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Tressed for Success

Being wigmaster for the Los Angeles Opera is no day at the beauty parlor. Just ask Rick Geyer, who must make the divas look divine.

May 26, 1996|Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara is associate editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine

Alone in the soft sallow light of her last day, the woman reaches heavenward and in a gesture of anguish and submission, plucks the ornaments from her hair and turns to leave, her voice rising from the sudden dark veil. The sticks fall unnoticed to the floor. Cio-Cio San has once again lost her love, her pride and now her child. Soon, Puccini's most tragic heroine will take her own life. But even at this bitter end, her hair is holding up beautifully.

It should. It has been treated with much deference and attention, coaxed and compelled to eloquence by Rick Geyer, wigmaster of the Los Angeles Opera. Weeks before this performance of "Madama Butterfly," he and soprano Catherine Malfitano joined in earnest consult. Sitting in the wig room, reflected into infinity by the mirrored walls, they talked hair. First was the issue of the geisha wig and bridal hat worn in the first scene. Malfitano, who has sung the role numerous times all over the world, is brief and clear: The wig must be light and its ornaments well balanced, held in place by a minimal number of pins. Her own hair, dark and lovely to her waist, will be gathered in a dark barrette and tucked, with the peonies that will later adorn it, down the back of her dress.

For a moment, the peonies are discussed. The two Geyer has are too large and too small respectively--"I look like Carmen Miranda," Malfitano says, laughing, holding the larger one just over her right ear. The flowers should be attached to the clip, not slipped into the hair because, she says, "I have had them fall out before, when I turn, so, and it is not good." "Not a problem," Geyer says.

Next, the length of the sticks for the second act when the wig has been removed and Malfitano's own hair is piled on top of her head. "I must have two," she tells him. "This is important, two will hold my hair, otherwise I need pins and then the gesture is ruined." Geyer produces two that are deemed too long--"they are not pretty this long, and they must be pretty," she says, tapping the sticks of the counter before her like jazz drummer.

"Not a problem," Geyer repeats. He will cut them to the desired length and repaint them. Red? No, not red, the costume is blue. A more natural color, or black, with perhaps small ornaments on the end. Pretty. They must be pretty. Is the stage raked? Yes, and during rehearsal, Geyer says, he will watch the sticks as they fall and make certain they "don't go clanging into the orchestra pit." He will also make certain they are retrieved at the end of the performance. "Yes," the singer laughs. "Once, in Vienna I think, they forgot to collect them and the next night, I had no sticks. I forget what we did, I think I used pencils."

No pencils, Geyer promises. The two return to the wig for the first act. Behind them, four shelves high, waits an eerie gallery. In the six years of Geyer's tenure, the L.A. Opera has performed "Madama Butterfly" four times; for each performance, Geyer and assistant Beckie Kravetz have made at least six hand-tied wigs--by the time they perform it again the opera will have the full set, 38 in all. (The few they do not have now, they rent.) Now, a dozen geisha heads, featureless faces framed by the curves of the singular hairline, silk flowers and ornamental combs, stare expectantly into the mirror over the shoulders of this Butterfly and the wigmaster.

One after the other, wigs are unpinned and set on the crown of the singer until a hairline that suits her face is chosen. With strips of white paper, the width of the bridal hat, which Geyer will make, is set. "She will be beautiful," Geyer says when they are finished. The singer meets his gaze in the mirror. "She is always beautiful," she says simply.

The title "wigmaster" seems suited for an Old World craftsman clad in buckled breeches and a lace cravat. Geyer, however is fortyish and fond of jeans and button-downs. He is a craftsman, though, and not so far removed from the Old World.

"Some people get weirded out when they realize we use human hair," he says, bent over the black tresses of what will soon be a geisha wig. His fingers fly as he ties them, two strands at a time, onto the net of the caul cap that forms the base of the wig. He uses what looks like a cross between a rug hook and a dentist's pick--a ventilator--and it comes in many sizes, depending on how fine the work.

"For a man's wig, or for the back, we might tie three or four strands at a time," says Kravetz, who sits a few feet away, also ventilating. They are both engaged in prep work, the actual wig-making that goes on pre-performance--during a show's run, when they are not actually making up the singers, they engage in wig maintenance and work ahead on the next set of coifs.

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