Behind the scenes with Sue Sittko Schaefer: Kentucky Opera's wig and makeup designer [Music]

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When the curtain goes up at the opera, it's easy to get lost in the music, the spectacle, and of course, the singing, without giving much thought to the individual design elements that go into a full, theatrical production. Many opera classics are heavy on wigs and makeup for performers, sporting either towering, powdered confections in Mozart, heavy braids for Wagner, and all manner of magnificent facial hair for male performers across the board. It's not so simple as ordering up what you need from a theatrical warehouse somewhere in New York. Behind the scenes, someone is painstakingly creating those elaborate wigs and hair pieces, and that someone for Kentucky Opera is often Sue Sittko Schaefer. I recently got to speak to Schaefer, who is designing the wigs and makeup for the season's final production, Puccini's Madame Butterfly.

Schaefer has worked with Kentucky Opera since 2000, although she is based in Portland, OR, and gets in a lot of traveling around the country as she designs for multiple companies in different cities. Originally from St. Paul, Schaefer says she comes from a musical family and has always liked classical music. But as a teen, she was also interested in costume and hair, so she started out in cosmetology school. From there, she calls her entry into her career “serendipitous.” A friend told her about an opportunity with the Minnesota Opera, whose wig master was offering a class on wig and makeup design. It was there that she first learned how to make wigs.

“It's basically like taking a little, tiny needle and passing it through almost invisible fabric – sort of a netting – and you tie knots in human hair. And that's how you make wigs.” She picked up this intricate art rather quickly and enjoyed it enough to finish the program and work one season with the Minneapolis Opera before moving to the Guthrie Theater in the same city. She continued to learn her craft working for Detroit Opera, among others, then moving to the West Coast, and eventually settling in Portland. Now, she can work out of her studio in her hometown and bring her designs with her when she travels to different theaters.

Whereas many productions of Butterfly are trying to make European or American performers look a little more Asian to fit the story, which is set in nineteenth-century Japan, Kentucky Opera's company features an Asian-American tenor, Adam Diegel, in the role of the American naval officer Pinkerton. I asked Schaefer how this little wrinkle in the usual situation changes her thinking about the look of characters. Is there an effort to make performers match the racial description of a particular role or has the influence of modern “blind casting” de-emphasized such approaches?

“I think it's become less and less. Frankly, I like to make people look good. You can't put just anyone in a blonde wig. We don't want to move around things so much that people are asking why does that guy look so strange?...What looks best for that individual performer? That's usually my motivation – making a person look the best for their character.” And as for Diegel's Pinkerton, in particular? “He is who he is. What's most important is the things that he does, not what race he is.” It's all about the story for Schaefer, and her job is to make the performers look their best in service to that story.

Another thing to account for in the makeup design for Butterfly is the change in venue – from the spaciousness of Whitney Hall to the cozier atmosphere of the Brown Theater. “It's much less like a painting and more like theater. My first reaction is to make it more natural and more believable. We don't want people to be distracted by something not looking right, so I might need to take down the makeup a little bit.”

Shaefer believes the more intimate atmosphere of the Brown will perfectly showcase a more natural, realistic style for the performers. “I think our Butterfly in this show is so amazing [Yunah Lee] and she's so natural. It's not just that she is Korean and she looks the part of Madama Butterfly, but she's also moving like a real person and it's not about the affectation of being the Geisha and all that. She feels like a real person and it's a real love story.”

You can check out Schaefer's work this weekend at the Brown Theater as Kentucky Opera performs Giacomo Puccini's classic opera, Madame Butterfly, on Friday, November 19 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 21 at 2 p.m. This production is directed by David Roth and conducted by Joseph Mechavich. Tickets are available ($35 - $95) online from Kentucky Center or by calling 562-0100.