In the opera world, we love to get a glimpse of the lives of the singers, conductors, and directors. But rarely do we get to learn about the great love, dedication, and artistry of the people behind the scenes whose artistry lifts us up into a wonderful state of suspended disbelief. Don and Linda Guillot are two artists that should be so celebrated. The reigning royal couple of hair and makeup design in the Gulf South have designed for New Orleans Opera for many years, and although they are busy getting ready for this weekend’s production of Madama Butterfly, they graciously took the time out to answers a few questions for me.
You two are such a dynamic duo; did you meet pursuing the same career?
Well not exactly, but almost. Even though we both had very similar career backgrounds we on different career paths at the time we met. We met at a photo shoot. Linda was the model and Don was the photographer. We became friends and ultimately starting dating. Our first date was attending the New Orleans Opera’s production of the opera “Faust”. Perhaps that was a glimpse of what was to come.
How long have you been married?
We celebrated our 42nd anniversary on April 4th of this year. Obviously we were babes in arms when we married!
How did you each begin your careers?
We both began in the image making and fashion industry. We have both been salon owners, licensed instructors and taught Cosmetology for years. Linda’s approach to theatrical makeup and hair comes from her background in the fashion industry where she has done modeling, TV commercials and taught as well as ran modeling schools and agencies She has also designed the looks for weddings, Carnival Balls and other special events. Don’s background is from the cosmetology field also but later through photography. He studied art at Tulane University to round out the photography background. His approach to theatrical makeup is through a painting approach and therefore he enjoys doing the character makeup and leaves the beauty aspects of the character more to Linda.
What is the thing that people understand least about the art of
stage hair and makeup?
The thing people understand the least about what we do is the amount of time
required in preparing for each production. We often get the feeling that people think we have a wig in every color, size and style sitting on shelves in some giant warehouse, so all we need do is pull it off the shelf and put in on the character. We wish this was the case. The truth is that each wig has to be sized, cleaned and styled for each person in a production. Most people don’t realize that professional wigs, especially lace front wigs, are sized and one size fits all certainly doesn’t apply here. In many cases very special or specific wigs are required, such as in the recent production of “Samson and Delilah”. Samson’s wig not only had to be the correct size of the performer’s head it had to be a specific color and length. More importantly, it had to be designed to give the appearance of being cut to a shorter length on stage then restored to the original length for the next performance. This required a one of a kind wig that was specifically designed for that production. Something like this may require many hours of work or even a day or two to complete. In the production of “Salome” the director wanted the head of John the Baptist to bleed only when Salome was caressing it. Not only that, but the head has to be the same size as a human head and weigh approximately to same so it doesn’t swing out on the stage like a Styrofoam head would do. Working this out took a number of days to obtain the necessary items and work them into the head. Then the head needed makeup that would match that of the performer. Each production has it’s own challenges and they all require time to complete.
How do you conduct your research for cultural-specific productions?
We research the culture, period, and, if possible, the character. This is done through books, videos (if any are available), and of course on the Internet. We had 30 years of research washed away by Hurricane Katrina. Over the years we had acquired a great deal of information that we relied upon in file cabinets in the wig salon. Unfortunately it was on ground level and Katrina took it with her. So we began again. In researching anything related to theatre and perhaps especially opera you have to dig deeper than the outward appearance of the character. To do that you need to know not just who the character is and where the character lived but how peoples lived in that time and place. What were the customs? Is this a wealthy person or a laborer? The cultural aspect of the time the story takes place dictates the looks of the characters. A wealthy person would have smooth, well cared for skin and hair. Whereas a downtrodden person would look much less cared for and possibly abused. One of the things we love about opera is how often the characters are contrasted against each other. If you understand the culture you will have a better idea of what that person might have looked like. So research is vitally important especially if it is an opera we have never done before. It’s even more important if we are doing a world premiere of that production. We have done at least four premiers that we can remember.
Tell us about your research for Madama Butterfly.
In researching “Madama Butterfly”, we relied upon the costumes and directions from the stage director. Having done this opera quite a few times – four in one season – previously, we are familiar with the customs of the Japanese people at that time. However, no matter how much research we have done we always follow the lead of the costume designs and the wishes of the director. By attending rehearsals and production meetings as well as individual conversations with the director and performers we try to achieve a look and feel to the makeup and hair that everyone is comfortable with and that is still true to the period and customs.
