A Battle for Respect in Hair and Makeup

For Stan Dufford, a Battle for Respect in Hair and Makeup

In all his years presiding over hair and makeup at San Francisco Opera, Stan Dufford can only remember losing his cool once. It was early in his career. A singer was upset about her wig. Dufford broke into tears. He threw a hairbrush.

It was a momentary lapse in the career of a man widely hailed as unflappable. From 1956 to 1968, Dufford reigned as wig master at San Francisco Opera, eventually becoming its head of makeup as well. After stepping down, he would return again and again over the decades as a freelancer, overseeing makeup artists and hairstylists as they rushed to prepare artists for the stage.

In a recent interview, he jokes that the title of this article should be, “We don’t do that anymore.” Decades have passed since he got his start in the business, and trends in hair and makeup have come and gone.

He’s seen the era of big hair and dramatic eyes give way to more natural styles. Makeup that was once painterly has now become, in large part, subdued — better to suit the high-definition cameras that capture today’s performances in minute detail.

But Dufford remembers the heyday of opera in the 20th century, when he would style legends like Leontyne Price, George Shirley and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Though, there were always some faces he couldn’t get his hands on: He recalls, for instance, that Luciano Pavarotti — one third of the supergroup The Three Tenors — would always do his own makeup.

“It would be horrendous, just awful. But nobody said ‘no’ to Mr. Pavarotti,” Dufford laughs.

It all started with a makeup box. Dufford was born in San Francisco, but his parents moved the family out to a farm in Lake County, California, when Dufford was young. He hated life there. “I was a city boy and not a farm boy,” he says.

It was an isolated existence. There was only one movie theater in the entire county. All the films were in black and white. And society was scarce: His graduating class numbered 18, out of a total student body of 75.

But a makeup box he discovered in the school book room changed the course of his future. At night, he would practice painting his face alone in the mirror. Eventually, he ordered a kit from the cosmetics company Max Factor, using its instruction manual to educate himself on technique.

It took a while to warm to opera, though. When he was around 12 years old, he remembers attending a student matinee of Aida — one of his first encounters with opera. “I must say I wasn't impressed with it at the time, except that there were horses in the triumphal scene. That was pretty exciting,” he says.

By the time he reached high school though, his tastes had changed. “I listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoon, and my mother would say, ‘Cant you turn that screeching off?’”

At the University of California, Berkeley, his passion for both makeup and opera flourished. He dropped chemistry as a major — though he still used the skills he picked up to mix body paint — and instead spent his time doing makeup for the drama department.

His roommate would spin opera records, and in senior year, a friend convinced him to go see Don Giovanni at San Francisco Opera. They found a perch at the very top of the opera house, where the sound was the fullest. It was one of his first experiences with the institution that would become his office.

Outside of the occasional course in historical costuming, Dufford found that he had to teach himself the techniques that would ultimately be his bread and butter. There were no YouTube tutorials, no specialized courses for his career path.

He also did not receive a lot of support from his family. “It took until I was about 50 years old that my mother conceded that I hadn't made a mistake in life. Because finally, she recognized that I really enjoyed what I was doing,” Dufford says.

But even in unexpected places, Dufford found opportunity. During the Korean War, Dufford enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in San Francisco. When he mentioned to a superior officer that he wished to see real kabuki theater, the officer arranged for him to travel to Japan. While abroad, he picked up books about how to create traditional Japanese hairstyles and kabuki makeup, as well as materials so he could practice at home. 

They came in handy when he auditioned to work at San Francisco Opera. After four years in the Navy, Dufford had returned to pursue graduate-level work at San Francisco State University. That’s when a call came in: The opera was looking for a wig maker. Though Dufford considered himself primarily a makeup artist, he had taught himself the basic wig-making knot. He decided to apply.

At the audition, a stage manager escorted him to the theater basement. “We went over the crates of very, extremely old-fashioned wigs. And he pulled out three wigs. Two were 18th-century-style powdered wigs, and the other was this mass of black hair, sewn in circles around the cap,” Dufford says.

