Interview with Rick Geyer: Wigmaster for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera

I visited with Rick at his home in Burbank, California which currently is being remodeled. Rick celebrates his eleventh season with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. He’s in full swing building wigs and preparing for the fall repertory. The opera season opens on September 8 with performances of “Carmen” and “Werther”.

What did you do prior to becoming a full time wigmaster for the LAMCO?

I was working for Estee Lauder doing makeup demonstrations in malls across southern California. I was also working in theatre doing wigs and makeup for Long Beach Civic Light Opera, Long Beach Opera, South Coast Repertory, and some equity waiver shows. I also traveled around with regional opera companies.

Did you ever pursue another career before deciding to become a makeup artist?

I started out as a stage manager and doing props, that’s where I met a freelance wigmaster named Bruce Geller. We hit it off and he was willing to take me on and train me. I always had an interest in makeup but it did not seem like a viable profession. When I saw him making wigs and saw what he did for the opera all of the sudden it sparked me. I did the grunt work for him, sorting bobby pins and hiring the crew. Then he would teach me how to ventilate wigs, do makeup, and dress hair. That’s how it all got started for me.

Would you say at that point you were “bitten by the bug” of makeup and hair and decided to pursue it full time?

Yes. When I saw Bruce Geller had a career in it, it seemed like a viable career option. And it felt right, “like home.”

Tell us about your training? Was it formal or were you self-taught?

My makeup training started in college with a basic stage makeup class, this was not preparatory for a career in makeup. I felt successful in this area of study. I looked forward to the class and did well in it. The next training I received was with Bruce Geller and was completely informal. Everything since that time has been working with other makeup artists and wigmasters.

Do you desire to take any specific classes in makeup?

I would like to get more experience with prosthetics, although I’m going to be getting into that before I get any formal training. We have a big prosthetics show called “Fantastic Mr. Fox” this season. I will be learning on my own as I go through the process. I haven’t had the coincidence of time and money to pursue any formal training. Working the schedule that I work its impossible to take time off to take any serious classes. Every show is a learning process anyway because everything is so different.

Who was your mentor or makeup role model?

Bruce Geller, who I mentioned earlier, was a genius with hair. That was his strong suit, he could take a piece of shit wig and turn it into magic in the course of minutes. His creativity and ability to make people look right on stage was uncanny. He was my first real mentor. I looked up to the former head of the San Francisco Opera, Paul Alba who we lost in 1994. Also, Gerd Mairandres who is the current wigmaster for the San Francisco Opera. Another brilliant hairdresser and wig maker, Terry Baliel who was the former wigmaster for the LAMCO before I took it over. A lot of these people came out of the San Francisco Opera because that was the only company that provided training in the seventies and eighties. Most of these people are still working in the business and have gone on to inspire other people.

What areas of media have you worked in besides opera?

I’ve done commercials, assisted on one feature film, and a television pilot. I’ve had limited exposure to on camera stuff. It’s partially deliberate, I haven’t pursued it. I am more comfortable in theatre.

What year did you land your current wigmaster position with the LAMCO? How did it come about?

It was 1988. I was still working with Bruce Geller traveling doing regional opera companies. I had made a connection with Theatrical Hair Goods Company out of San Francisco. They were sending me to places like Oklahoma, Maryland, and they also had a contract to provide wig and makeup services to the LAMCO. They decided it was better to have me take care of the LAMCO company here, and send whoever they were going to send to LA somewhere else. That’s what led me to my current position. Our production manager was very keen on establishing an operating department, since we were doing seven to eight productions per year. Overall, it was one of the better investments of the company’s money to keep the wig rental costs down, and create hair goods that would last longer. We haven’t rented at all in the past few years so the investment has paid off, and we are still expanding our stock.

How do you get ready for your season? What does your job entail as wigmaster?

My involvement begins when we start getting production information for upcoming seasons. My initial involvement is the budgetary planning stage for two to three years ahead. When deciding the feasibility of a production, the cost of wigs and makeup is a factor. It depends what the production is, what size chorus is being used and the number of super numeraries. All these factors come into play with budget decisions. All of this is put on paper years in advance. Once the production is actually slated, then its pursuing the designers and directors to get information using sketches, renderings, or if it’s a previously produced opera, using photographs or videotapes. Then taking those things to the cast and adapting it to make it work for them. A lot of my job is putting it together on paper first, then learning the show. I don’t have to learn the opera note for note, but enough about it to know what characters are involved in what scenes, their progression, if they go through a decline or death. It’s understanding those parts of the opera is expected. I can then speak to the designers and director intelligently about the characters and understand what’s going on. I have to do much research myself and be familiar with the period. I studied costume history in college and paid great attention to it, so I use that all the time. I can identify, that’s always been a specialty for me to hear a year and know what silhouettes I need to come up with for men and women.

What is your favorite and/or most creative opera?

There are so many things that are memorable for different reasons. “Rosenkavalier” was a memorable one because it’s my favorite opera and I went on stage as an on-stage hairdresser. It was a unique opportunity. The show was so big that I did not want the responsibility of also going on stage, because there was so much to deal with getting the show on. But, it became clear that in the amount of time allotted to the stage business, a super could not do the hairdressing. Someone who was capable of doing the actions had to do it and it had to be a male. So, I had to do it, and once I got into it, I had a ball. Now as far as shows for design, I would say Straus’ “Die Frau Ohne Schatten”, which was designed by David Hockney, was a pretty brilliant production. I had some interesting design challenges. Also, “The Magic Flute”, was an interesting design project. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is an upcoming production that will be a big design challenge.

