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SPOTLIGHT: Sarah Piper, Head Make-Up Artist At Glyndebourne Opera House

SPOTLIGHT: Sarah Piper, Head Make-Up Artist At Glyndebourne Opera House

FashionBite was lucky enough to experience the glamour of Glyndebourne Opera Festival this summer, watching the excellent Ravel Double Bill. The sumptuous productions are driven by diligently planned costume design and flawless make-up application, all co-ordinated by a team of talented experts.

Sarah Piper is Head of Make-up at the world-class opera house and was gracious enough to talk us through her rather fabulous occupation. She told us where she discovered opera, and how she began such a prestigious career…

“I grew up in London and have always loved opera. I went to many performances at Covent Garden with my mother, but I discovered Glyndebourne at the age of 15. I then went to train as a make-up artist starting with ITV at Maidstone Studios and in 1994 found out about the job at Glyndebourne, came for an interview and was very lucky to get it.”

We asked Sarah about her proudest achievements – what’s been her favourite project?

“There have been many things along the way I’ve really enjoyed working on. L’enfant et les sortilèges this season has lots of challenges, lots of make-up and many quick changes which have worked out very well. I loved working on David Hockney’s The Rake’s Progress – as an artist he had such a hand in designing the make-up, which just looks stunning.

After all her hard work, does she ever get time to watch the shows?

“I do watch the shows – normally I’m happier being backstage because I like to know what’s going on and that everything is under control. Sometimes if there’s not so much make-up involved I might watch a performance, but I do watch all the rehearsals where the cast are in costume up to first night, to make sure everything is looking as it should.”

A tough choice, but does she have a favourite opera?

“My favourite opera – gosh, it’s tough to choose. Probably Don Giovanni!”

We asked Sarah to talk us through a typical day at Glyndebourne – and it sounds stressful!

On a typical show day the team come in and we have a meeting, making sure there are no understudies or any specific problems that have occurred from the show before. We always check that we have absolutely everything we’re going to need at every make-up point as if you are in a two minute quick change and you don’t have the thing you need it would be a disaster – there’s no time to go and get it – they’ll already be back on stage!

We start the make-up about two hours before the show begins. And we all have artists that we look after for the whole run and each person is responsible for two or three principal artists depending on the piece.

We look after the same people throughout the evening as they change characters, get old, get injured, die, whatever happens to them in the story there is often a make-up effect that goes with it. At the end of the show they come offstage and we help them come out of character.

When we have quick changes there are at least three people involved – someone from wardrobe, make-up and wigs. We choreograph the quick change together, so one bends one way, one’s the other way so we don’t have a little clash. We work out a sequence so it’s most effective for us and the artist to make it as comfortable as possible.

In L’enfant et les sortilèges there is a change where around 35 people have to change costume, make-up and wigs in 11 minutes. Everyone has a place that they go to and standing at that place will be the wig and makeup artist, and dresser. We work through it in sequence which is the same every time so they get used to us. They come in one side and go out the other completely transformed.” Amazing!

It sounds like a tough environment to work in – what’s the most difficult aspect of the job?

“Glyndebourne is a lovely environment to work in – it’s a beautiful setting. We’re in the wonderful Sussex countryside, on a hectic day you can always head out and have a look at the sheep to calm down. The most difficult aspect is that you have to come in for every performance that you’re working on and however you’re feeling, whatever has happened, you have to come in and be on best form and be charming and look after the artist in a way that they are unaware that anything has affected you.”

Did Sarah have a career ‘Plan B’? If make-up hadn’t worked out, could she see herself doing something else?

“I probably would have liked a career in medicine and be a doctor. I now have the joy of recreating lots of medical things on stage and screen instead. I’ve done open heart surgery, lots of scars and wounds and other effects.”

Sarah believes that to succeed, you must do your homework. We could all learn from that advice…

You need to put in the research and look at all aspects of the character to get it right – it’s not just about doing pretty things, but creating many different looks depending on what is required for the story!”

Finally, what advice would Sarah give to budding make-up artists? The industry is hard to crack, but it can be done with enough enthusiasm and perseverance…

To get into this line of work you have to want to do the job for the craft of it rather than the glamour – for the joy of creating something, to change the character.”

We’ll be sure to remember that!

In the meantime, get inspired by this video of Sarah’s colleague Sarah Sanderson creating the perfect 1960’s inspired look at Glyndebourne. We’ll be experts in no time!

FashionBite xx

Photographs by Simon Annand

Amy Everett is FashionBite's food and travel editor, she also writes for national newspapers and magazines including the Guardian Travel, Stylist, Shortlist, Red, Cosmopolitan and more.

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