Disappearing Ink: How Opera Companies Conceal Singers' Tattoos

Thursday, August 02, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Opera companies rarely flinch at casting a 25-year-old bass as an 80-year-old man, or a 40-year-old soprano as a 16-year-old ingenue. But there's another visual disconnect that increasingly keeps hair and makeup designers busy: the growing number of singers who have adorned their shoulders, forearms, ankles and elsewhere with tattoos.

Camouflaging the tattoos on a Mimi, Violetta or Siegfried becomes a crucial task in the age of HD broadcasts, when every ornament or imperfection is magnified by cameras and beamed out to worldwide movie theater audiences.

“It does come up much more with the younger generation of singers because body art has become much more accepted,” said Anne Ford-Coates, a lead hair and makeup artist for Elsen Associates, which works with major opera companies around the country. “Often you can’t see the tattoos because they’re placed in a discrete spot. But in the modern age of opera, they like to send handsome men out shirtless. If they have chest tattoos then we do have to cover them up, depending on the period and the production.”

One tattoo in particular drew the attention of the opera world last month. Evgeny Nikitin, a Russian baritone who was due to sing the lead role in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at the Bayreuth Festival, withdrew after it emerged that he once had a swastika tattooed on his body. He later said that that the alleged Nazi tattoo actually was a symbol of Nordic mythology, and it was shown in an unfinished state in a German television documentary. The strange episode prompted whispered suggestions that Nikitin’s tattoos were common knowledge among stage directors.

Ford-Coates estimates that in an average season at the Glimmerglass festival or Washington National Opera (both clients) she encounters “five to ten people who have tattoos that are visible and we have to deal with.” Some tattooed singers travel with their own Dermablend, a concealer product. Other times, particularly when a production is filmed for an HD broadcast, the makeup artist turns to an arsenal of professional products that can also conceal birthmarks or scarring. For artists who move a lot on stage, notably dancers, a waterproof product is needed.

“If it’s a regular production and the audience is far away you can do a quick covering with any sort of flesh tone makeup and it’ll be fine once the lights hit them,” said Ford-Coates. “But if it’s for HD, you have to take some time to color-correct for the tattoo and layer paint over that. It can be a little more of a process.”

Ford-Coates said she has not encountered any singers with the kind of extensive tattoos worn by Nikitin, a former heavy metal singer and drummer. For most singers, it's "a cute little arm something on some of the ladies or like a simple band on some of the men,” she noted. “I’ve not yet met many opera singers who have come from a metal or a punk rock background where they’re really covered in body art.”

A Harris Poll in February found that one in five U.S. adults has at least one tattoo, up from 16 percent in 2008. Visible tattoos are uncommon in opera productions, however, as many directors tend to favor a naturalistic look. Still, a few flamboyant artists have made it a part of their image, including Jean Stilwell, a Canadian mezzo-soprano, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a New Zealand baritone whose arm tattoo has attracted some interest on opera fan websites.

Vasil Garvanliev, a Macedonian baritone now based in Canada, has gotten four tattoos on his arms, left wrist and upper back over the past seven years. Recently he hired a fashion photographer to take some photos of the designs (left). "Reaction has been both interesting and shocking," he said in an interview. "Friends and colleagues don't mind at all but when you enter the director-slash-donor world, they look but they act like they don't see it."

Garvanliev said he had some initial concern with how the tattoos would mesh with his costumes but makeup designers assured him they wouldn't present a problem. "I'm sure there will be an encounter — or two or three. At the moment I'm not worried about it. I have a show coming up in October in Der Freischütz. But I am playing the role of Caspar, who is the mean guy. So hopefully it will be okay."

Weigh in: What do you think of singers with tattoos? Listen to Vasil Garvanliev's comments on his ink and leave a comment below:


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Comments [27]

Jim Karis from Huntington Beach, Ca.

