Dallas — “In an opera, almost everyone onstage is wearing a wig,” David Zimmerman says with a laugh, “and in a big opera like La bohème, some even get a couple of them.”
Zimmerman should know. He is the wig and make-up designer for The Dallas Opera and is hard at work on their upcoming production of Puccini’s late 19th-century masterpiece, which opens Friday at the Winspear Opera House for a six-performance run.
“When they tell Colline [one of the “bohemian” buddies—and a philosopher, to boot] to go get a shave and a haircut, our shop is the place that does it,” he says. “Of course, he has to be shaggy again for the next performance.”
Puccini’s La bohème is one of the most frequently performed and best-loved operas in the repertoire. Every moment is filled with gorgeous music sung by vividly drawn characters. Some of its tunes have even been transformed into pop hits. Most famously, Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical Rent was based on La bohème.
The story concerns the love lives of two starving artists in Paris, the poet Rodolfo and the painter Marcello, who live in an unheated garret with two other starving artists: Schaunard, a musician and the aforementioned Colline. Marcello is in a stormy on-again-off-again relationship with Musetta, who loves him obsessively but prefers men with lots of money, no matter how old and tottering. In the first act, Rodolfo has a chance meeting with Mimì, a fragile seamstress who makes artificial flowers; an encounter that blossoms into love at first sight. (This production also features an innovative collaboration with Art Conspiracy, which will have artists making art in the lobby of the Winspear at all performances of La bohème.)
Mimì, of course, is suffering from consumption, made evident the moment we meet her, and her death at the end is one of the great three-hanky exits in all of opera.
It is up to Zimmerman to make sure we witness her inevitable decline.
“We need to see her physical changes for the tragedy to work,” he says. “We are the icing on the cake. We are the last step in the process of creating the character.”
“Where do you look when you are talking with someone? Their face: so that is where we start,” Zimmerman explains. “The two female characters, Mimì and Musetta, are two women with no resources trying to make it under very difficult circumstances, but using very different approaches. We need to think about how they would go about doing that. Musetta is attracting rich older men so she is going for glamor—more heavily made up and hennaed hair. Mimì is much more reserved, a fragile young girl who is working long hours.”
The Dallas Opera’s opulent production is true to the time and place of the original setting—Paris in 1830, the beginning of the Victorian era. This means lots of elaborate costumes and period make-up and hair.
“La bohème is a challenge because of the sheer size of the cast,” Zimmerman says. “In the scene at the café, the street is filled with a great variety of people. There are wealthy aristocrats, established merchants, street vendors, dirty-faced street urchins, soldiers and shaggy street sweeps. There are even some prostitutes with fiery red hair and madly applied makeup. Our job is to separate all those groups in the eye of the audience by how they look, while keeping them in the same time and place. I don’t know if everyone sees all of these details but they certainly would notice if everyone looked the same or had a modern haircut.”
Adding to the complexity of his job is the fact that everyone on stage has to look exactly the same for each performance during the run.
“We work from drawings we make when we are planning the show, which we use for the first time we apply the make-up and then take a picture. That photo is our guide for all of the other performances. It has to be exactly right every time they go on stage.”
Zimmerman got his unlikely start in wigs and make-up at The Dallas opera.
“I was working in corporate America and sang in a church choir,” he says. “One night at rehearsal, they announced that they were looking for some help at the opera. I was trained as a singer but really didn’t like being onstage, so I was assigned backstage to help with make-up. They were doing Aïda and my job was to make a bunch of white guys look Egyptian.”
That rather undetailed job was the start of an amazing career. After a stint at the Santa Fe Opera and a few more years of intense work in Dallas, he found himself at the Metropolitan Opera. Then came Broadway. Soon he was back in Dallas, but this time he was in charge of the department.
“In just a couple of years, I went from desk job and church choir to working at the Met,” he says with amazement in his voice.
While he still is a mainstay at Santa Fe and works in other major opera houses around the world, he also works for a select group of individual clients. His star-studded list includes Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Patricia Racette, Martha Stewart, Olympia Dukakis and Ricky Martin.
But his home is here, where he started. When La bohème opens on Friday, the curtain will rise and we will be transported to the Latin Quarter of Paris and a bitter cold winter of long ago. It is up to Zimmerman and his hard-working crew to make sure everyone on stage looks like they belong there.