During a typical Chautauqua Opera season, Mark A. Boley would be up to his eyeballs in hair right about now.
“These wigs don’t come in styled; they come in looking like something your dog dragged in,” said Boley, the wig and makeup assistant supervisor for Chautauqua Opera Company. “If you have a cast of 40 people, all in period hairstyles, that’s days on end of washing, shampooing, conditioning, (setting) them on blocks, putting them in rollers, combing them out, brushing them out, setting and styling.”
For the last four years, Boley and designer Martha Ruskai have comprised the Operas’ wig and makeup team. This week, the duo will join General and Artistic Director Steven Osgood for Chautauqua Opera’s Behind-the-Scenes series, which will take place at noon EDT, Thursday July 9, on the Virtual Porch. Boley and Ruskai will discuss the work they do for a regular season, share Chautauqua Opera stories and answer audience questions.
Boley and Ruskai met through opera 40 years ago, and have been working together ever since. The two have done hair and makeup for Opera Carolina, the Toledo Opera, Opera Grand Rapids and more.
“I tend to partner with her a lot,” Boley said.
At Chautauqua, with three operas a season all requiring vastly different wigs and makeup, the team keeps to a tight schedule. Most of the wigs are re-styled for each show, but Boley and Ruskai set aside time to custom-make a few for each production.
“You break out the season and look at which characters you really want to have a special look, how much time you have, when it appears in the schedule that year, and decide which wigs you want to go ahead and build,” he said.
Hand-tying a human hair wig from scratch is a meticulous process that can take several weeks. To save time, Boley often “jury-rigs” pre-made human hair wigs by cutting off the front and hand-tying a new lace hairline.
“To do it the way we do it, you can usually get a wig front in a day or two,” he said. “(Then you have) a stage-quality, natural hairline, gorgeous wig you can’t tell is a wig.”
Some productions, like last year’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini, require more extensive projects. Boley and Ruskai made the wig for the character Basilio completely from scratch.
“That was a certain look,” he said. “It had (this) beautiful center part all the way down from the top of his head, and we wanted it to look kind of greasy and slimy looking. That was a full build.”
For Boley, the most nerve-wracking productions are those performed in the Amphitheater, because there’s only one full hair and makeup rehearsal in the space before the big day.
“It takes a lot of pre-planning. You have to really know which characters are coming off and on stage, and when, how much time you have for each change (and) where you have to be located,” he said. “You spend a lot of time thinking, ‘What could go wrong, how do I fix it now?’ … Then you just have to do the show and hope it all goes well.”
Besides delivering great hair and makeup, Boley’s goal for each season is that the Young Artists he and Ruskai work with leave with skills they can take into their next job.
“We’re doing the work in a very short period of time, but we’re also trying to teach,” he said. “Hopefully everyone goes through that program knowing a little more about different protocols in the makeup room and how to do it themselves if they need to.”