Backstage at Le Temple de la Gloire, a master of wigs

Wig master Mazena Puksto with Marc Labonnette before dress rehearsal of Le Temple de la Gloire. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

When wig master Mazena Puksto got the call that she landed a gig on the modern-day world premiere of Rameau’s 1745 opera-ballet Le Temple de la Gloire (The Temple of Glory), she snapped into action. She usually works on commercials and films, and period theater performances like this one offer a special challenge.

“Hair in the 1700s had a lot of curls, big twists and turns, all covered with white powder,” says Puksto. “It’s not something I do every day. It’s period, but fantastical. When everything comes together, it brings you back in time.”

Puksto is in the costume room in Zellerbach Hall with her wig assistant, Jenny Gilbert. With the dress rehearsal just a few days away, they’re rushing to fit more than 30 performers with wigs. Some characters might wear four different wigs.

“We usually have eight people for a production of this size,” says Puksto.

The wig team had to fit more than 30 performers with wigs for the production. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

The wig fitting and styling process takes a lot of time, even for a wig master like Puksto, who has a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in wig and makeup design from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, one of two universities in the U.S. that offer the degree.

First, the team fits a straight-haired wig to a performer. Then, they mount the wig on a bust, roll the hair up in curlers and put it in a dryer box to set the curls. Finally, they pull the wig out and style it the way you would normal hair, but with a 1700s flair — with brushes, bobby pins and lots of hairspray.

Aaron Sheehan as Apollon in Act I (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

The extravagant hairstyles speak to the opulence of the performance. Composed by Jean-Phillipe Rameau with a libretto by Voltaire, Le Temple de la Gloire was meant to be a “philosophical reform of opera: an allegory around the idea of the temple of glory, a grandiose spectacle with moral and political overtones,” as one reviewer wrote in the San Francisco Classical Voice.

“It’s like living in a jewelry box,” says Andrew Trego, of the New York Baroque Dance Company, who plays four characters in the piece. He says dancing in the production required him to be a sort of “time warp detective.”

It was first performed in 1745 for Louis XIV in Versailles. But it wasn’t well-received by the Parisian public, and was subsequently rewritten, the original version never to be performed again. Until now, almost 300 years later.

Le Temple de la Gloire at Cal Performances features the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale and the New York Baroque Dance Company. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

To bring people back to the 18th century, Puksto and Gilbert take great care to make each wig look as realistic as possible. The wigs are all made of human hair. Some are natural, some dyed. Some are completely single hand-tied, which means someone — Gilbert often pulls this duty — took a tiny crochet hook-type tool and pulled each strand of hair through a tightly woven mesh cap. This painstaking process can take 50 to 120 hours, depending on the length and style of the hair.

And the wigs aren’t cheap, either. A small half-ponytail bundle of unprocessed blonde or grey hair — the most sought-after types of human hair — can cost $800. A hand-tied wig can run into the thousands. It’s an extravagance of which Rameau would approve.

Chantal Santon-Jeffery as Lydie and Philippe-Nicolas Martin as Bélus in Act I (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Le Temple de la Gloire runs Friday, April 28, through Sunday, April 30, at Zellerbach Hall. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased online, by phone at (510) 642-9988 or at the ticket office. Tickets are available at half-price to Berkeley students. The performance runs three hours with one intermission. It’s co-produced by Cal Performances, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale and the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles.

In addition to performances in Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances is offering a day of free public activities: a roundtable discussion with co-producers of the production, a Rameau listening party and a Baroque dance and music workshop.

To learn more, visit Cal Performances.