|Gale Edwards on the set of La bohème|
|Herod and Herodias in Salome rehearsals|
Gale Edwards has directed some of Opera Australia’s most memorable productions, including the Company’s 2011 production of Puccini’s La bohème and its 2001 production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. And yet, says the woman whose production of Strauss’ Salome opens at the Sydney Opera Housethis month (before visiting Arts Centre Melbourne in December), there is no formula for a successful production.
“Every time I direct a new show, it’s as if I’m directing for the first time in my life,” she says, with a laugh. “I open the score for the first play-through, alone in my home, and every time I think, oh my God I have no idea how to do this.”
It helps that she’s been directing opera and spoken theatre for 30 years. “Experience has taught me that if I do the research – read the right books, look at the paintings, play the music while I’m washing the dishes, live with it for 18 months, the right concept will come.”
As the weeks went by, Edwards became convinced that the piece needed very strong imagery. “The world of the piece is brutal – Herod is a corrupt, violent ruler who chops off people’s heads; John the Baptist is kept in a hole in the ground like an animal, and executioners come and go all the time. The idea of setting the piece in Biblical times didn’t interest me, so I decided to set it in a slaughterhouse. Herod is having a feast, after all.”
|Herodias and religious figures in Salome rehearsals|
Collaborating with her on the design of the production was long-time colleague Brian Thomson. Edwards says working with him is always challenging and stimulating. “Every time it’s a different process. We’ve done shows where he gave the concept to me on a platter, and we’ve done shows where we sat together at the model box for many hours and developed it together. We still feed off each other. The minute that stops, you have to stop working together.”
Knowledge of who the principal artists are going to be strongly influences the way in which a director conceives of a piece, she says. “In Salome in particular, the dance of the seven veils is the pivotal scene of the piece, and knowing the artist who is performing it has deeply influenced my approach to it.”
As Edwards is friendly with Cheryl Barker, this production’s Salome, she invited the singer to her house for a cup of tea and a chat about the piece. “We discussed the dance of the seven veils, where a nubile teenager, Salome, is going to take off seven veils and stand in front of a lecherous paedophile – Herod – stark naked. Cheryl said, ‘Darling, I’m quite prepared to do anything you require; I’ll take off the seven veils and be stark naked, but I’m a mother and a mature woman, and I’m worried that if I take off everything the audience will say, Oh my God where’s the nubile 17-year-old?’ We laughed and I loved her for that.”
|Gale Edwards in the Opera Australia paint dock|
Barker and Edwards did not come up with a solution, but the director went away and thought about the piece some more. “I realised that I couldn’t do a show where a woman takes off seven veils and stands naked on stage anyway,” she says. “Part of me objects to that.” Instead, she began to play with the idea of taking off a veil. “I became very interested in the way in which women wear veils to attract, arouse and seduce men. Marilyn Monroe standing over the grill with her dress blown up around her and throwing her head back and laughing for the photographers – men in suits with cameras – there’s an image of a woman wearing a veil. Similarly, one could argue that in the Miss World Competition, when the women walk out in those bikinis, the sash across their bodies which they wear with such pride, is a veil imposed on them by men.”
Finding a way to present the dance of the seven veils took a great deal of thought, and so did establishing how to present the offensive circumstances surrounding the dance. But audience members are likely to find Edwards’ solutions interesting. “As director my responsibility is to the audience,” she says. “To have a singer do a provocative dance, then cut off someone’s head and make love to it, that’s confronting. Which is not a problem, as long as, as director, I try to find a way to make some sense of it.”
Salome shows at Sydney Opera House until 3 November and Arts Centre Melbourne 1 - 15 December. Click here for more details, casting information and to buy tickets online.