Let’s Get Wiggy With It: How and Why Wigs Still Inspire Opera Today

This blog is inspired by The Marriage of Figaro

This blog is going to explore why wigs are still important in opera, and what different stylings of wigs may signify. Opera productions often utilise era-specific traditions when it comes to character aesthetics, so to create meaningful interpretations of these well-loved stories. This means that costumes, jewellery and wigs are often hand-made for each character, which may be surprising to some who may not realise that many opera productions still use wigs. As well as the obvious physical aesthetics that wigs offer, which I will go into in more detail later on, the practicalities associated with wigs are also a plus for the costume department. If a character has more than one hairstyle change, then it is much easier and quicker to change wigs, rather than restyling their real hair. Wigs also ensure the same look for each artist every night, creating a rather simple way of keeping up consistency in appearances.

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, London, Britain - 27 Feb 2018
This image from English Touring Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, has subtle hints towards social classes through their use (and ironically disuse) of wigs (2018).

The tradition of using wigs in opera most likely originates from the eighteenth century, where it was seen as high class and elegant to appear so far removed from natural appearances. What could not be made possible with natural hair was created in wigs, and these extravagant and eccentric styles were created with eighteenth century ideals in mind. With both European men and women succumbing to new social orders, their costumes and wigs celebrated their position in social and political spheres. Wigs in this century could sometimes reveal a person’s profession, which would be dependant on the styling and what the wig was made out of. So why does this matter in opera? Well, opera often explores social status, political conversations and philosophical debates, and one way to easily express these things is by clever costuming.

Wigs for Aida, for example, can often be made out of black braids, and large headdresses, comprised of flowers and gold, would be placed around the wigs. The characters of Aida and The King of Egypt will be styled with large eccentric wigs to show their social class, whereas slaves and guards would have flat wigs, or skull caps.

March for Aida – This clip of this famous march shows many different social classes, and the wigs they wear to represent that:

So why are wigs so important in opera? Well, some productions aim to represent what was perhaps going on at the time it is set in. Wigs, costumes and sets allow the audience to be transported into a different world. Authenticity can often be found at the heart of many opera productions, and wigs are considered an important part of this. Wigs can also be used as a tool to question these traditions, with some companies not using wigs, or using more uncommon styles and colours.

What do you think? Would opera be the same without the use of wigs?

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, London, Britain - 27 Feb 2018
The Marriage of Figaro (2018) – © Jane Hobson
Agrippina - Handel - English Touring Opera - 8th October 2013Agrippina - Gillian Webster Claudius - Andrew Slater Ottone - Clint van der Linde Nero - Jake Arditti Lesbo - Luke D Williams Pallante - Nicholas Merryweather Poppea - Paula Sides Narciso - Ru
Agrippina (2013) –  © Richard Hubert Smith
Gianni Schicchi (2018) – © Richard Hubert Smith

© Alex Burns 2018

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