We peer behind the veils in Opera Australia’s gruesome new production.

I’ve only seen the last 20 minutes of the dress rehearsal for Salome, but I feel like I’ve been through the wars, or endured a horror movie marathon. After the curtain calls, three Opera Australia staff shuffle onstage with mops to wipe up splatter of Kill Bill proportions. As a vegetarian, I feel slightly queasy looking at the backdrop of splayed carcasses. 

Of course, Gale Edwards is known for her decadent productions (last year’s lavish La bohème among them), but this is the most gruesome, gratuitous Salome I’ve ever seen. Even so, the director is adamant that it’s entirely justified. She describes Richard Strauss’ biblical setting, the palace of King Herod at Galilee, as “a violent world; a world in which somebody’s head can be severed after dinner; in which Narraboth stabs himself in the first five minutes of the piece; a world in which a young girl’s throat can be slit; a dictatorship of great greed, corruption and self-satisfaction at the expense of everything. 

“Herod’s having a feast – he’s invited all the religious dignitaries of the world to discuss whether his prisoner John the Baptist is a saint or not, and behind him are these torsos in a slaughterhouse which are then carved up for their dinner. John the Baptist is put into a ‘cistern’, as it’s referred to in the score, so we looked at the drainage hole for blood in the abattoirs.” 

And at the centre of it all is the king’s raunchy teenage stepdaughter Salome. Outraged that holy man has rejected her advances, she performs the erotic Dance of the Seven Veils for her drooling stepfather and demands, as reward, the head of the caged prophet. 

The opera proved so scandalous leading up to its 1905 premiere that most of the cast threatened to withdraw. The first Salome, Marie Wittich, refused to dance or to kiss the lips of the severed head: “I won’t do it; I’m a decent woman,” she told Herr Strauss. How times – and women – have changed. Taking the lead, soprano Cheryl Barker actually asked her director, “‘Can we have a lot of blood?’ Because there’s no point in doing this halfhearted. You want to really make a statement. If someone’s had his head cut off there’s going to be a lot of blood. The only thing is that it’s treacherous up there because it’s so slippery,” she laughs. 

Slippery it may be, but Barker doesn’t put a foot wrong in this brutal tour de force. No need for the customary silver platter; this Salome yanks her grisly prize by the hair, nuzzles it between her thighs, hurls it delightedly around the stage and even rips out its tongue (funnily enough, not the first time I’ve seen this happen in an Opera Australia production) in a state of frenzied bliss. All the while negotiating the vocal demands and wide range of Strauss’ ravishing final aria. “I have trouble holding it up to sing to because it’s so heavy,” she admits. “It’s probably the proper weight of a head.” 

It seems strange, after all this, to hear the soprano describe Salome as “my most enjoyable Strauss role. I’ve always loved it. It’s much more interesting than just wafting around; most of his other women are so cerebral. I love the physicality of this.”

Initially, Barker was to have two heads at her disposal: baritone John Wegner’s in the Sydney run and, in what might have made for a strange onstage dynamic, her husband Peter Coleman-Wright’s in the Melbourne performances. The latter has now pulled out to spend more time with the couple’s son, Gabriel. It’s a shame – as Barker told me earlier this year in response to the original casting: “I’ve always wanted Peter’s head on a platter!” 

Edwards was certainly pleased with her leading lady at the dress rehearsal. “I don’t have any notes,” she called to Barker, giving her an early mark with a wave of the hand. “I have notes for other people, but I don’t have any for you!” Edwards turns to me and adds, “She’s absolutely beautiful and sexual and sensual – which is more important than sexual, but she’s sexual as well. And very few people can actually sing Salome.” 

Even with such a charismatic, courageous performer to work with, Edwards initially struggled with the difficult question of how to stage the provocative Dance of the Seven Veils. Some sopranos, most (in)famously Maria Ewing, have consented to full-frontal nudity in the role. Meanwhile, many directors have mulled over casting a mature woman as a scantily-clad young girl (a necessary measure, since Strauss demands “a sixteen-year-old princess with the voice of Isolde”). But Edwards arrived at a very different solution. 

“Herod asks his stepdaughter to do a striptease so that he can have an erection and hopefully go to bed with her – that’s in the story. As a woman, I find that offensive,” she explains. “So I tried to investigate the Dance of the Seven Veils in a more intelligent way. What does it mean for women to assume ‘veils’ for the pleasure of men? So we chose seven veils, metaphorically, that are recognisable to us in society today, that women assume or are required to wear.” These range from bombshell (Marilyn Monroe played by Barker) to pious virgin, to pole-dancing dominatrix (if anyone from Opera Australia is reading, can I borrow that costume for Halloween?). 

This parade of objectified women ultimately casts Salome in a different light; not just as a sexually precocious tease with an insatiable bloodlust, says Barker, but as a “victim of the debauched society she lives in, an uncaring mother and being interfered with by her stepfather”. Even so, Edwards is loathe to call it a feminist reading. “Feminism is about as exciting as a bucket of lead in this day and age. I would not say I’m a feminist; I’m just a modern woman.”

Salome opens on October 12 at the Sydney Opera House. View event details here.