I agree with Carolyn Sieski,Allendale, N.J.What a glaring distraction to see tattoos on the arms of Matthew Polenzani as "Nadir" in "The Pearl Fishers". What was the Met thinking,or not thinking?

Jan. 19 2016 06:23 PM
Rosemary Dover

There is a product available at Sephora in the States and Canada called Cover fx. It has double the pigment of regular makeup, is water resistant and comes in a global palette. The prduct was developed in a hospital and I have used it to cover tattoos successfully.
Rosemary Dover. R.N.
Camouflage Specialist for Cover fx Skin Care inc.

Apr. 21 2013 04:41 PM

I'm amazed at the prejudice against what others do to their bodies. I'd never consider approaching another human to say, "I find your appearance hideous," yet any tattooed person can tell you, non-inked strangers are comfortable voicing their contempt. Like others, I thought long and carefully about what I wanted put on my body and have no regrets. I only laugh at those who voice concern about what my body will look like when I'm in my 50's. Now in my 50's I take better care of myself than most folk my age, still, I don't preach my lifestyle to others.

Apr. 20 2013 11:43 AM
Il Tenore from NYC

As a performer myself, it seems to me that if the audience is looking at a performer's tattoos then the performer isn't giving a very good performance.

Apr. 20 2013 11:38 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

If I thought I had the remotest chance of singing at the Metropolitan Opera, I would approach my career from the perspective of avoiding any obstacles to that end. Avoiding tattoos would seem to fit in with this career strategy. It seems to be a matter of how badly one wants the job.

Apr. 18 2013 09:16 PM

Tattoos are a huge part of so many cultures around the world. They are beautiful, and a display of living, breathing artwork. If an opera singer decides to get a tattoo, that should be their prerogative and they should not be judged by the opera community.

It should also be noted that judgement is mainly coming from the American opera community.

Apr. 18 2013 02:41 PM
Rob from New York City

How fortunate and privileged people must be who can cross over from those hot pop careers to good 'ol opera! IMO tattoos look great on sex workers if they're great looking sex workers that is and they keep their bodies in shape. What is sad is to see someone my age (61) who thinks they are still in their thirties and is going to be either a famous sex worker or famous classical music star though. Opera is still fine without the vid-HD-apps (or whatever comes out tomorrow) and all the rest. It's what my ears hear that matters.

Nov. 17 2012 02:37 PM
David from Dalals

The tattoos will remain how they are begun. If they are conceived rashly, then years from now you will feel rash. But if the permanent mark has meaning, then that meaning will remain.

As an opera student with a so far (and hopefully continuing) promising career, I have seen all sides. The side of opera where voice is more important than anything remains. Most pieces, unless on the lower arms or ankles or hands, are always covered (how many times do you really see the full chest or back of opera singers?). Directors are becoming younger and younger, and they understand how easy something is to cover. And in many occasions, new productions can have modern settings where the bodily adornment suddenly becomes a huge benefit to the wearer.

This article isn't about if they are worth it or not, but the career and how it can impact it. Years ago, of course it would damage your career. But now? That is extremely far from the truth.

tl;dr It doesn't matter anymore.

Aug. 04 2012 04:03 PM

Judging from what he has to say in the audio clip above, Garvaniliev is a prize jerk, so what do you expect? I agree with the comment of Vladimir from Siberia, above: "To this I say NYET."

Aug. 04 2012 03:26 PM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

There was a time when tattoos turned me off, but they have become so common that I largely ignore them. For opera set in "primitive" times, like the Ring cycle, tats (real or fake) are very much part of the scene.

Then there's the singer who chooses to get an unobtrusive tattoo that establishes his or her identity. For instance, would anyone have objected to Kiri Te Kanawa wearing a modest "bracelet" in a traditional Maori pattern? Skin painting is, after all, an important part of her ethnic heritage. It could be easily covered by a costume bracelet or long sleeves, and even if uncovered would not be out of place in many of the roles she played.

