inasmuch as the canadian opera company’s Cosi Fan Tutte is a visual spectacle, opera for the eyes, sharon ryman—the COC’s resident wig and make-up supervisor—delivers the loudest oohs and ahhs in this year’s premier of mozart’s ‘School for Lovers’. the ship-wigs are by far the outstanding feature costume of the production, a nifty gimmick used to evoke the fabricated scenery of soldiers being shipped off to war. the fluorescent blue underlines the tongue-in-cheekiness of the whole affair. perhaps i’m not alone in feeling that the frida kahlo painting is a bit overused, but these wigs would fair much better as the visual icon of the production.
sharon ryman, the creative behind the many period wigs and makeup pieces for the COC, discusses how she put the wigs together for director atom egoyan’s take on a well-trodden repertoire opera. even after the 160 hours of construction that goes into creating the wigs, she still has to rely on two pairs of hands to keep them steady and upright before appearing on stage. indeed when they are on stage, all that work is worth it. it’s as much of the talk during intermission as it is years after the premier production: i recall the day egoyan popped in for a cup of coffee before a meeting when i was still working at the nespresso in yorkville in 2015. he had at that time just won the governor general’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award, for which i clumsily congratulated him and moved on quickly to the topic of the crazy hats in his Cosi, to which he responded along the lines of “Yeah, it’s a nice touch.”
Q——the ship-wigs almost steal the show with each performance and, aside from the frida kahlo painting, are the most significant visual markers in the costume and set-design for this production. how did the idea for these wigs arrive? they seem to be quite the hefty hulk to balance atop performers who will be walking around onstage, what materials did you use and how did you manage to quell all of your concerns regarding wardrobe malfunctions of this kind?
A——Thank you for noticing the ships at all, really they are on stage for such a short period of time I really think you could blink and miss them! Although I never do! We really worked hard to get them right. It almost takes longer to put them on their heads than they are on stage. I do think though that they are such a lovely compliment to the piece of music being sung while they are floating by. Let me start by saying the original design of the show had full 18th century costumes to go with these wigs. As with all new productions there are rounds of budget cuts before we actually get to what the show actually looks like for the audience. I’m not sure whose decision it was to keep the wigs once the costumes had been cut, but if they had been cut the show would have been dead easy. So how did we go about it….
I loved the idea from Debra [Hanson] of having the wigs blue so they would mimic the boats being in the waves of the ocean. I chose to use synthetic hair to make these wigs , it is lighter than the conventional 18C wigs which are made out of Yak hair. I also knew that because we would be remounting this show over the years I needed to have some flexibility in the back of the wig so it would fit more than one person’s head, with cast changes over the years. So I decided upon a premade wig which I then adapted to for the cage to sit on. I worked with our milner to create very lightweight wire cages that the hair is styled overtop. So the wigs are actually empty inside all those curls. This also makes them considerably lighter.
We really worked on the balance of where the cages were set in the wigs to have them feel sturdy on the head. The tw0 biggest ones proved most challenging. So those girls , until they are visible on stage are holding them to keep them from slipping around. The very biggest one has some padded prongs that sit at the occipital bone to distribute the weight. It took about 1 month of solid 40 hour weeks for my assistant and I to get the 5 wigs completed. I’ve never weighed them to see how much the actually weigh, but I’d say the biggest one is about 4-5 lbs. They were put on our heads many times throughout the process to check the balance.
We had a fitting and a couple of extra rehearsals for each of the chorus ladies and my crew to get comfortable with the change and to wearing the wigs. The Props department made all the ships, They are made of a super lightweight Styrofoam they hardly add any weight to the wigs at all. There are 9 wig crew at the side stage standing in readiness to doff the girls simple wigs and put on the ship wigs. There are 2 wig people per ship wig except for the tiny one which is handle able by 1 person. The time for changing all 5 girls is 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and about half way thru that time the whole chorus has an off stage song, which probably takes away about 35 seconds.
Q——where does the collaboration process begin as the COC's wig and make-up supervisor? with a production like Cosi, with whom does the exchange of ideas (and vision) take place in order to arrive at such unconventional takes on period wigs?
A——My direct contact for any show that I work on is with the costume designer, in the case of Cosi its Debra Hansen who I have known for many years and we have worked on numerous production together in many different venues. The designer does a set of costume sketches which most times include what the hair needs to look like as well. Sometimes they are very detailed sometimes they resemble something like a birds nest on top of the head ;+}
Q——you also worked of the previous production of Cosi in 2014, did you change anything this time around as a result of feedback from the last production?
A——Not too much changed. I really feel on this show, and it doesn’t happen often, we got it right. Of course this time Dorabella and Fiordaligi did not already have the “twin” look as did the 2 girls last time we did it. Last time the two girls had matching hair of their own which made my job even easier. So this time around we did have to do wigs for both of the girls to get that twin quality. But yes in many shows we make significant changes for the betterment of the show. Which mostly translates to: the singer hired this time is very different to the one we had the last time.
Q——you've worked on several COC productions over the years, which has been your favourite one so far as the wig and make-up supervisor? when a new work like wainwright's Hadrian is premiered at the COC, does that allow for more room for flexibility and creative tinkering in comparison to an established opera like Eugene Onegin?
A——Ok this is the toughest question … both can be challenging and rewarding. And in some ways the processes aren’t that different for me. When we build a new production like Hadrian at the COC the collaboration with designers, the costume dept, the singers and even the director really gets your creative juices going…. How do I achieve this with the money I have, (which btw is never enough) whats best for the singer?.... do we have enough time to achieve this? etc. Then there’s a co-production or a rental like Onegin where the design is set and we recreate it, although almost always with different singers. Since wigs rarely come with a production (unlike the costumes and sets) it is almost like designing from scratch for these kind of shows as well. Just a smaller budget. When we do a re-mount or co-pro the designers are usually around, and they want all the things that didn’t work the first time to be fixed and better, so we try to give them that if the money allows.
For the co-pros and rentals I usually pull what I can from stock and build what I have to. Although that gets harder and harder when the shows can be stylized and very specific, I have to be quite detailed to my superiors about budgets so they understand why the $$ is so much. Having said all that I guess I would say my favourite show to have worked on at the COC would be Robert Lepage's The Nightingale. So many challenges on that show. Working with water. Japanese Kabuki make up. Chinese opera make up. And it being waterproof—because all singers were in the pool. Challenging shapes of the Japanese kabuki wigs. Then touring the show to Brooklyn with only 1 full rehearsal before we had an audience. I wouldn't have given it up at all though, because the show was so magical. And I'm not even a fan of Stravinsky. I think the performers were the most amazing, giving over to Robert's vision so completely which made the show even more incredible. A close second would be War and Peace. It was such a huge show with so many people. We had the performers in their dressing rooms in shifts to do their make up. There were massive quick changes all throughout the show.
But when I watched from out front, even knowing all that was going on behind the scenes, the show looked effortless, and for me that's the name of the game. ... a magical experience for each audience member .