The Academy Award nominees for makeup announced this week include the transformation of Glenn Close into a man (Albert Nobbs), Meryl Streep into The Iron Lady (aka Margaret Thatcher), and a host of other Hollywood folk into otherworldly fiends (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2). But if there were an award for best makeup in an opera, then Florida Grand Opera’s Rigoletto would definitely get a nod.
Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman wanted more than the usual shirt stuffed with a pillow to suggest the deformity of the cruel court jester. He says he wanted to “take the audience one layer deeper” and to expose what makes Rigoletto evil “by getting down to the level of flesh.”
When Buchman told the FGO make up artists what he wanted, husband and wife team Chris and Michelle Diamantides were thrilled. They’d already molded a realistic prosthetic nose for Cyrano last season, throwing out the old nose the opera company had used before. “You don’t want it to look comical because it’s artificial,” Chris Diamantides explains.
To keep it real in Rigoletto, the Diamantides researched the process of making a prosthetic by watching how-to videos, especially those featuring Hollywood sculptor (and, incidentally, space alien lover) Mark Alfrey. Turns out, making a prosthetic is a complicated process.
The first step was to make a “lifecast” of baritone Mark Walters, who plays Rigoletto. For this, the artists ordered a green goo called alginate from Monster Makers, a shop in Ohio. You’ve probably had this goo in your mouth: it’s what the dentist uses to make a mold of your teeth. Diamantes slathered this all over Walters, then covered the mess with layers of plaster bandages. When the goo dried, Diamantides had what he calls a “negative” mold. He filled that up with plaster to make a “positive” mold.
Only the plaster bust was too heavy to work with. So the artist made another negative mold from the plaster bust using silicone rubber, and filled that up with fiberglass to make a lightweight bust of the singer.
Stars being what they are, did Walters keep his bust?
“That’s a question all performers want to know when you make a copy of them: ‘Can I take it home?’” Diamantides says. The answer is no. What if the company wants to hire Walters in the future to play John the Baptist in Salome? They’ve already paid for his severed head.
Anyway, the bust was just the beginning. With that, Diamantides started sculpting the actual hump with a clay called chavant. At this point, the artist had to get approval for the shape of his hump, because, he says, “Everyone had a different idea of what the hump should look like.”
From the approved hump sculpture, the artist then created a hump mold using tools like a dog hairbrush and substances with names like liquid polyurethane rubber, Plasti-Paste 2, and Platinum Gel 10. To keep the hump from weighing too much, the artist quickly filled the middle with cold latex foam, which has a 30-second “pot life.” That’s the technical term for what Diamantides describes as, “the amount of time you have to work with something before it’s in a state where you won’t be able to work any more.”
The artists had more leisure to paint the hump to match Walters’ skin, with mottled blotches suggesting veins and blood flow, and carefully trimmed the edges to blend in with his back and shoulders.
That done, it still takes more than an hour to attach the hump to Walters every night, using a special silicone adhesive. As the singer sweats, his body oil makes the prosthetic adhere more closely.
This seven-pounds of fake flesh takes a toll on Walters.
“I feel it the next day,” admits the 47-year-old star. “It’s like I’ve been doing shoulder exercises.”
Maybe that’s just the kind of workout playing Rigoletto requires. Walters believes the evil hunchback is one of the most demanding roles for a baritone: “I feel like I’ve been training for this role for all my 23 years in the business.”
Rigoletto serves the debauched Duke of Mantua, who is interested in an entirely different kind of humping. He sees every woman as fair game, a sentiment he expresses in one of opera’s most famous arias “La Donne e Mobile” (Woman is flighty).
Michael Fabiano, the 27-year-old hottie who plays the Duke, doesn’t care if the hump looks real. He’s played the Duke all kinds of ways – including as a mob boss in an English-language version with the English National Opera. But the costume and make-up don’t really matter, he contends.
“What matters is the singing,” he says earnestly. “Opera is a very special type of art form. Hopefully I’ll be a part of the process of enlightening young people to appreciate the genre.”
Maybe. But in the meantime, coming up with some really cool special effects can’t hurt.
Rigoletto begins at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Blvd), at 8 p.m. on January 31 and February 3, 8, and 11, and at 2 p.m. on February 5. Tickets cost $21 to $229. Call 305-854-1643 or visit fgo.org.