What is your least favorite and/or most difficult opera creatively?

The most difficult event in my ten years with this company was the first time we did “Madama Butterfly”. The Butterfly was very nervous and did not give me the chance to prepare things. She refused fittings, would not talk about things, she would do her own makeup then change her mind at the first makeup call and want me to do it. It was a nightmare. The whole event was the worst experience that I have been through, which is still not bad. The most difficult opera creatively is yet to come with “Fantastic Mr. Fox”.

What do you find most challenging about your job?

Pleasing everybody. For every production there is at least five opinions that enter into every decision: the director, designer, myself, the singer and the head of our company. Most times all five of those opinions run pretty close, or run in different directions and its my job to distill them and achieve the best possible compromise. The singer involved, depending on who it is, usually will get his or her way.

Why do you continue to stay in the opera media versus venturing out into television or film?

Obviously I’m not in it for the money because the money you make in this business is not nearly as good as you make in television or film. It can’t compete. It is a passion to be involved with theatre and being part of a performance that exists only at that moment. You can videotape or tape-record it but it’s the combination of all the elements that come together. The principal artists, chorus, super numeraries, the orchestra, the stage management team, the crews from electrical, sound, wardrobe, hair, and makeup it is a miracle that is happens. Performances are usually a little different each night, and when your around it enough you sense little things that go wrong. It’s being part of something live that is life sustaining for me to be around and be a part of.

What is lacking in the makeup artists today that you notice?

I tend not to hire makeup artists that have no theatrical experience. I hire those that have some background in theatre preferably in opera or at least large theatre. I have not encountered anyone who is totally ignorant. I have noticed lack of awareness when I did a commercial that featured opera characters. The Production Company used their hair and makeup crew and they were doing regular makeup. They did not know how to do theatrical makeup. So my frustration is the lack of understanding of the scale required for opera makeup. The speed, sharpness, and definition need to carry across the distance it needs to play. The primary factor that makes opera makeup and hair different is that we are playing in huge venues.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to become a makeup artist for theatre?

If you want to work in the business you need to be a jack of all trades. You need to be able to do wigmaking, wig dressing, hair dressing, hair cutting, to a full range of makeup applications including body makeup. It is a very broad spectrum of expertise which is different than the television and film industry, where everything is compartmentalized. In this business you’re either hair or makeup, or body makeup, or within makeup you do prosthetics or your known for doing beauty makeup. In theatre, especially in opera, there is no room for specialization you must be diversified. You need to be able to work with all types of materials to achieve the best result for the individual. Some people sweat like pigs and you need to know how to put on makeup that will stay on. It’s knowing what new products are out, and dealing with different skin types. If you want to do this type of work learn as much as you can about everything. Learn every aspect, and have an organizational mind that can deal with and approach a show that has 100 or more wigs in it.

What are some of your favorite products for hair and makeup?

My favorite red lipstick is still Estee Lauder All Day Parallel Red. I use Maybelline waterproof eyeliner a lot. It really holds. I use it for eyebrows, eyeliner in black and brown. I always have plenty of that for people who have a lot of perspiration. I can’t live without my favorite pair of eyelashes which are getting harder and harder to find. I use so many different things. I even use MAC foundation, powder, and lipstick that’s one area where it’s worthwhile to splurge. I use a lot of Ben Nye products. Hair products-you can’t beat Aqua Net when you need a wig to be a helmet and thrown across the room. Splash is my favorite freezing hairspray by Focus 21. My favorite wig conditioner is Unicure. My favorite hair dye is still RIT.

The basics you know, its not brain surgery! We’ll all make a note of these things and put them in our kits!

Give us your best trick of the trade tip.

My favorite tip is one that I got from a friend of mine who is a Broadway hairdresser. It is a wig prep using a big size of surgifix attached with strong textured hairpins around the perimeter of the head. Then you can take long thick hair and bunch it up inside the surgifix elastic band tube. You can do an instant wig prep that goes completely flat. You just smash the hair around, puts some pins in and anchor a wig right on. It’s a great way to deal with braids, dreadlocks or really long thick hair that needs to go under a tightly dressed wig.

Where can you get Surgifix?

A medical supply, then I dye it to the performers hair color so there is no break in color under the wig. It is a tubular bandage for burns.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding is when it all comes together and I feel like I have put together a good looking show, that meets the design standards and the singers are all happy with. When it’s a pleasant running show, pleasant personalities when all that comes together its great. It has been just that on numerous occasions with us. We’ve had lots of shows where I look back and realize I did the best job I could with what I had at the time.

Tell us an opera diva story!

For a production of the “Makropolous Case”, which deals with a woman who is over 100 years old and has managed to stay alive through the use of a secret formula. At the end of the opera she is revealed to be this ancient woman. She was in a bald cap, complete stark white makeup, big dark rings around her eyes, really skeletal and grotesque looking at the very end. Her last change where we did the most work, she always had to have lip gloss. She smeared lip gloss on and looked at me and my assistant and actually wanted to know if she looked all right!

In her ancient look?

All cracked and falling apart, she put the lip gloss on. Even in those moments of total filth the vanity still comes out and it was absolutely comical! She still wanted to look pretty.

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