Nina Lawson

She was the rock of Gibralter backstage, and was the stuff of genius. Backstage for my debut night, she had used hair from a Zinka wig and a Tebaldi wig and weaved it into the Amelia wig I would wear on my special night and told me with great glee. It naturally made me feel wonderful and special, just as she had wanted. What a lovely and gracious friend, and I will miss her beautiful work and glorious friendship.

September 17, 2008
Nina Lawson, Tamer of the Met’s Wigs and Egos, Is Dead at 82

On the opera stage, barrel-chested bassos and sylphlike sopranos have one thing in common: big hair. Up top, just above the source of the ringing notes, sits a lacquered, powdered, teased or pouffed wig, styled within an inch of its life and holding on for dear life as turbulent events unfold.

For more than 30 years, Nina Lawson ran the wig department at the Metropolitan Opera, tending the elaborate hairpieces — and the egos — of legendary singers like Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. Not once did her confections topple.

She died Sept. 9 in Ayr, Scotland. She was 82. The cause was pernicious anemia, said Beth Bergman, a friend.

From 1956 until her retirement in 1987, Miss Lawson fabricated or groomed the hairpieces worn by the great and not so great of the opera world, from the lowliest member of the Met’s chorus to headliners like Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and the young Plácido Domingo.

“She had an incredible ability to make the most wonderful wigs without spending a lot of money,” said Joseph Volpe, the former general manager of the Met. “She watched every dollar, while keeping the artistic vision foremost in mind.”

She also ministered to some of the most temperamental artists of the day. In addition to shaping, trimming and cleaning a collection of more than a thousand wigs and hairpieces, she smoothed the ruffled feathers of high-strung performers ready to throw a fit if a wig threatened to chafe and she defused tense standoffs between designers and stars.

Miss Lawson grew up on a farm near Forth in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where she enjoyed putting a stylish curl in the tails of her father’s prize Ayrshire cattle. “I’d braid them at night, then comb them out in the morning for shows,” she told The New York Times in 1959. “The tails looked ever so nice and ripply.”

At Stowe Hairdressing College in Glasgow, she started out on live hair and worked her way up to wigs and period hairpieces.

“I was really quite thorough,” she told Opera News. “I learned periods for hair styles of different European countries and how to make wigs of all kinds.”

After completing her training, she became the hairdresser for the Carl Rosa Opera Company and later worked on opera and ballet productions at Sadler’s Wells Theater.

While at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario under Tyrone Guthrie, she came to the attention of Rudolf Bing, who hired her in 1956.

Miss Lawson almost immediately began reorganizing the Met’s wig department, which for decades had made use of rented wigs. She quickly built up an inventory of 1,400, either made on the premises or bought in Europe, and then fitted, trimmed, cut and adjusted to various faces and head sizes. (Today the Met has more than 5,000 wigs.)

Many artists brought their own wigs, which Miss Lawson shaped to the style of the opera being performed. She would also take a singer’s own hair and fashion it into supplemental hair pieces.

Working with just one assistant in her early years at the Met, Miss Lawson groomed the wigs for seven or more operas a week. In the 1958 season, that meant preparing and dressing 750 wigs, all of which had to be cleaned, strand by strand, with a cloth dipped in benzine.

Miss Lawson placed a premium on the comfort of the artists. In her first season, she persuaded the Met’s administration to reject some aluminum-framed Japanese wigs for “Madama Butterfly” that squeezed the head like a vise.

Her own wigs fit so comfortably that some singers kept them on even after the performance. Miss Lawson often had to remind Pavarotti to return his wigs, which he took back to his hotel room and, as often as not, tossed in a corner or used as bookmarks.

Her eye for a bargain was sharp. When Max Factor closed down its wig division, which had filled the orders for many a Hollywood costume drama over the years, she flew out to Los Angeles and snapped up bundles of human hair and countless wigs for a pittance. She also returned with a personal trophy, the looming tower of platinum hair worn by Norma Shearer in the 1938 film “Marie Antoinette.”

After retiring from the Met, she returned to Scotland, where she lived a quiet life in Ayr. She is survived by her brother, Jack, of Paisley, Scotland; and her sister, Janette Camazzola of Kitimat, British Columbia.

As for the staying power of her wigs, even when singers crossed swords or lunged at each other in the throes of passion, Miss Lawson had an explanation. “It’s the tulle fronts that keep them on, even during a singer’s most rigorous scene,” she told Women’s Wear Daily.

And a good thing too. “When the tenor and soprano have to put their arms around each other they always worry lest they upset each other’s wigs,” she once said. “That wouldn’t look good.”

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~ by aprilemillo on September 17, 2008.

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