The Job: Alison Hanks, Wig and Makeup Designer, Lyric Opera of Kansas City

(photo by Jim Barcus)

The life of a makeup artist is filled with unpredictable challenges: An eyelash falls into a principal’s mouth as she is in full-on aria. Wigs slip to and fro.

Makeup artist Alison Hanks recalls a summer stock production when a bat flew into a wig! She’s also contended with power outages and flooding below stage.

It’s all part of the gig for the Northwest Missouri State grad, who worked for the Des Moines Opera, the Washington National Opera, the Michigan Opera Theatre and others, before signing on with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2010.

Hanks started as an assistant; by 2013 she was promoted to wig and make-up designer.

During her tenure at the Lyric, Hanks has worked on such demanding productions as “Silent Night,” where, she says, “chorus men had to go in and out of a dirty-faced, soldier look to a clean look several times. “Rusalka” posed a different challenge: turning women into mermaids with dreadlocks. For “Don Giovanni,” Hanks had to give all the women a 1950s film noir look.

Each production requires months of preparation and research. In May Hanks began doing all the background work for the Lyric’s November production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” including, she said, “looking at old paintings, watching period movies and going through books and figuring out how to accomplish what the overall production was supposed to look like.”

Hanks had to educate herself on how to create period hairdos — quickly. For Figaro, she had a six-minute window to change a singer’s hair from down and flowing to a beautiful twist updo.

For the Countess, she built three wigs: one down, one up and then a powdered wig for the final scene. Roxanne Lara, a specialist in wig building, was brought in from out of town to help. For the character of Figaro, Hanks worked with the actor’s own hair.

For each performance, Hanks arrives four hours before the curtain, first prepping the wigs, cleaning the stations and getting everything ready for the business of applying makeup to the actors, who arrive bare-faced, usually wearing a robe or a T-shirt.

“On average, she said, “there are ten principal artists and a couple of supernumeraries who don’t sing or dance but perform an action or pantomime in full costume.” Hanks is responsible for all of them.

With the help of her assistant, Karen Billingsley, she preps their skin, applies foundation and also does the “head prep” needed for the wigs, putting the women in pin curls and putting ace bandages on the men. For each, the process takes from 20 minutes to a half hour.

The bright stage lights can wash out the singers’ features, so Hanks applies a heavy foundation and accents the contours of cheekbones and jawlines. She applies a fixer spray to set and keep the makeup in place.

Over the years, there have been changes in the approach to stage makeup, Hanks says.

“Stage makeup originally was very heavily applied; it was very dramatic and changed a lot of facial structures and features based on a particular character, but as the years have passed directors want to see a more natural look. Of course, the natural look in opera is much different than a natural look on the street.”

Hanks and Billingsley are at the ready throughout the production, applying touch-ups between acts. Afterward, they remove the makeup with a gentle cleanser, and, sometimes, baby wipes.

“I’m particularly proud of Figaro because my team came very close to the renderings and what the designer wanted to see,” Hanks says.” I’m so proud of the work they did. “I love what I do and taking that last bow was a big moment of personal triumph.”

Heidi Nast

Heidi Nast is the Executive Director of the Arts Engagement Foundation of Kansas City and Co-Founder of KC Studio Magazine.

Leave a Reply