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Operatic wig maker

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Nesmith

Wig designer

Baltimore Opera Company; Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, and other theaters

Salary --$70,000

Age --33

Years on the job --10

How she got started --After being involved with theater in high school, Nesmith graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in theater design and production. She went to work for a small theater in Norfolk, Va., and also began collaborating with the nearby Virginia Opera, learning the skills of building and designing wigs.

"I kind of haven't stopped since," said Nesmith, who went on to build wigs for the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the Boston Lyric Opera and the Dallas Opera.

Nesmith said the first half of her career was spent learning the skill by assisting other wig designers. She has worked at the Baltimore Opera Company for three years.

Typical day --Nesmith works full time for the Baltimore Opera Company throughout its season, which usually involves four shows during October, November, March, April and May. During these months, Nesmith estimates she puts in about 60 hours a week. She and an assistant are responsible for fitting the cast with wigs. Typically only the two leads get new wigs, while the others will use in-stock wigs that only need to be rolled and combed out. Nesmith must also apply makeup for the principal singers and attend all dress rehearsals and shows.

Freelance --Nesmith works for various theater companies around the country. This year she is working on all the productions at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. For her freelance work, Nesmith averages between $3,000 and $6,000 per show and works about 15 additional shows a year.

Building a wig --A customized mesh-like cap is made for each new wig. Nesmith then takes a ventilating hook that catches the hair and knots each strand to the cap. She compares it to the latch hook technique of rug making. Each new wig takes about 30 hours to complete and only human hair is used. "It's very time-consuming, and there are not a lot of shortcuts."

Wig mishaps --In one production, two actors who were dressed as geisha became entangled by their elaborate hairpieces. She described the moment as "a terror" but said the actors managed to make it off stage, where they were untangled without disrupting the show.

The good --"I really like that I'm consistently working on a new project. You can't get too bogged down in one thing, because there's always something new coming."

The bad --In spite of the flexibility, Nesmith said it's not the kind of job that you can just take off when you need to. "The opera stops for no one."

Opera --"The first opera I ever saw was one I was working on," said Nesmith, who encourages people to give it a try. This spring the Baltimore Opera Company is producing Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. "There are so many elements to opera. We have some really beautiful shows coming up. It's kind of amazing that someone can sing like that and also be acting."

Philosophy on the job --Remain calm.

Nancy Jones-Bonbrest Special to The Sun

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