The Evolution of Opera Makeup

The Evolution of Opera Makeup

Veteran artist Stan Dufford, who served as wig master at San Francisco Opera from 1956 to 1968 and head of makeup from 1962 to 1968, shares how he saw makeup trends shift over the last half of century of opera.

Singers who perform in a theater as large as ours are at a disadvantage because distance tends to make faces disappear. Stage lighting and makeup can can help to remedy this problem. When I started at San Francisco Opera in the mid-1950s, the company was still using footlights and bright follow spots. The idea was to light the performer, not the scenery, and comic operas were always brightly lit.

The makeup department was still using greasepaint which came in sticks. It had to be mixed with cold cream to apply and then powdered. This often led to a rather heavy-looking makeup, but it had the advantage of bouncing light, making the face more visible. In college, where the theaters were much smaller, I had already been using a light, creamy makeup in tubes which gave a more natural look.

At that time, San Francisco Opera toured to Los Angeles, where union rules required the makeup department to hire extra makeup artists from the movie studios. These artists were used to two forms of makeup. The first was the Max Factor Pan Stick, which appealed to the artists because it was easy to apply with a latex sponge. But they also introduced the department to Max Factor Pan-Cake. This revolutionized opera makeup. It was a cake makeup applied with a damp sea sponge. Easy to apply and easy to remove. Opera makeup began to look more natural, greatly influenced by movies and TV.

The 1960s became the era of Big Hair and Big Eyes. Eye makeup became exaggerated, with strong eyeliner and false eyelashes, both upper and lower. The look was rather Egyptian-like.

By the 1970s, European singers who were used to performing in smaller theaters began to resist this look. And the introduction of filming in opera productions required makeup to be even more natural. Enter the close-up in opera.

The introduction of high-definition cameras for filming and for video screens in the balconies brought new problems. High-definition cameras are not friendly to aging faces. Concealers and lace hairlines on wigs become apparent. Special makeup is required. So makeup has gone from heavy to more natural to almost nonexistent. And now we are back to the problem of disappearing faces.

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