there is someone who is head makeup artist, but he or she is not the department head, and another person is lead chorus wig stylist . . . so, each job can be more specialized with larger companies. At Opera Tampa, each crew member has to be well rounded and highly skilled since there are only 3+ stylists to get the whole show done. When a basic leading lady pre-show prep is 30 minutes, a male takes 20 minutes and a character makeup is 40 minutes, that time really adds up on big shows.
A wig and makeup designer has to be able to come in and design the show around what your local crew can do or what you can show them to do in a very short amount of time. This is not like a tour situation where the show is already built and established and all mapped out.
Wigs for Opera Tampa’s production of Romeo and Juliet line the dressing room.
CITA: When you work with Opera Tampa, how many wigs are you making per production, and do you have to repair/re-make wigs during the show? During the run? Must you custom-make the wig to fit the performer or can you make a standard sized wig and alter it?
DR: It takes at least a week to fully make one wig. Since Opera Tampa’s schedule does not allow enough time to make a wig, I need to show up with enough already made stock so I have something for everyone. My rule is for every one wig the audience sees on stage, I have brought at least three so I can pick the best fit and look. I do not travel light.
Often, even though I over pack wigs, there is still something I don’t have that I want. So, that’s when I purchase a wig locally and re-front it to fit the singer. For La Cenerentola, that was Tisbe’s two wigs. What I had for Robyn Rocklein [who performed Tisbe], I wasn’t happy with, so I went on a search for something I could alter to fit her and better suit the style of the show.
CITA: How long does one wig take to create from start to finish? What is the one tool you can’t do without?
DR: The pat answer to make a wig is one week, but that can vary greatly. The longer the hair on the wig, the more time it takes to knot it. The larger the head size, the more time it takes. The curlier the hair, the longer it takes.
For doing wigs/ hair and makeup, there are a handful of tools that are invaluable. Three crafts is expensive to supply! If we don’t have the basics for all three crafts, your production quality is noticeably less. I have lots of support from companies like Dermalogica, Cover FX, Smashbox and Hask hair.
Dawn getting Tisbe ready for an Opera Tampa dress rehearsal of La Cenerentola.
CITA: What happens to the wigs when the production closes? Do they get re-purposed or retired?
DR: All the wigs get the hairstyles taken apart and get washed and dried. They go back in a box and sorted for the next shows. Some get reused more than others due to color or size. Good quality wigs that are taken care of properly never really retire. I have some wigs that I started with 25 years ago.
CITA: How did you end up in this profession, and is there one wig or one production that stands as your favorite (or most memorable for whatever reason)?
DR: I worked in window display and liked everything in my windows except the wigs. I went on a hunt to find someone who could teach me wigs and that led me to The Canadian Opera Company who, back then, had a year-long apprenticeship program. They took four students a year, and you did classes and worked on shows pretty much seven days a week. When I finished the apprenticeship, they offered me one of the two assistant jobs. I did that job for two more years, and they allowed me to keep studying in the classes with the new apprentices as long as my show work got done. So, I essentially did a three year apprenticeship while working full time for not a lot of money, but I loved every second of it. Then I went on to work in musical theater—then film and TV work.
Of course you always remember the really horrible experiences, like working outside all night in the freezing cold on a film shoot or when you’re sure you’re going to send a wig on stage that you hate because you just didn’t figure it out yet. There are the performers who were truly difficult so I spent every ounce of energy trying to make the best outcome. Then there are the ones who are just so professional that your job doesn’t feel like work at all.
There is no shortage of new experiences. And, after 25 years, I feel like I might be getting pretty good at what I’m doing.
See Dawn’s work in Tosca. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, you can do that here.