Opera Australia Blog

Painting a geisha: the art of stage makeup

Tools of the trade. Photo by Jennifer Williams

Tools of the trade. Photo by Jennifer Williams

About two hours before soprano Hiromi Omura will walk out on stage in the breathtaking wedding outfit of Madama Butterfly, she’s in jeans and t-shirt in one of the shipping containers under the harbourtop stage, ready for her make-up call. The tool box is vast and laid out neatly on a countertop. Images of traditional Japanese geishas, along with designer Lluc Castell’s original sketch, are pinned up all over the mirror.

Wondering how you transform a woman into a geisha? We sat in to watch makeup artist Helen Thatcher get to work.



First up, it’s a thick, white paste. Helen sponges a fine layer of the white paint onto Hiromi’s skin. It’s methodical, slow and delicate. Helen follows the contours of her face, pushing the sponge up into the hairline and down to paint the traditional upside-down U shape on the nape of the neck.

Makeup artist Helen begins to paint Hiromi Omura's face. Photo: Jennifer Williams

Makeup artist Helen begins to paint Hiromi Omura’s face. Photo: Jennifer Williams

“Originally geishas used white clay on their faces,” says Teresa Hinton, who is heading up the makeup team for the Opera on Sydney Harbour project. “But we’re just using theatrical makeup – which is easy to get off and we know won’t react with the performer’s skin.”

After the paste, Helen adds a powder to set the white. There has been much to-and-froing with the costume designer Lluc Castells over the geisha makeup, as the artists experiment to create the perfect shade of white.

Helen turns to her brushes and a deep, bright shade of magenta. She uses four different brushes to dab pink paint into Hiromi’s eyebrows, creating a delicate line of varying intensity. She paints that same pink into the corner of Hiromi’s eyelids, building colour slowly and darting from side to side to ensure it is even.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

Out come the false eyelashes, which she attachs with glue before applying a thick sweeping line of liquid eyeliner.

Shadowing the eyelids takes just a few minutes – the intensity of colour is all in the outlines.

With yet another brush, Helen paints Hiromi’s lips a blood-intense red.

Then it’s a less delicate task – sponging the soprano’s neck, wrists, hands and arms a matching shade of white. She uses a brush to mark the lines where the tattoo body-sleeve will hit the nape of the neck.

Finally, Hiromi shuts her eyes for Helen to spray a finishing spray all over the geisha’s face – so that harbour spray and wind will not move an inch of that beautiful makeup.

Despite the grandness of the stage and the outdoor setting, Teresa says you actually apply less makeup for an outdoor production than an opera in the Sydney Opera House. “It looks too theatrical for outside. The Audience is too close to the stage!”

Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San. Photo Credit: Vincent Bousserez.

Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San. Photo Credit: Vincent Bousserez.

4 Responses to “Painting a geisha: the art of stage makeup”

  1. Jean Coulton

    I have just got home from “Madam Butterfly”
    Absolutely magnificent. The singing just glorious. This is the third one I have been to. All wonderful.
    Please keep up Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

  2. Moonyeen Atkinson

    Last night was one of many performances of Madama Butterfly I have seen over the years but the marvelous voices, staging and atmosphere of our wonderful harbour, Opera company and performaners made the most exciting and me orBle.
    Thank you Opera Australia, I am a very proud subscriber and supporter.
    I so look forward to 2015 season.
    Very best wishes,
    Moonyeen Atkinson

    • Jennifer Williams

      Thank you Moonyeen – it is a huge team effort to make Opera on Sydney Harbour happen and we do it for people like you! Thanks for the lovely feedback – and see you at the opera next year!


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