How long have you been with New Orleans Opera Association? Did you come along with Don Marino or did you meet him when you came on board?
This is a long story that we will try to make shorter. Joe Marino and Don were close friends for 45 years. They were business partners in salons, properties and other ventures. Joe Marino seemed to always love opera. When he was a teenager, he could not afford an opera ticket so he wrote a letter to New Orleans Opera stating how much he loved opera, but could not afford to buy a ticket. So the opera company sent him a complimentary ticket. He was eternally grateful to them for that. In the later years of his career in hairstyling, after spending years in New York, San Francisco and Dallas, he decided he would like to help New Orleans Opera Assn. establish an in-house makeup and wig department. He stopped doing hair and concentrated on designing and making wigs for NOOA. It was a lifelong dream. We supported and helped him in every way we could but always stayed in the background and as invisible as possible. It was his dream and we didn’t want to steal any of the thunder. He contracted lung cancer and fought it for six years ultimately losing his battle in the middle of a production of “Tosca”. Eerily, ten years prior to his death – while in good health – he had the words “Vissi d’arte vissi d’amore” inscribed on the face of the niche he had purchased where his urn would be placed upon his death. In his last seasons we helped him more and more until he could no longer do the makeup himself. So he would sign the contracts, and we would do the work. Ray Delia who was the general director and artistic director was the person who first contracted us to start doing the operas for NOOA. He was brave enough to give us the opportunity to prove that we could handle it. Since then we have been contracted through out the southern US and worked with some of Operas greatest. Many of Joe Marino’s wigs have and still continue to appear on these stages and worn by the performers.
You two have really demanding schedules. What other productions
have you worked on outside of NOOA?
Our schedules don’t appear to be demanding to our families and friends because they think we only work when we are at the theatre. Once again, preparation requires time, and many people even in the theatre do not realize that. With the generous approval of Robert Lyall, we recently did two operas in two cities at the same time. While Linda was doing “Samson and Delilah” in New Orleans, Don was doing a “Tosca” in Pensacola. We presently are contracted by Pensacola Opera and Jacksonville Opera on a year to year basis just as we have with NOOA. Other opera companies and universities contract us on a “are you available?” basis. Due to the movable dates of most opera companies we have to turn down many offers that we were able to accept in the past. Opera Southwest, whose operas we did every year now, has operas scheduled on the same dates as NOOA. Opera companies we have worked for are Mobile Opera, Pensacola Opera, Jacksonville Opera, Tampa Opera, Shreveport Opera, Opera Southwest in New Mexico, and Emerald City Opera in Steamboat Springs, CO. We have done operas and taught workshops for the University of Georgia School of Music, University of Missouri at Columbia, and others. We have had to turn down more offers that we can accept because of the prep time before each opera. Doing them like boxcars one immediately after the other is too demanding physically, so we have had to slim our scheduling down considerably.
What advice would you give young people interested in pursuing a
career in theatrical hair and makeup?
Our advice to young people who feel that they would like to pursue this as a career is that you require a very important ingredient that many people miss. That ingredient is dedication. Talent in doing makeup and hair are vitally important, but you must love what you do and therefore in a sense dedicate yourself to it. The theatre demands a great deal of your time and effort. You have to look forward to spending the time required there. Only experience can round out and fill in for you what you have been taught. There are no shortcuts. You work long hours for short pay at the beginning. It is not until you have proven yourself and are in demand that you can demand higher fees. This takes time and real dedication to achieve.
Are their particular things you would recommend for singers to
keep in mind with regard to products and skin types?
The first thing we recommend to singers is to use theatrical makeup for their stage makeup. We have had little or no problems with skin using theatrical makeup. Whatever makeup you do use be sure to get it off. Clean skin is the healthiest skin. We prefer clean skin without moisturizer for makeup. Moisturizer often tends to make the makeup blotchy or uneven. Always use your own personal eyeliner and lip brush. Do not put eyeliner on the inside of your eyelid – you are only asking for eye infection whenever you do that. If you want a natural look and do not use theatrical makeup you must remember that a heavier application of consumer makeup will not equal a light application of theatrical makeup and may be harsher on your skin. If you have skin problems a qualified dermatologist is the answer and the sooner you see one the better.
