Opera Stars

September 27th, 2016

September 27th, 2016

Our final birthday honour goes to the team behind Glyndebourne. We chatted to Sarah Piper, the head of make-up, about the challenges of creating such iconic Opera characters.

A fantastical mixture of performance and music, opera takes creativity to the extreme.  At its zenith in Europe in the 17th century when it was the staple of popular culture, it’s seen a growing renaissance throughout the 20th and is now part of the live streaming programme to the nation’s cinemas alongside the RSC and the National Theatre.

And there’s nowhere more quintessentially British than Glyndebourne, the independent opera house nestled in their extensive gardens on the South Downs in East Sussex started by John Christie and his opera singer wife, Audrey Mildmay, in 1934 and run today by his grandson, Gus.  Running the summer-long Festival and followed by taking three productions on the road in the Tour, its international reputation for producing both traditional and contemporary productions while commissioning new works and breaking new talent is second to none, and the creativity is in no small part down to Head of Make-up Sarah Piper and her team.


Sarah Piper     Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Drawn to opera when she first visited Covent Garden aged 7, Sarah was hooked on make-up from a young age.  Training followed with Television South at Maidstone Studios in Kent, initially in television and film make-up, before a conversation with Jan Musgrove discovering that make-up artist positions existed in the opera world.   Jan, who had been involved in the early days of filming operas at Glyndebourne, showed Sarah that she could work in an industry she had always loved.  Her dream position came up at Glyndebourne – and the rest is history.

Warpaint went along to meet her and the team, and watch the make-up going on to two of the principals in Handel’s Saul.

Glyndebourne Tour 2015 - Image by Sam Stephenson

Glyndebourne Tour 2015 – Image by Sam Stephenson

WP:  You have quite a lot of productions on every year in Festival.  How soon would you start in the planning stages?  Is next year planned?  Are your ideas still forming?

SP:  We have six productions in Festival and normally three for the Tour.  For next year’s Festival, we have four revivals so we’re talking about those quite a lot, and thinking about how we’re going to do it in different ways, how it was last time.  We’d adapt them to the new cast, but keep the integrity of the designer’s work as accurately as we can.  That is important, I think, and I would hope that when it’s seen with the new cast, it would be seen that way – technically you have to adapt it with different sizes and shapes, skin tones of faces, but if something is 1960s it will stay 1960s.  It won’t drift into late 1950s even, we’ll stick to where it was set.


Stuart Jackson in make-up with Lucille Fisher

WP:  In terms of designing a new production, you obviously have the Director, the Production Designer and the Principals, and yourself – how much do your find your visions meets in the middle – and how many times to you have to compromise?

SP:  Normally we have quite lengthy meetings, the designer and I at the beginning, we have a lovely collaboration and my job is to realise their designs and their vision.  Most principals are quite happy to go along with things because it’s part of the character.  If somebody really had a thing – everything is really just talked about with the Director, Designer, Principal and I – if there were any issues, we would resolve it.  But it’s very, very rare – in my time I would say that it’s hardly ever happened – I would say that I’m very fortunate.  I think sometimes there is more of a historical reference – an accuracy and integrity – to it with opera and also opera is slightly different because it’s about the music which is a huge part of it – how everyone looks is very important, but there’s so much more with opera.  I haven’t met an opera singer with a personal make-up artist YET.  But you do get singers who particularly like working with a member of the team and then I would always try to find them that person, if I can, just as there are certain people I’ve always worked on and would hope that I still would.


Anna Devin as Michal in the make-up chair

WP:  How big is your team?

SP:  It varies from show to show – can be dramatically different – you can have maybe three people as a minimum to 10-15 if it was a very technical show with lots of make-up, and then the Wig Team is similar (I’m head of Make-up and there is a Head of Wigs too).  You might have a show with masses of wigs, then ones with hardly any.  Some use their own hair which can be labour intensive too, you have to do the hair dressing.  It’s the same with make-up too – you can have a make-up that can take 2-2.5 hours to put on and 45-60 mins to take off, or maybe you can have a principal artist with something that didn’t take very long or a small role with a character that had a big make-up.  Every opera is different.


Sarah Piper at work    Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

WP:  And with productions that have a great historical resonance, would you feel that you’re tied to the history of it or are you free to adapt and add 21st Century touches, such as glitters, if that worked with your Director’s vision?

SP:  What you described is very much what happened with Saul.  In Don Pasquale this year the chorus has an 18th Century make-up, but they are all wearing different shades of pastels.  It’s a very beautiful look and simply a variant from the same colour palette, so they’re different but all part of that world.  If doing something that very historically accurate, then I would try and use the pigment that I can of the time; go back and recreate historical colours – I’ve done that quite a lot.  So if somebody says they want it, I would do the research to see what was available them, and sometimes it literally can change within six months – they’d go to Italy and bring back all the pearlised make-up, then suddenly there was nail polish and people wore red, and we try and make it as accurate as we can, and personally that’s a bit that I really enjoy.