When it comes to tattoos on stage, I would urge all artists to follow the model of Elizabeth Marvel. A much acclaimed actor in avant-garde theatre, Ms. Marvel has a butterfly on her ankle. In many productions, this detail is irrelevant, in some it is hidden by hose or footwear, in others it is an asset, such as her portrayal of the rebellious daughter in OTHER DESERT CITIES. As Tim Gunn would say, "Make it work."

Aug. 04 2012 01:52 AM
CoolObserver from New York, New York

It seems rather shortsighted for singers who want to go on stage to "adorn" their bodies with something that might seriously hinder their career. Further, since the Met's productions are currently designed, mounted, staged, directed and geared towards HD (woe be to the paying opera house goers!), there are far too many giant close ups. As more than one person has said to me, "I really do not want to see the tenor's tooth fillings and the soprano's skin pores." Please give us a break and go back to grand opera instead of cinema opera, cut out the euro-trash and encourage some impressive, traditional stagecraft of the same quality as the singers and musicians.

Aug. 04 2012 01:01 AM
Vladimir from Siberia

Tattoo is for prisoner in gulag. God make woman beautiful as is. She no need this drawings on arms. To this I say NYET.

Aug. 03 2012 05:01 PM
Georgia B. from Manhattan

Not all tatoos are self-indulgent effacement. Many tatoos are a part of a cultural background. (I mean, what would you say if you found out Dame Kiri had a Maori tatoo you never saw? Just supposing, not implying anything about Ms. Te Kanawa.) And much of the tatoo art today is just that - ART. I'm very saddened to see people not understand and be so judgmental. I have no intentions of getting a tatoo, ever, but if you don't mind spending time putting on extra make-up for every performance, who has the right to care?

Aug. 03 2012 04:36 PM
carolyn sielski from allendale NJ

I don't care what you do to your body , but when you are an actor and a singer, you play and sing the part of anither person in time. The tatto that you had inked on your body is YOUR personal trademark, not the person you are portraying. It should be covered up. Just as you wouldn't wear a wedding ring or pierced earings if you were performing a role of a nun. You also wouldn't wear blue eye shadow if you were portraying a young innocent farm girl. Nor would you wear gold chains or jewelry if you were a Russian peasent. Get real!

Aug. 03 2012 04:05 PM
Gary from Arkansas

Tattoos are graffiti - self-indulgent defacement. Jimmy Buffet hit the nail on the head when he said that tattoos are "permanent reminders of fleeting emotions". Someday all these people will have kids and grandkids who will be asking, "Mom (or whoever), what were you thinking?"

Aug. 03 2012 02:50 PM
Mat Dirjish from New York, NY

In my years on the road as a guitarist in a heavy-metal band, there was always the peer pressure to "ink" with the rest of the crew. I have nothing against anyone doing what they want as long as it hurts no one; how it affects them personally is their concern, not mine. What prevented me from inking up with the lads was something my Sicilian mother told me: tatoos are a sign of slavery. My father's parents (my paternal grandparents) where a good example of that lesson. They had serial numbers tatooed on their arms, courtesy of their German "hosts" during WWII.

Aug. 03 2012 02:14 PM

Tatoos (on bodies) are the equivalent of graffiti on walls. In the dictionary graffiti are defined as "defacing - desecrating - disfiguring - scaring - spoiling." Persons wanting to "express themselves" this way are free to do so, but I doubt that opera composers would look very favorably upon this kind of expression taking place in their works...