When you come to rehearsals, what do you look for in terms of
designing a look?
At rehearsals, we are looking at the performer’s interpretation of the character. We also are studying the way the stage director is staging the opera. We then try to merge the two; we attend rehearsals to get the feel for what the performers are expecting as well as the director. This often helps us to correct or prevent any misinterpretations. We approach each production as though this is the first time we are doing this opera. In a sense, it is. This is the first time we are doing this opera with this cast. Even if we have done the opera many times and worked with some of the performers before, this is still the first time we are doing this particular production .We did five productions of“La Traviata” in one season. None of them were the same as any of the others. We think this approach is vital to us doing a successful show. If we would ever start to think in terms of “this is just another Butterfly so just do what we always do”, that would signal that it’s time for us to move on. All of the people onstage are counting on us to make then not just look like the character but to help them to feel like and become the character. That is our job! When we no longer try to achieve that – it’s time to go. Rehearsals give us the information that we need and cannot get anywhere else.
What are among your dream productions that you’ve designed?
There are so many great memories from so many operas that we were a part of, it’s hard to single them out. There are fond memories of simple things like when we did a “Traviata” set in the 20’s. Linda cut the soprano’s own hair into a 20’s style bob, then styled “Flora’s” red hair into a finger waved period style. The opera had a “Great Gatsby” look to it. We will always remember the “Trittico” we did with NOOA, especially the “Gianni Schicchi” with all the singers made up as movie icons. We were very pleased with the look of our most recent “Salome”. We think that should have made it into Opera News Magazine. It is difficult to single out productions because everyone thinks you will name the biggest productions. And the NOOA‘s “Turandot” certainly was a dream production as was its “Carmen”. But there are many smaller productions that also could be considered dream productions.
Which ones have been especially challenging?
The operas that are especially challenging are the ones that require special effects, also the operas that are staged in a different time period then it was originally written in/for. As we mentioned before, Samson’s hair, John the Baptist’s head, Gianni Schicci’s New Orleans setting and movie characters.
New operas, especially premieres are particularly challenging because they have not been done before so there are no easy reference points. We are the first to create that particular character. You hope you got it right but until it is done again you don’t really know. We had to create the looks for the premiere production of the story of Louis and Clark in ”Corps of Discovery”. We didn’t realize there were so many different Indian nations and were challenged as to how to distinguish one nation from the other.
What production do you two wish you could do if money were no object?
As makeup and wig designers we naturally would pick an opera in which both the makeup and wigs would be as prominent and showy as possible on the stage. So we suppose that with the right support team a production of “Aida” would be our choice. We recently did an “Aida” for Opera Tampa as Maestro Anton Coppola’s retirement production. With the right number of assistants for the over a hundred people and a camel on stage at the same time it was a magical show. “Aida” is one of the most challenging operas to do because of the number of different characters and looks necessary to pull it off successfully. But we feel that in this opera the hair and makeup shine.
Share a favorite mishap that has come up in your years with NOOA.
A favorite mishap! Perhaps the most memorable mishap happened during the production of “Pontalba”. In the last act, the tenor who entered the story as a young man and aged through the performance was to become a man in his 80’s in his final scene. There were many quick changes throughout the opera, so we kept all of the principal’s wigs just outside their dressing room. When we went into Robert Breault’s dressing for his quick change into a white wig, muttonchops and mustache, we realized it was neither in nor outside his dressing room. Realizing that our assistant Russell -who was returning some wigs to the other side of the theatre- had mistakenly taken Mr. Breault’s wig and facial hair to the other side, with just seconds to spare, Don ran through the tunnel under the stage as fast as possible each way to get the wig back to Mr. Brault’s dressing room. He chose the tunnel because he didn’t want to run that fast across the back of the stage. Linda had fully prepared Mr. Brault for the change. So we made it with perhaps one or two seconds to spare. Bob Brault, who was fully aware of the entire situation, remained calm and pleasant throughout the entire ordeal…. a true professional.
Go and see New Orleans Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” Friday, April 12 at 8pm and Sunday, April 14th at 2:30 at Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.