At Houston Grand Opera, Ensuring There Are No Bad Hair Days

Plus, four outstanding operas to take in this fall.

By Chris Gray August 26, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Staker working on a wig for Rigoletto.

Houston Grand Opera's Wig & Makeup Department Head Dotti Staker, a Cincinnati native, actually launched her career in high school, doing hair for the actors in theater productions. She loved behind-the-scenes work so much, she pursued a degree in backstage prep, and a subsequent apprenticeship at Santa Fe Opera led her to the Houston Grand Opera in 1983.

In Houston Staker initially worked out of a “shoe closet” in the company’s old rehearsal space on Chenevert Street, until the building was razed to make way for the George R. Brown Convention Center—part of which, coincidentally, became HGO’s temporary “Resilience Theater” after Hurricane Harvey flooded the Wortham and rendered Staker’s basement wig shop a million-dollar loss. “That was kind of a rough winter,” she deadpans.

Since the storm Staker has worked to replace some 3,000 wigs one by one. She starts her custom hairpieces by wrapping a singer’s head in Saran Wrap and Scotch tape to trace out a hairline, which she lays over a wig block before stitching the hair into the foundation by “ventilating,” a process she likens to rug-hooking. “I can control the density and the coloration,” she explains. “A lot of times for blond and red wigs, I can mix four colors to make it look more natural, or give it highlights in the front.”

Come showtime, Staker and her team personally apply wigs to each opera’s principal actors, a process that can take anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes apiece. She says it’s surprisingly uneventful hanging out in the dressing room with opera’s biggest names; apparently those roaring diva tantrums of yore are all but unheard-of today. “Opera companies just don’t tolerate it,” Staker says. “Everybody realizes it’s a collaboration now, and that we’re all working toward the same thing, which is a great show.”

Season Standouts

ToscaOpera in the Heights | Oct. 5-13

After Manon Lescaut and La bohème, Giacomo Puccini took a hard left into R-rated territory with this ripping 1900 melodrama set in early 19th-century Rome. As seen in Ron Howard’s recent documentary Pavarotti, the role of Cavaradossi—Tosca’s betrayed painter—became a signature one for the fabled tenor.

Orpheus in the UnderworldMoores Opera Center | Oct. 18-21

Revived yet again by the Tony-winning Hadestown, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—wife dies, musician husband mounts a rescue mission into Hades’s domain—is custom-made for the musical stage. Spoofing Christoph Gluck’s serious opera, Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 French twist created a sensation with its climactic cancan.

RigolettoHouston Grand Opera | Oct. 18-Nov. 1

A lascivious duke, his hunchbacked jester, and the mother of all curses spur some of Giuseppe Verdi’s most sublime music in the 1851 opera that forever sealed his reputation. Director of last year’s The Flying Dutchman for HGO, Tomer Zvulun returns to helm a production that looks transplanted straight from Al Capone’s Chicago.

SaulHouston Grand Opera | Oct. 25-Nov. 8

Goliath is dead, and the king of Israel (and Judah) is struggling with his subjects’ growing affection for his giant-slaying son-in-law, David. Opera buffs have buzzed about Australian director Barrie Kosky’s psychologically astute adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s 1738 oratorio since its 2015 debut at Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival.

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