Wig designer Dawn Rivard: Dallas Opera’s hair apparent
There’s a new star at The Dallas Opera … and it’s not a singer. Nor even a composer or conductor. The DO’s tradition of quality extends from the largest sets to the smallest hair on the actors’ heads … and that’s where Dawn Rivard comes in.
As the company opens its 60th season, it has brought in Rivard — one of the top artists in the rarified world of wig building and design.
Rivard has gained international attention as one of the most sought-after hair and makeup specialists in the biz, having plied her designs on stages from New Zealand to Europe and North America. Her creations have been seen in hundreds of theatrical shows, plays and operas, but also on CD covers, magazines, TV shows and regularly on the TV show Canadian Idol. Her skills helped build Broadway’s Ragtime, Sunset Blvd., Show Boat and the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere of Mario and the Magician, as well as more than 20 other productions for the opera troupe.
And now Dawn does Dallas, tackling Tchaikovsky’s sweeping Eugene Onegin. But before she can even catch her breath, she faces another opening, another show just one week later: The return of Jake Heggie’s modern classic Moby-Dick.
With such a resume, she must have started her fascination with wigs by doing hairstyles for dolls as a little girl.
Nope. Not even close.
“I didn’t find the wig world until I was working in window display,” Rivard says. “I liked everything about my windows except the wigs, and that’s what enticed me to go and do hair. Before that I was a painter/drawer, and always a bit of a tomboy, so no, I wasn’t much of a girly-girl and dolls weren’t at the top of my list.”
Based in Toronto and wanting to learn more about wigs but not finding any help in the window display industry, she did find her way to the Canadian Opera Company’s apprenticeship program. Although she admits to being distinctly unqualified, she was nonetheless accepted into the program, and continued makeup and wig work for three years before joining the staff. But don’t call her a wig master; she’s a self-described “wig designer and builder.” (The title of Wig Master is a distinction reserved for those who study and are certified in the United Kingdom, she stresses.)
The goal of a professional theater and opera wig expert is, precisely, not to draw attention to their creations. Typically, wigs use lace to give a more natural hairline, trying to avoid what often happens too often: you see a hairpiece that screams wig! Hand-building a wig is a precise and painstaking process. It begins with measuring the singers’ head, building a mold and foundation then weaving and knotting the hair to it. By hand. And usually one hair at a time.
So how long does this take?
“Depending on the hair length, the pat answer is that it takes about a week,” Rivard sighs. “But it can take you month to make a wig.”
For a show as massive as Eugene Onegin, that can sound daunting, although Rivard notes that every wig doesn’t need to be handmade to be attractive; you can add a lace front to a hard front wefted wig (the kind you see in most wig stores). “Depending on the size of the lace front, and if I’m desperate, I can probably knot one in a day. But honestly, I’m going to pull that wig out in a couple of months and think, ‘Oh my God, obviously I was in a rush that day.’” And if you’re thinking that you’d love to have a fancy hand-built wig to polish of your glamorous Halloween costume, you may want to rethink that aspiration. The type of custom built hand-tied wigs typically used in leading opera houses and theaters can cost anywhere from $4,000 for a short male wig to $15,000 for a long ladies style. Sticker-shock for sure.
And Rivard, even if not a certified wig master, sure is a genuine wig whiz. Preparing for the DO’s Eugene Onegin is a challenge the size of Moby-Dick himself. For this production, all of the wigs for the 24 chorus ladies were pulled from stock (Rivard has a personal archive of, she estimates, more than 3,000 hairpieces). But that doesn’t mean you can take it and shake it and plop it on a head. Rivard estimates that she’s spent around three hours re-knotting each of the fronts of several of the ladies’ wigs to make them look, as she says, “kinder.” (Yes — that’s how a professional thinks about her craft.) But there are two chorus men’s’ wigs that aren’t taking a backseat. Rivard estimates her crew spent about three days on the two wigs to refurbish them to where she thinks they need to be.
And that’s just the chorus. Three leading-lady wigs were all-hand fronted for this production. After the repair and refurbishment, all the wigs have to be styled (it helps that Rivard is also a licensed hairstylist). Oh, and eight gentlemen will sport muttonchops (yes, she also crafts facial hair). After all, this is grand opera.
“Every time some one says there’s a party scene in the opera, my work just doubled. And yes we have a ballroom scene!” Rivard laughs. But her job in Dallas doesn’t end in the ballroom. Moby-Dick opens on Nov. 4 (it plays in repertory with Eugene Onegin). Although not a hair-heavy show, it is heavy on blood, dirt and tattoos, which is where Rivard’s extensive makeup expertise will come into play. The character Queequeg is covered in ink from the waist up; she hopes to eventually get the application process down to two hours.
And there are more challenges. A chorus of 18 men has to go from costumes to oiled-up and bloody shirtlessness in about five minutes. And then back again. All is not beauty and pathos in the grand milieu of opera. It can also get down and dirty.
Time is at a premium as Rivard and her staff countdown to opening night. She’s pulling 18-hour days and has been away from her Toronto home since May. She’s looking forward to some time off before restarting the grind in January.
And while on hiatus, there’s one thing she won’t be spending any time on: Her own hair. After one too many bad haircuts, she’s worn dreads for the last 10 years.
“It’s lazy man’s hair” she says. “On a daily basis, I spend very little time on my hair and that makes me very happy.”
An irony as majestic as opera itself.