It gives the opportunity to explore the historical references and it’s fascinating with my team to talk about that and the social context  – that characters would have worn a patch because they were covering something up – a piece of velvet over their pox mark – or too much lead in the make-up or sitting too close to the fire.  And also the social class and demographic within make-up is fascinating – what they were wearing in Paris isn’t necessarily the same as London or Milan.  Even now, the fashion scenes are very different.  And it depends where the opera is set – Seville would not necessarily have the same access as they would in Madrid – so trying to think of their world.  If you are a peasant, you need to look like a peasant.  Sometimes if a cast member has a manicured eyebrows, I would fill them in.  People never leave them alone now – people arrive and they’ve had them threaded and dyed, and we put them back to what they would have been.


Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

WP:  Do characters really come alive when they’re in full costume?

SP:  I’ve sat through a lot of the Saul rehearsals this year, as there were a lot of technical challenges that we needed to do.  Sometimes transformations are extraordinary – Falstaff in particular is a big one.  Most people enjoy wearing the 18C costumes too.


Anna Devin as Michal and Sarah Tynan as Merab in Saul  Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

WP:  What has been your biggest challenge with Saul?

SP:  It’s been an absolutely wonderful production to work on – a fabulous design where Baroque make-up meets fantasy – like a baroque crazy world where they have some elements that are very true to the 18th century and there are then fashion element running through it.  Every single chorister and dancer is an individual in it so they’ve all got a different look, so that has been lovely trying to work out everyone having a variant on everybody in it.  For the principals, the Witch of Endor has some lovely breasts which have to be suckled from and he also has to drip milk onto Saul’s head in the scene; they have to be multi-functional – they have to be suckled from, drip, squirt and spray.  You need a good working knowledge of prosthetics too.  It’s been a lovely project to work on – I was talking to a member of the [acting] team earlier this afternoon who says he has really enjoyed the process – from looking at the design to them actually working on stage, standing in the wings, helping them after when they come off.  The artists have really enjoyed the process as well.


Stuart Jackson in Saul  Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

WP:  How do you feel about a production like that, which is quite technical, going off on tour?  Are you accompanying it or members of your team?

SP:  The Members of my team who are going all worked on it in the Festival and the Tour.  I will be going out on the road next week to Canterbury and I will make another appearances at certain venues.  We like going out on the road, it’s lovely to take it out to other people, different audiences, and it’s a very positive thing for Glyndebourne.  We have a new member of the team this year who has done a lot of film and telly and she is has never been any of the regional theatres so we’re just going through adapting how the spaces are very different, the quick changes will be in different places and about making sure that we walk through the plot before the show begins to know exactly where you are going to be.  It’s nice, I always enjoy going out on tours – exciting, different each week, you’re adapting to different surroundings and spaces.


Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

WP:  Live streaming and DVD audiences look in more detail at the faces.  What challenges has HD brought you?

SP:  I think I was very fortunate and I trained at ITV where they already had HD cameras a long time ago, and we looked at our work then through the HD camera and when we started doing that here, it didn’t faze me because I had done it.  Technically, it’s about striving for it to be as clean and neat as possible, but I actually passionately believe that it should be like that anyway so it shouldn’t be that much of a difference.  Glyndebourne is quite an intimate opera house with great sightlines and also for the performers who are working with each other, they see the detail whether the back of the house does or not.  The maintenance is the biggest challenge – if it’s a very hot evening and we’re filming – keeping people cool and obviously nerves – it’s a different thing entirely – we’re very supportive during the process.


Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

WP:  Temperature is a major challenge, how do you keep the make-up on?  What are your saviour products?

SP:  We love good old traditional favourites – chamois leather and eau de cologne and we freeze them and crack them at the opportune moment, spin them to create a lovely cold cloth that you drape around the temples, back, neck.  Very comforting it you’re doing a physically demand role in a very heavy costume and a wig – we’ll be standing in the wings to meet you with water.  Hand fans are popular too – most singers don’t like anything sprayed on them, for those that do a mist is great.  Frozen powder puff with an ice cube in it – in the long interval, there’s a chance to really cool down which is nice.  Very much for me personally is supporting somebody – you’re with them when they go on and come off – to be with an artist all that time.


WP:  What’s next for you and the team?

SP:  I’m very excited about Beatrice and Benedict next year.  I’ve never worked on that or even seen it – which is very unusual –  I’m listening to the music at home at the moment because it’s important with a piece if I don’t know it so well.  It really puts it into context and really helps with quick changes – entrances and exits.  Just knowing the music is important, the singer will ask you to come after the duet or the recit – and they’ll say it in Italian so it’s nice if you know the piece properly.  I love Benjamin Britten – I’d love to do another Peter Grimes.  The excitement is that you find what the repertoire is and even if you’ve done it before, it will probably be set in a different period – a different director.  It’s wonderful that we have a reputation for breaking new talent here – so you meet someone when they come in the chorus and they come back later as a principal.  You follow their careers.  Opera has such a huge body of work – and new commissions are always coming – so you never run out of interesting productions to do.  There’s a new commission coming to Glyndebourne next year.  We talk as a team a lot about the operas – you need to know the relationships between all the characters to be able to understand the operas better.

The Tour, featuring Saul, Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti and Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, runs until 5th December at venues around the country, while Billy Budd, the powerful Michael Grandage production, is playing on screen at local cinemas.  Book tickets via this link


Anna Devin and Christopher Ainslie in Saul   Credit: Richard Hubert Smith



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By Emma Rutherford

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