The stage manager left. Now was the time for Dufford to show what he could do. He remembers fluffing up the white wigs and using the Japanese techniques he learned on the black one. It landed him the job.

But that was only the start of the challenge. In becoming San Francisco Opera’s new wig master — and later its makeup master as well in 1962, Dufford had inherited a department woefully lacking in resources.

“Let me tell you: There was not one single wig with a natural hair line. They were all stock theater wigs that could have been ordered from a catalog back in the 20s and 30s,” Dufford recalls.

He suspects someone absconded with the company’s best wigs before he arrived. “The wardrobe mistress kept saying, ‘Where are all the long wigs? The ladies’ wigs? Where are all the long wigs?’ And there weren't any.”

The shortages forced Dufford to improvise. He had arrived only about a month before the start of a new season. It could take five days to make a single wig. Where he could, he added highlights to revive older models. But some wigs required more drastic intervention.

“I had to cut up wigs in order to make new wigs because I was not given a budget for hair. In the 13 years I worked here, I was given $50 to buy hair,” Dufford says. “It was a horrendous race against time.”

Manon Lescaut would be his first production. But as a profession, hair and makeup did not command the same respect as it does now. Dufford received very little forewarning about the company’s plans for opening night.

“In the early days, there was very little communication between the top and me,” Dufford explains. He received no cast lists, no numbers, and no measurements to prepare for the wigs. So when choristers arrived at his door to get ready for the Manon Lescaut dress rehearsal, he had to sort out who was who: “Are you a nobleman? Or are you a townsperson?”

Respect for his profession would grow over time, but at the beginning, it was rough going. Pay was meager. The opera management in the post-war period was loathe to invest in hair and makeup as a department. “For the four weeks before the season opened, I was given $75 a week. When we opened, it went up to $150 a week, no overtime. I worked seven days a week,” Dufford says.

But that was only the start of the challenge. In becoming San Francisco Opera’s new wig master — and later its makeup master as well in 1962, Dufford had inherited a department woefully lacking in resources.

He also picked up tricks from big-name stars, some of whom were used to doing their own hair and makeup. Touring opera stars even, on occasion, brought their own costumes, a tradition rapidly going out of date. Dufford picked up tricks like back-combing from greats like soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who always instructed him to make her wigs taller: Higher, darling, higher!”

His entry into opera also coincided with a time of increasing integration in the field. “All the makeup was designed for Caucasian skin colors and had a basis of pink. That kind of makeup would turn gray on Black skin, just awful gray,” Dufford says. That problem forced him to seek out palettes that would suit more skin tones. Still, many of the Black performers he worked with, like Reri Grist and Grace Bumbry, did their own makeup.

Dufford considers the stylized wigs he constructed in the 1960s among the highlights of his career — a testament to his creativity against stiff odds. But by 1968, he was ready to move on. For the next few years, he worked for commercials and movies. He also started pursuing hair and makeup as an academic discipline. He was fascinated with the evolution of the medium and even published some of his research in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He recalls with glee how he picked up a box of hair in Los Angeles after Max Factor closed its wig department. Each strand spoke to him about history. “There were bundles of hair in natural color, but they had lavender mixed in because of Technicolor, which emphasized reds. And they had to cool the hair colors down with lavender.” 

By 1972, he was back in the opera house, this time with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. There, he would spend decades respected at the top of his craft, until his retirement in 2000. “I got to the point in Chicago where I could watch television and knot wigs at the same time, because I was just barely looking.”

But after retirement, Dufford felt like a man without an identity. So he returned. Nowadays, he helps preserve the history he witnessed firsthand, as a volunteer in the San Francisco Opera archives. He has learned to read the incoherent strings of numbers on old photography reels, to identify dates and camera types for archival images.

And he shares the history of San Francisco’s wig and makeup department — a history that might be ephemeral, washed down a sink or combed out of existence, were it not for his words.

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