This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
“They can be as crazy as they want backstage, as demanding as they want, as long as when they hit that stage, it’s magic. If they can do that, I’ll do handstands for ‘em.” -Opera Grand Rapids Wig & Makeup Designer
Sometimes, Rob Thomasma is going to make you look bad. He’s going to age you, make you look bedraggled, poor, at the end of your rope. He’s not a cruel person. That’s just his job. As the master of hair and makeup for Opera Grand Rapids, Rob’s job is not to make people look pretty. His is a higher calling—to paint the truth of each operatic character on the face of the cast. This truth does often involve beauty, but just as often, it involves conveying the history of a hardscrabble character through makeup and wigs.
“Nobody wants to look bad,” says Rob. Sometimes his job involves “selling” singers and actors on the reality of their look. “You try to tell them, ‘You’re not going to look bad, you’re not going to look ugly. You’re just going to look older,’” says Rob. “‘Hopefully, when I’m done, you’re going to look in the mirror, and it’ll look like you’re going to shave your father’s face. You’re not going to be some grotesque.’” Rob explains that most performers know what they are getting into, in terms of roles. But concern for one’s appearance is universal, especially when a person will be onstage in front of thousands.
Finding a face that fits the director’s vision and makes the performer comfortable is an art. Sometime, this art is equal parts curling iron and negotiation. Rob recalls a time when some actors, whose characters were to be envious toward a young ingenue, had trouble accepting the look for which the roles called. “They were all pretty women,” Rob says. “[I told them], you gotta look like you just went through the school of hard knocks. You can’t have pretty, pretty hair, and we’ve gotta shadow your eyes.” After Rob finished making the actresses up, they left, and changed their makeup. Rob often receives reminders like these—that he is working with people’s most personal possession, and not everyone is ready to surrender their face to their role entirety.
Luckily, people in Rob’s chair are more often thrilled than apprehensive. “It’s always a good sign when you’re done on Friday night, and the gals don’t want to take their makeup off. They gotta go to a party and say, ‘Is it ok if I keep my makeup on?’ Yeah, you bet. It makes me feel good. Just bring your eyelashes back.”
It’s easy to understand why people might get attached to Rob’s creations, spirit gum notwithstanding. Some of his concoctions are designed to bring characters of legend to life, and the actors end up beneath locks of mythic scope. For some, the thrill of wearing a legendary temptress’s hair into one’s own life is just too rich an opportunity to skip.
“For Samson and Delilah, Delilah had hair that went way, way down,” explains Rob. “It ended up taking three wigs to make a wig that long. She wanted it all curly. I got it all put together, and she thought it was just the hottest thing. She wore it home, and you could tell, the next night when she came in with it, that her husband really liked it too.”
Delilah’s epic hairpiece began as three wigs, shipped from a company specializing in theatrical hair. Rob combined the three wigs to form a single, epic, straight-haired wig. Then Delilah told him she really wanted it to be curly. She did not understand the scope of what she was asking.
“The fastest you can set a wig, from dry to dry, to change its style, is four to six hours,” says Rob. He begins by straightening the wig with a clothes steamer. Then he roller-sets it and sets the wigs to be dried into a large box, before hooking up a hair dryer. Usually, Rob explains, you don’t blow a fuse. In the end, Rob was able to deliver the cascading curls Delilah desired.
Rob developed his expertise with hair and makeup through a combination of natural curiosity and happenstance. “I’ve been a performer ever since I was little kid,” says Rob. His first role was that of a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. “It’s just something that came very natural to me, painting my face.” The director was so impressed with Rob’s skills that he told him to do makeup for the other children. He loved the art and the mess of his future profession. “You’d spray your hair black, and your mother would freak out because it’s all over your pillowcase. That was how it started.
Years later, Rob was backstage at Opera Grand Rapids when two of the three wig and makeup people took ill. “I did what I could, and it worked,” says Rob. “Here I am, thirty-five years later. It really has been enjoyable.”
OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.
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