Wigging Out with David Zimmerman

Classic Arts Features   Wigging Out with David Zimmerman
A chat with the man who does the wigs and make-up for The Dallas Opera.

Suzanne Calvin: You are a native of Dallas becoming well-known in New York and Hollywood for your exceptional talents as a wig and make-up designer. You've served on the staff of the Metropolitan Opera Association and worked numerous Broadway shows, including Wicked, Jane Eyre, Rocky Horror, Evita, and the most recent revival of "Showboat. Your personal client list includes the likes of Deborah Voigt and Martha Stewart andyou have just concluded your first season with The Dallas Opera. In a very short time, you've done it all: operas, Broadway musicals, movies, international magazine covers — what's your favorite part so far?

David Zimmerman: Just the experience of being on the edge of this exciting life.

Calvin: On the edge? You appear to be smack in the middle of it! For example, you recently did a prestigious magazine cover with opera diva Deborah Voigt. Tell us about that.

Zimmerman: It's still on the edge, meaning, I get to have the fun without dealing with the critics and all that. I don't have to stand center-stage being looked at by thousands of people.

Calvin: Yes, but your work is viewed by those thousands of people.

Zimmerman: True, and occasionally I hear about that, but not that often.

Calvin: David, you took a very circuitous route to your current career. You started out as a vocal talent and piano major, is that right?

Zimmerman: I did. I went to school at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches [Texas] on a voice and piano scholarship (voice major, piano minor) but I decided I couldn't stand the limelight. I found it unnerving and that I preferred to remain in the background.

Calvin: What did you like to sing when you were thinking about it as a possible career?

Zimmerman: I studied to be a soloist — that was my goal — but found that I enjoyed singing choral music more. When I was in Nacogdoches, I was in one of those invited programs in which several choruses went to New York to combine forces on Verdi's Requiem at Avery Fisher Hall. It's one of my favorite pieces, anyway, and to get to perform it in New York, in front of a huge crowd, was incredibly exciting for a boy from East Texas.

Calvin: How and where did you get your start in the world of wigs and make-up?

Zimmerman: I was working corporate administration and had a friend, a tenor in my church choir, who worked for The Dallas Opera, helping run shows in the evening. He told me he needed help on a show but I, of course, knew nothing about hair and make-up. So, I said, "Okay, I'll help, but I don't know what I'm doing." "That's alright," he said, "We'll show you."

As it turned out, I seemed to have a knack for it and it was really appealing to be close to the music again. David Flavell, who headed the department, evidently saw something and gave me several other opportunities to learn things and do things and then got me into the Santa Fe Opera apprenticeship program in 1998.

Calvin: So, you really haven't been at it all that long.

Zimmerman: Eight years, but, I got the position with the Metropolitan Opera after being in it for only two.

Calvin: You must have either incredible natural talent or some great connections!

Zimmerman: (laughing:) It's both! I would like to think I have a pretty great talent; I wouldn't think it was possible to do the things I've done without serious talent. However, connections do count. I was standing at the right place at the right time more than once in those first three or four years. It was actually kind of amazing — and scary!

Calvin: When you design a look for someone, how do you work it out? How closely do you work with the singers, directors and other designers? Or do you do it on your own?

Zimmerman: It depends. In an ideal situation, I work really closely with the costume designers and directors. There are times when — directors, especially — want to give you a basic idea of what they would like to see and then they want you to figure out how to get there. It depends on the situation. I styled someone for an awards show this year, which was a first for me.

Calvin: What was that about?

Zimmerman: There was an opera singer who was up for a Grammy Award this year, who was worried about her "look." She wanted me to help her with her make-up but I said, "Why don't we go shopping? We'll put together your hair and make-up and then let's just go shopping." I wound up styling her from head-to-toe and she was ecstatic! It was something I'd been wanting to do for awhile and I'd like to do more of it. But I have to find the right venue.

Calvin: You just keep tweaking this career of yours, don't you?

Zimmerman: It keeps things exciting.

Calvin: Which is more difficult to design for: a period piece or a contemporary opera?

Zimmerman: I find contemporary more difficult. People have more definite ideas about contemporary. In period works, you have portraits and pictorial studies to guide you. With modern dress, people look at the same thing and see different things. That's why it's so difficult for police conducting an investigation; witnesses will see the exact same thing but they'll give completely different versions.

Calvin: What about men versus women? Are they about the same?

Zimmerman: I find men easier, in terms of achieving a look, because typically the characters men will perform are not that far off the beaten path; and, because the look of your average Joe hasn't changed that dramatically since he cut his hair short.

Calvin: I would think, though, that it might make it more difficult to be as creative as you'd like to be.

Zimmerman: It is, but there's something else: Women can be "set" about how they think they should look; however, men who are convinced they need to look a certain way are much more difficult to deal with. It's very funny.

Calvin: There's a famous story that makes the rounds about Luciano Pavarotti being obsessed with the weight of his costumes. Apparently, he favored something close to chiffon, which is absurd for a man of his (or any other) size!

