An essential part of the success of an opera production are the costumes, including the many headpieces, moustaches and sideburns that come with it. Realising the vision of opera directors and designers, no matter how extraordinary they might be, are incredibly talented artisans who bring the opera magic to life.

To find our more about what happens backstage in one of the most essential workshops of an opera house
, we spoke to Stefanie Paglialonga, Head of the Wig Department at Opera Australia, while her and her team were working on their production of Madama Butterfly opening at the end of this month.

How did you become involved with the art of wig making?

As a little girl I loved to entertain my little sister by painting my lower arms and hands into an animal with watercolours, for example as a giraffe. Also, in my teenage years I started to make prosthetics out of Fimo and face painting to turn my little sister into a bird, or other fantasy characters. I did my own masks for Fasnet, a yearly traditional south German carnival. My father was quite a successful artist and I grew up spending time in his art studio, moulding and drawing. These were the biggest influences in my life, hence my passion for being a wig maker and make-up artist to this day. I did my training back in Germany, which not only involved wig making, but also make-up, special effects, prosthetics, body painting and mask-making.

Can you talk me through the wig-making process?

When we start a new Opera Australia production, first I will be handed over designs from leading national and international costume designers and then will have a conversation with them about the interpretation of their concepts, discussing wigs, facial and body hair, bald caps, colours, styles, shapes, materials and make-up. I also work closely with the millinery department in regards to headdresses and hats that will be on top of the wigs. I am then responsible for realising the director’s and designer’s vision from paper to real, wearable products for the stage. We mostly have about three to six months to produce the wigs required for a new production. Before we go into the rehearsal period, the wigs will need to be fitted on the performers to make sure that everything is right and the designer is satisfied with the product we created.

What kind of materials do you use?

We mostly use human hair for wigs and facial pieces. But, for example, for Baroque wigs we use Yak hair as they did back in the day. For outdoor performances we mostly use synthetic hair, which maintains the style even if the wigs get wet from rain.

How many wigs do you have in storage, and how long do you keep a wig for?

We have two wig-storage rooms in our department, consisting of over 3400 wigs. We also have a stock of facial pieces containing moustaches, eyebrows, beards, goatees and so on. We keep all the wigs that we produce, especially as we have quite a lot of opera revivals, so the wigs made for those productions are reused when productions are remounted. We also reuse and recycle wigs from stock for new productions. The wigs are all numbered and have a computer chip sewn in, letting us know who, what for and where the wig was last used. Operas in most cases have a lot of performers on stage and there would not be enough time, budget or staff available to always make new wigs for everyone. We work on four-six opera productions at the same time for each season, so all wigs are disassembled, washed and hung ready for possible use in the next production. The wigs are hung and stored on special wig hangers in our workshop.

What is something most people do not know about your job?

I think most people are not aware that most wigs that we do are hand-knotted, made out of human hair and bespoke, made to fit the performer’s head shape and hairline. Also, when I go to see an opera and start talking to the person next to me, they often are not aware that the performer is wearing a wig. Most people just assume the performers wear their own hair... which is a good thing because we work hard so that the wigs look as real and natural as possible.

What’s the worst disaster you’ve ever had on an assignment?

Anything is possible in theatre so nothing is ever unexpected, but in the case of disasters, there is nothing worse than when you have spent time knotting a moustache, and then when curling it with the hot tongs, the ends burn and sizzle. Luckily this has only happened on very few occasions.

How many people work in the wig department? And has your job changed much in recent years, or are the craftsmanship techniques remained the same?

I am responsible for four staff in the department. Wig making is a historical craft and the techniques haven’t changed much. The only thing that has changed is in what material we sometimes use for the bases of the wigs, and of course, the introduction of synthetic hair. I know these days it is all about efficiency and you can buy anything already made and cheaper, but the traditional way I believe produces higher quality, longer lasting, perfect fitting wigs which are much better than anything you can buy readymade and cheap. The handmade technique results in a more realistic look, which is always our objective. Our aim is to keep a professional high international standard with our wigs, hairpieces and facial pieces. It is a daily challenge to compete against cheap and low-quality products. I’m really proud of my profession and skill: it is a rare and old trade, and a dying art. I’m very lucky to be able to work in this field at Opera Australia and all other opera companies I have worked in through the years.