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Blood-letting galore as Opera Australia brings us the head of John the Baptist

PLAYING an unhinged teenager who demands the head of John the Baptist before having her own throat slit is proving to be a messy business for Cheryl Barker.

The soprano sings the title role in Opera Australia's new production of Salome, and is drenched in blood by the time the curtain falls.

Barker, who played Salome for the first time in London seven years ago, said she was not squeamish.

''I think this role suits my sensibility: the gorier, the better,'' she said.

But she had asked the props team to mix up a thinner batch of blood.

''It was sticking everything together,'' she said. ''It glued up my costume, my hair was glued to my skin and my hands stuck to the floor.''


Salome opens this Friday, two weeks after the premiere of another blood-splattered opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.

Yet this new production of Richard Strauss's one-act opera ups the gore factor thanks to set designer Brian Thomson, who has created an abattoir inside the Sydney Opera House for director Gale Edwards.

Behind a banquet table laden with exotic food - reindeer, swans and dogs - swing rows of large animal carcasses from which performers carve off slabs of meat, while a bloodstained set of stairs leads down to a cistern in which John the Baptist, played by John Wegner, is imprisoned.

The carcasses are not real but made of metal frames covered in foam ''and all sorts of plastic and rubber'', Thomson said.

''If you think of the paintings of Francis Bacon, they're pretty skeletal with not a lot of meat and tissue left on them.''

Thomson's recent sets include a decadent 1930s Spiegeltent for last year's La Boheme and the harbour staging of La Traviata.

He is working on next year's Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Carmen, which will also be directed by Edwards.

But he said Salome was ''the most full-on set I've done''.

Thomson's blood-spattered set was inspired by the violent corrupt world inhabited by the title character, which Edwards said was a consequence of despotic power.

''We had to create a world where a man's head could be severed after supper at the whim of a precocious girl,'' she said.

''Where the slitting of a human throat carries no more significance than the slaughter of a beast for the dinner table.''

But Barker said the blood-splattered set had won over her 13-year-old son, Gabriel, who watched a rehearsal last week..

''He loved it and he doesn't like opera very much,'' she said.