A brush with greatness: Behind the scenes with Utah Opera
Opera • Yancey Quick and crew share some secrets of their wig and makeup magic.
Published: May 13, 2014 09:09AM
Updated: May 12, 2014 07:47AM
Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Opera's wig and makeup designer Yancey Quick puts a wig on cast member Kelly Kaduce prior to a production of "Turandot," at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

While opera singers duel, double-cross and declare undying devotion on the Capitol Theatre stage, another drama is playing out downstairs.

“This is where the real show is,” Utah Opera wig and makeup designer Yancey Quick said, while overseeing the closely choreographed routine of wig and makeup application during the company’s March run of “Turandot.”

Well, maybe not the real show; Quick and his crew arrange their work flow to give the backstage artists a chance to observe key moments in the onstage action — what he called the “shut-up-we-need-to-listen-to-this moments.”

Timing is vital when you’re getting a half-dozen principal singers, a chorus ranging from a couple of dozen to more than 50 singers, and the occasional corps of spear carriers stage-ready in a relatively confined space. Equally important is maintaining a relaxed atmosphere.

“We don’t like panic,” Quick said. “If you freak out, there’s a good chance the artists in the chair will freak out; you’re so close.” As if on cue, wig and makeup artist Jenny Bakes calmly replaced a split bald cap on a cheerful baritone who gave no indication of noticing anything amiss.

“We try to have a happy, jovial room if we can,” Quick added as tenor Joseph Gaines burst into an impromptu rendition of “Brave Sir Robin” from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in the makeup chair behind him.

“We make a living being in their faces,” said another member of Quick’s crew, Shelley Carpenter, who also noted that makeup artists “have more fear of conjunctivitis than the end of the world.” Cleanliness is next to godliness in the stage-makeup profession.

Don’t cover the ears • There are specific considerations when making up opera singers, said Quick, who’s also wig master at Ballet West. Singers’ wigs and makeup, for example, mustn’t impede facial movement or cover the ears. Lighting also comes into play.

“The stage lights flatten everyone out,” he said, noting there’s a knack to making sure facial features can be seen from the back row without looking cartoonish to patrons in the front row. “It’s fine; onstage they’ll look identical, I promise,” he assured a chorus member who was fretting over her eyebrow application. Chorus members typically apply their own makeup; Carpenter said the Utah Opera pros give coaching sessions and “show cool tricks to the more advanced ones.”

“Turandot” was a high-maintenance production, with 14 performers transforming into new characters at the first intermission. Slight modifications, usually in keeping with plot and character development, are more typical.

Quick explained that in “La Traviata” earlier this season, “Violetta’s wig changed subtly, and her makeup changed a lot. In the second act, when she was at home and free and in love, she had more blush and her hair was down. Little things like that tell the story of the character. Unless they’re really looking for it, the audience won’t notice, but naturally humans read subtle cues and body language.”

An army of one • Utah Opera has a crew of five wig and makeup artists who assist Quick in preparing singers to go onstage, but he’s an “army of one” when it comes to constructing the wigs. It’s a painstaking process. Quick saves a lot of time by using commercially produced wigs — made from either human or yak hair — as a base, but they’re seldom usable out of the box; he deconstructs and refashions them to look more lifelike under stage lights. He spent 10 to 12 hours making a tall, white-blond wig with hot pink roots for soprano Celena Shafer to wear in the current production of “The Abduction From the Seraglio.” Almost all of that time was spent hand-stitching hair to a foundation, one or two hairs at a time.

Because of the time demands and the cost of materials, Quick seldom makes more than one or two new wigs for a given show.

“When I build a wig, I consider future use,” he said.

The wig that Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth sports as Pasha Selim in “The Abduction From the Seraglio,” for example, originally graced the heads of the mysterious prince Calàf in “Turandot” and the villainous Count Di Luna in “Il Trovatore.” Quick simply added some extensions this time around. Likewise, a harem girl’s wig in “Abduction” enjoyed previous incarnations in “The Elixir of Love,” “Florencia en el Amazonas” and Violetta’s death scene in “La Traviata.”

The wigs are shampooed and conditioned after each show, Quick said, “just like human hair, but you have to be more careful because of the lace,” or mesh backing, that holds each one together.

Quick, a graduate of Juan Diego High, studied cosmetology at Salt Lake Community College and performing-arts design at the University of Utah, but he said practical experience is invaluable in his profession. “There are educational programs, but it’s passed down from person to person. It’s not really something you can learn from a book.” Time at Logan-based Utah Festival Opera and the Utah Shakespeare Festival helped him sharpen his skills.

“To get started, you often work for free,” he said. “We keep the door open to people who want to come and shadow. We like to encourage the growth of people.”


Let down your hair

P You can see Yancey Quick’s handiwork in action as Utah Opera’s production of “The Abduction From the Seraglio” continues.

When • Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 18, 2 p.m.

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $18 to $95 ($5 more on performance day) at www.utahopera.org; $15 rush tickets available for anyone 30 and younger on performance day