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Behind the scenes with Anne Ford-Coates and Deborah Voigt

Anne Ford-Coates has been principal designer of hair and makeup for Glimmerglass since 2007. She’s also Associate Director for Elsen Associates, resident hair and make-up designers  to leading theaters and opera companies throughout North America. Recently, Anne designed Washington National Opera’s new production of Salome, directed by Francesca Zambello and  starring Deborah Voigt. Here, she tells us why this experience makes her especially look forward to the 2011 Glimmerglass Festival.

There were many things about Debbie Voigt that I found remarkable when I first met her.  She’s down to earth, funny, and refreshingly open.  She’s also just beautiful, with amazingly bright blue eyes.  It’s generally my job as a wig & makeup designer to put singers at ease, yet I felt that it was Debbie who made me feel relaxed and comfortable, chatting with me as we started her head wrap. 

What is a head wrap, you ask?  In order to make a custom wig we have to copy a singer’s head.  It’s a very low-tech process.  We take plastic wrap, wrap it around the head then cover the head in clear tape.  Then we trace the singer’s hairline with a marker.  The head wrap process looks as strange as it sounds.  While singers are accustomed to this, it’s perhaps an odd activity to jump into upon first meeting someone.

When it came time to choose the wig’s color we were joined by Anita Yavich, the brilliant costume designer I collaborated with on this project.  Anita suggested red for the wig.  As a redhead myself, I was into that idea and I happily picked up my wheel of hair in various different colors to hold up to Debbie so we could see which shades of red flattered her skin tone.  As I was flipping through the reds, Anita said that maybe my hair color would look good on Debbie.  So much to my surprise, I ended up laying my hair on Deborah Voigt’s forehead.  These are the sort of invasions of personal space and weird intimacies that are normal in the business of theater, but in the real world would be considered a fairly creepy thing to do to someone one has only known for 20 minutes.

In the past few weeks of rehearsals with Francesca and Debbie I’ve gotten to see what a remarkable team they make.  Seeing what they create together is a joy, or in the case of Salome, a horror that makes your hair stand on end.  However, what I’ve enjoyed most is the time I’ve gotten to spend with them during our pre-show time each rehearsal. They have an amazing rapport and a trust that I think is rare. Francesca always stops by while I’m doing Debbie’s makeup to see how she’s doing and stays for a while to chat.  This isn’t unusual for Francesca.  I’ve noticed that when she asks how someone is, it’s not merely a salutation, she’s really asking and prepared to listen and engage in conversation.  

Anne Ford-Coates and Francesca during a recent photo shoot.

Anne and Francesca during a recent photo shoot.

I did a quick, minimal makeup on Francesca for a photo shoot last summer on the Glimmerglass campus and we had a fantastic conversation then.  I was thrilled that she was curious about my history with Glimmerglass and, more importantly, seemed already to share my enthusiasm for the area and the people who live there.

A few short weeks later, I flew down to DC between Glimmerglass performances to attend the company introduction to Salome with Francesca. What I found most interesting was when she pointed out that Salome is a rarity as an opera because there’s no love story.  Instead of love, obsession drives the action.  It was one of those insights so fundamental to this piece that I wish it had occurred to me.

You can expect that sort of insight from Francesca, whether you’re discussing the subtext of an opera, chatting about your life, or problem solving a technical issue during rehearsal.  I was struggling to get the hair on the severed head of Jokanaan to look and move realistically.  On the day of our final dress rehearsal I explained to Francesca that I couldn’t quite make the hair work when it was dry.  She looked at me and pointed out that there was no reason I couldn’t send the head to stage with wet hair.  Oh, how I wish I had thought of that simple, elegant and seemingly obvious solution.  And lo, when the head appeared onstage during our final dress with wet hair, it worked far better than in previous rehearsals. 

Our final dress rehearsal was the culmination of  hard work and long hours by everyone on  the team. Debbie was gorgeous—a complicated picture of young girl who is imperious, capricious, consumed by her own sexuality and power, for fleeting moments vulnerable, but still at the core, the twisted “monster” that Herod eventually recognizes.

Debbie exited after bows, tired, but satisfied and glad to have had such a responsive audience.  We walked back to her dressing room to take her wig off and we found a card taped to her counter.  It was a handwritten fan letter.  Debbie read it aloud. This young fan, who hopes to one day be a singer of Debbie’s caliber, said that she was struggling with her weight and listened to Obsessions, Debbie’s recording of Wagner and Strauss, while she works out to inspire her. Debbie held her hand to her heart, choked up, and tears welled up in both our eyes.

I’m not at all surprised that Debbie receives fan mail like this, because the truth is Debbie is in fact inspiring both on and off stage.  And she and Francesca together make magic.  I’m looking forward to enjoying their company again this coming summer and seeing what their combined artistry brings to the Alice Busch Opera House in Annie Get Your Gun.

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