Aug. 03 2012 09:56 AM
Salvatore Luigi Adamo from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I am receiving my BM from Temple University Philadelphia (class of 2013) in Voice performance. I also have two full sleeves. It saddens me when people use, "GROSS!" when referring to people with tattoos. Tattoos do not disqualify a person from having feelings, nor the right to take part in their profession. Many tattooed men and women are active supporters of racial, and cultural diversity. Interacting with tattooed philadelphians during the early to mid 90's was enough for me to appreciate their open-mindedness as a 1st generation Italian-American. To me, the eclecticism of tattooing very nearly resembles the eclecticism which we are now realizing to be "American Culture." Having tattoos is philosophically further along than most people generally realize. Watching World Cup Soccer this summer, I had a realization that many of the worlds most gifted athletes are proudly tattooed and freely represent their nations. Each player, with their unique skin art communicates that beneath their different uniforms, beyond their cultural differences, they were all modern day players of the same game. Just as we are all modern day people of the same earth. Different on the outside, yet 99.7% genetically identical on the inside. Opera and tattoos are both art, art is expression. Why would artists of any kind want to deny anyone their right to expression? Hmm...

Aug. 03 2012 02:35 AM
WigManPhil from Dallas TX

If you are going to be taken seriously as a performing artist, particularly an opera singer who may play most of there roles in previous time periods, tatttoos should only be in very discreet spots that only show if you want them too. Even for most actors the same is true. Tattoos can always be stenciled on if required, but its much harder to conceal them.

Aug. 02 2012 08:22 PM

Tatoos are gross and look filthy. Plus, I doubt that Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Gounod and the other composers would look very favorably upon their characters wearing tatoos: they already are turning in their graves because of the absurd modern stagings of their works!!!

Aug. 02 2012 06:00 PM
Frank from LES

Kathy - agreed. It's bad enough directors are making opera singers go naked (according to another article I read here) but now we have to see naked singers with tattoos all over their bodies. Eww.

Aug. 02 2012 04:00 PM
Kathy of Aragon


Aug. 02 2012 02:41 PM
Jan Marchellos from Scotchtown NY

Just love all forms of artistic expression except for tats and body piercing. Ear rings were worn around the ear and not thru the lobe. The human body is beautiful as is. Removing excess hair for women and men to me is the best way to expose the human forms beauty.

Aug. 02 2012 01:47 PM
JBNDenton from Dallas

If the role and the production fit, why not? In Act I of a contemporary Werther, Albert can be a baritone drummer whose metal band has been delayed returning from touring. Cosi fan tutte? Mimi and all the Bohemians? Carmen? Anybody named Manon? It may help if sometimes, not every time, younger characters look like the younger audiences opera needs to attract.

Aug. 02 2012 01:09 PM
Heavily Tattooed Singer from New York City

As an ex heavy-metal drummer turned opera singer myself with a variety of tattoos, I can tell you that in the last 10 years, I have only required cover-up make-up twice. Now that productions are becoming much more interesting and modernized (except for most of America which is still horribly conservative when it comes to opera staging) tattoos fit right in with modern concepts and aesthetics. I have taken part in or seen numerous productions with tattooed people in them which achieve excellent results.

And can I please add, I don't regret for a second any of my tattoos and am still getting them. Tattoos have been an integral part of most every culture on the planet since caveman times. The oldest human remains ever discovered have tattoos. None of my tattoos were impulses and most of the people I know who are tattooed feel the same way (regardless of age). My grandfather was proud of the tattoos he received in the Navy his whole life.

Aug. 02 2012 12:58 PM

That's exactly what Nikitin said on NYT interview
"Mr. Nikitin said that looking back, he wished he had never had any tattoos at all. It was a message that he would gladly convey to young people.
“When you’re 18 and you have this, you think it’s cool,” he said. “But when you’re 50, it starts to seem infantile. Better not to do these things.”"

Aug. 02 2012 11:50 AM
Bernie from UWS

I know that by saying this I'll be branded as old and fuddy-duddy but I just don't see how these people can add these permanent marks to their bodies and think this will still look good when they're in their 50s or 60s. I think it boils down to impulsive personalities who don't have much foresight in their lives - probably the same impulse that convinces people that smoking is okay, or tanning. I expect lots of tattoo removal businesses to be doing well in a few years.

Aug. 02 2012 10:23 AM

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