Off the Beaten Career Path

Off the Beaten Career Path: Get Me Hair, Makeup!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Backstage at the opera, in a whirl of flamboyant artists, you can identify the hair and makeup designers by their low-key personal style, said Anne Ford-Coates, her auburn hair pulled back in a loose ponytail.

"When you are doing other people's makeup every day, you start getting minimal about your own business," she said.

Ford-Coates, 30, is a lead hair and makeup artist for Elsen Associates, which hires her out to opera companies around the country.

Over the past 11 months, she's worked on 24 shows -- many of them for the Washington National Opera. She spends about half the year in Washington.

Opera holds many challenges for a makeup artist, as people are cast for their voice, not their looks. That means a 25-year-old bass may play an 80-year-old man, and plenty of sopranos in their 40s sing the parts of 16-year-old ingenues.

"They are beautiful ladies, but we give them help looking younger, with lots of false eyelashes and ringlets," Ford-Coates said.

Sometimes, these transformations occur during quick musical interludes. In the opera's production of "Turandot," for example, Ford-Coates and her colleagues had just one minute to turn six dancers into beautiful handmaidens -- and there's absolutely no room for error.

"The conductor is going, the orchestra is going, and if you don't have them back on stage in time, the audience can tell," she said.

Ford-Coates graduated from an academic magnet high school at age 16 and thought she'd grow up to be a history professor.

However, she took a semester off from college to intern at the Sarasota Opera, and that leave of absence has stretched into a 14-year career.

"Once I got a taste of the road and the theater, I couldn't quite get away from it," she said.

-- Sadie Dingfelder

© 2009 The Washington Post Company