Video: Behind The Scenes At ‘Salome’
Babes, Boobs, And Blood At The San Diego Opera
Originally published January 27, 2012 at 8 p.m., updated January 30, 2012 at noon
Babes, boobs, and blood are not what you normally expect to find at the opera but you'll find all three at the San Diego Opera's production of "Salome" (opening tonight and playing January 31, February 3 and 4 at the Civic Theater).
I had the opportunity to visit backstage at the opera to get a sneak peek at the special effects for "Salome." So check out the video of some of the unlikely things that go into this particular opera, an opera that has a hot femme fatale singer in the lead, lots of blood, and even some nudity.
Inspired by the Biblical tale and based on Oscar Wilde's play, the Richard Strauss opera serves up Salome as a femme fatale who'll do anything to get her man... even if it means asking for his head to be delivered to her on a silver platter.
"Well I'm very proud of the fact that the New York Times stated in their review of the production that it has enough blood to qualify as a great Hollywood horror movie," director and choreographer Sean Curran explains, "When we first started talking about this I said I wanted as much blood as there'd be in a Quentin Tarantino movie."
That's where wig and make-up designer Steven Bryant comes in.
"We deal a lot with blood and body parts and chopped off heads," says Bryant with a hint of glee.
Bryant tackles the challenges of "Salome" with a definite sense of enjoyment. I asked if when he started doing wig making, did he ever think he would be dealing with severed heads?
His answer: "I hoped so, that's the fun part."
This is the kind of guy I like! The central effect is the beheading of John the Baptist. This requires borrowing a prop head from the Santa Fe Opera of Greer Grimsley, who plays John the Baptist.
The one used at the San Diego production, comes from a mold of Greer Grimsley's head and so it looks exactly like him.
"His hair is just like this," Bryant points out, "Although it doesn't weigh as much as a human head weighs, what we do with this one is, it's a freshly chopped off head, when the executioner chops off John the Baptist's head off, they put it in a bag and then they deliver it to Salome."
Director Curran was excited by work done by Bryant and his team: "I'm thrilled. Imagine if you had a chopped off head, imagine how much it would bleed. So head cuts bleed more than other parts of the body so they tell me, so this has to look real, it has to look right and they did a great job."
At one point Salome opens the bag and takes out the head of John the Baptist.
"Because her one goal in life at this point is to kiss this head even though it's not attached to John the Baptist's body," says Bryant, "So when the head is pulled out, the hair is dripping with blood. But then we want her to also be able to have a bit of extra blood because her aria that she sings with this is about 20 minutes long, and we need some blood toward the end of the aria that can drip down so we've got special sponges inside the back of his head that we wet with blood.These sponges will have blood in them and there's one on each side and when she holds the head like this, she can just take her hands and squeeze the sponge and more blood will come out onto her hands and roll down her arms and hopefully off her elbows is what we are hoping."
I got to see the dress rehearsal of "Salome," and as one only familiar with opera in film, it was quite an experience. Curran's production feels very contemporary and not at all stuck in Biblical times or even in the time Strauss' opera was written. The set design feels impressive but fittingly oppressive with its forced perspective keeping our eye on the huge door to prison where John the Baptist is being held. Curran also has what struck this opera novice as an interesting way of doing the dance of the 7 veils.
It's a short opera and modern looking it its striking set design and costuming. That, combined with the familiar Biblical tale of Salome doing her dance of the 7 veils in order to get her stepfather to execute John the Baptist, may make this opera a good one for those people who have never been to the opera.
I, of course, got sucked in by the blood and special effects. Bryant was happy to share information about the work he did to make the severed head look real, like getting the blood right.
"They've kind of done this recipe for the blood to be the exact perfect color under the lights," says Bryant, "because the lights will change the color of the blood. It could look exactly like blood to us and the color of the lights could make it look from stage like it's not really blood. So this is a little bit browner than most blood is but, and it's still very, very thick, really thick and syrupy. And it's edible. It's made with a gallon of corn syrup, there's a cup of red food coloring, there's a cup of chocolate syrup, and then the blood that gets on his head, that she actually ingests, is made with the same recipe with a little bit of peanut butter added it so it's even thicker so it just will stay right where we put it. The hard part of this entire recipe is we use so much blood we think we're gonna use about a gallon of blood per show, per performance, and so the recipe calls for one gallon of Karo syrup and for one gallon of Karo syrup there's one cup of red food coloring but of course re food coloring comes in these little bitty containers but then today from Smart & Final, we found a gallon container of red food color, which should last us the run of the show."
The blood gets all over everything from singer Lise Lindstrom and her costume to the stage that needs to be mopped up each night. The clean up crew stayed a good 10 to 15 minutes after the opera ended to mop up the blood and return the stage to its opening cleanliness.
But Curran wouldn't have it any other way. The blood is part of the thrill.
"it's part of the excitement, and in a strange way it's part of the sensuality of the piece," says Curra, "So it's gotta be vivid, it's gotta be believable, and they did there homework, so they made it great."
And it was great to see all the work that went into making this particular "Salome" a bold, bloody production.
UPDATE: I went to opening night and spoke with some of the attendees. The performance received rousing applause that could be heard in the lobby. All of the people I interviewed were impressed by the production. One couple refused to talk because they said they didn't think the San Diego Opera wanted to hear what they had to say. But the usher said there were only 2 people who left early and not because of any displeasure with the opera. So overall, Curran's bold approach seems to have paid off. But listen to the reactions.