Zimmerman: (laughing:) Tenors and overly high-pitched baritones. Pavarotti's make-up, for example, is very distinctive and he insists on doing it himself. He takes a burnt cork and rubs it on his face, which isn't always the best look. From what I understand, this was a technique taught to him very early in his career and he just won't let go of it. Those are the times when you, as a designer, have to stand back and say, "I won't worry about it." I actually did Pavarotti's final wig for his final performances in Tosca at the Met. That was exciting, I have to say.

Calvin: You've said before that you're not crazy about heavily stylized make-up for theater or opera.

Zimmerman: By stylized I mean what people refer to as the "opera look." To me, it's a very '50s look, with lines on the face and so forth. I want anything I do that's stylized to be very creative and artistic; bizarre colors and shapes and things like that. I love to play when I'm doing a fashion runway show.

Calvin: One of the things about doing people's hair and make-up is; it's very intimate contact and it tends to initiate intimate conversations.

Zimmerman: It does. It's like being a hairdresser — or a bartender. And it's important to keep things in confidence. Now, there are some funny things my clients don't mind my talking about, but only certain things. I'm very close to the people I work with and sometimes they want to confide in me. When you work in someone's personal space, they need to feel that you're not just another guy. Also, when they're getting ready to go onstage, they're understandably nervous and looking for support. I always try to be as friendly with my singers as possible because I believe it helps them distance themselves from that pre-curtain nervousness.

Calvin: Who are some of your favorites?

Zimmerman: Hei-Kyung Hong, a soprano who sang here in the past, is wonderful! She is the most fun. She isn't singing as much as she used to, not because she doesn't sound like a goddess (She does! The vocal control on that lady is amazing.) but because she is genuinely family-focused. She has a teenaged son and two daughters. It's a loss for us but great for her mother and children that she's so focused on them. Deborah Voigt and I, of course, have become great friends. We've done quite a few things together, like the magazine issue we worked on last year and a project in Japan.

Being in New York, where so much happens, you occasionally find that you've "landed it," the one thing or person you want to be around is right there in front of you.

I will never forget the first show I worked at the Met with Plêcido Domingo: He is the most incredible gentleman. He comes in, shakes hands with everyone and kisses the hands of the ladies. He introduces himself and asks you how you are. I stood there, in disbelief, at Plêcido in the act of just being Plêcido. Those are the moments that stay with you.

Calvin: What operas are you itching to design?

Zimmerman: I would like an opportunity to design a period piece from the 17th or 18th centuries; Pique Dame or Andrea Chenier or one of the other operas that tend to be placed in that period. To see if I can pull it off.

Calvin: That's a lot of wig work.

Zimmerman: That's a lot of wig work and incredibly stylized. Most opera companies don't do the look to the extent that it was actually done then. The Met, having more resources than most opera companies, actually orders from a firm in Paris that did the wigs back then — and is still in business today! But, I want to do the work myself; I don't want to hire someone else to do it.

Calvin: You'd better explain what goes into making a wig because people won't believe it, otherwise.

Zimmerman: I actually build the wigs by hand with human hair, or, in the case of white hair — hair from yaks. White wigs are done in yak, they always have been — even George Washington's white wig was yak. Anyone who's ever had their hair colored knows that human hair isn't really white. And if you bleach it to a pure white, it could just disintegrate in your hand. Human hair isn't that strong. The hair of the yak; however, is quite strong and you can bleach it to true white and it's just as strong as before and it will last forever. When you build a wig, the materials you tie it into will rot before that hair's destroyed. I've seen wigs where we've actually removed the hair because the cap was rotting, and reused the strands.

I build the cap out of synthetic fabrics, using measurements or a mold.

Calvin: What you'd find on the underside of a carpet.

Zimmerman: It is. It's done very much like a latch-hook rug. It's exactly the same principle executed in a really, really tiny way (with a lot more knots). On the back of the wig, I'll do three to four hairs at a time, because the back needs to be thicker. By the time I get to the front and the very fine lace, which looks like the tulle of a wedding veil (only finer), it's one hair at a time. And I try, when given the time to do so, to make it match the singer's natural hairline exactly. Hopefully, you won't notice it's a wig.

Calvin: Do you consider yourself a craftsman or an artist?

Zimmerman: An artist, but a crafty one. Some people would consider it a craft because I make the wigs but, there are very few of us out there. This is a craft or art that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Calvin: So, have you ever thought about going back to singing?

Zimmerman: I sing at church from time to time and still play the piano for my own enjoyment, mostly. When I go to my mother's church, I have to sing. And just recently I sang at a wedding ... and played the piano ... and did the hair and make-up beforehand.

Calvin: What? You didn't cater the reception?

Zimmerman: (laughing:) No. But that's what happens when a family member gets married now. My mother called me shortly before the wedding to report, "Something's happened! The Best Man isn't going to be able to make it!"

I said, "You are not going to ask me to stand up, too!"

David Zimmerman is the head of Wig and Make-Up Design for The Dallas Opera. Suzanne Calvin is Associate Director of Marketing, Media and PR for The Dallas Opera.

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