Parlando: The COC Blog

2/22/2011

Robert Orth to Richard Nixon

[This is a guest post by Gianna Wichelow, Senior Communications Manager, Creative]

Before the Sunday, February 13 performance of Nixon in China, American baritone Robert Orth graciously let us in on his makeup and wig transformation into Richard Nixon, the role he’s been playing recently on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre.

Robert’s transformation begins with an understanding of the differences between his face and Nixon’s.

Nixon had a square face; an almost iconic, bulbous nose; and a sharp crease between his eyebrows. Robert uses different shades of makeup to create the illusions he needs: paler shadow is used on the sides of his face, and darker on the top and bottom to make it wider and squarer. Shading also plays an important role in widening his slim nose, especially making it flare out at the bottom. Pencil creates the marked crease (an intense worry-line) between the eyebrows, and also the small vertical indent at the end of his nose. 

“A wonderful mezzo-soprano, Suzanne Mentzer, came and saw me in Chicago—she’s an old friend of mine—and she came into the dressing-room, and she's looking all over my dressing-table after the show and says ‘Where is it?’ I said 'Where’s what?’ ‘The nose!’ ‘What nose?’ ‘You were wearing a false nose!’ I said ‘No I wasn’t . . . thank you!’”

A collection of pictures in his dressing-room helps remind him of all the small details that go to make up the transformation.

He’s obviously studied Nixon’s face closely. One thing that stands out for him is that Nixon never looks fully relaxed, even when smiling.

It's a little unusual to do your own make-up in opera, but Robert started in theatre and musical theatre where performers tend to do their own. 

“When we did this the first time, no one really was talking about ‘we want you to act like Nixon or imitate Nixon’ or anything like that . . . and so the real deciding matter in this was the wig. They had a wonderful wig that Tommy Watson—a friend of mine—made. And when I got that wig on I thought ‘oh my gosh, this looks so much like Nixon.’ I had a makeup person at the time, and I said could you do a little bit here, can you add a little of this there, could you do this, could you do that, so I was practically doing it myself, and after that I just thought, rather than telling everyone else what to do, I'd just do it. Sharon [Ryman, the COC’s wig and makeup supervisor] is helpful because the first couple of shows when we did this she'd come backstage and say the eyebrows aren't dark enough, or something like that. It was good to have her eyes out there. It's how we ended up with black.”

Of the application of the Nixon wig, Robert wonders,

“A funny thing about life in the theatre is: how many people put glue on their faces? Not many! And then, how many people use nail polish remover to take the glue off?”

Robert points out that the trend in opera is more and more towards natural makeup, and also natural hair, where possible.

The quality of wig lace (the fabric the hair is woven onto) has improved so much over the last 20 years. Many theatre wigs are now of film quality in the way the edges fade away. Even looking into the mirror at Robert’s wig, we couldn't see the wig-line.

“Sharon made this wig for me, so it fits really nicely. I wore one somewhere else—I won’t say where—which wasn't made for me and it sort of rode up in the back—I have a big head!” In the photo below, Samantha Miller Vidal puts Robert’s wig on and ensures it blends in smoothly with his skin.

As Robert put the finishing touches to his transformation, he shared the following anecdote:

“I have two sons and they grew up watching me do all this stuff, Daddy wearing makeup and wigs. I think I had just done Amahl and the Night Visitors, or something where I had to wear tights. And one of them was four or five years old at the time and he was with his mother at the store when she was buying a pair of pantyhose. As she was paying for them, he said 'Are those for you or Dad?'"

Robert's costume is impressive in its detail, even down to the stars-and-stripes cufflinks and tie pin, and a Republican pin on his coat. Of all the small details, Robert points out: “Not everyone in the auditorium can see them, but they help me.”

And here he is, Mr. President.

Thank you, Robert!

Posted by Gianna Wichelow / in 2010/2011 / comments (3) / permalink

Empress Dowager (2/22/2011 3:04:00 PM)
That is such a fascinating and helpful post - THANK YOU SO MUCH! This blog and the whole website is just amazing - CONGRATULATIONS!
Gianna Wichelow (2/22/2011 3:19:00 PM)
Thanks, Empress Dowager. Cecily has set the bar pretty high!
Samantha (2/22/2011 7:50:00 PM)
Wonderful transformation!!!

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001