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Sex, sev­ered heads, hor­ri­ble deaths – Salome is opera for True Blood fans.

Kate Lad­ner has to ex­er­cise more than her voice to play a trou­bled teenager in her lat­est role for State Opera.

Lad­ner has the lead in Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Salome, open­ing for four per­for­mances at Fes­ti­val Theatre on Au­gust 24.

Strauss threw ev­ery­thing at his ti­tle char­ac­ter, a 15-year-old do­ing her best to sur­vive in a bru­tal and love­less fam­ily.

Salome, Lad­ner says, is used and abused and ul­ti­mately dis­posed of.

Her job in­volves help­ing the au­di­ence make sense of her.

To do this the South-Aus­tralian-born so­prano must sing pas­sion­ately to a sev­ered head, and die hor­ri­bly on or­der from Salome’s despotic step­fa­ther Herod. “All that,” Lad­ner says. “And then there’s the danc­ing.” Salome shocked au­di­ences at its Ger­man pre­miere in 1905 and the opera was banned in Lon­don.

Based on Os­car Wilde’s play from the bib­li­cal tale it com­bined re­li­gious and erotic con­tent in a blood­thirsty plot around themes of power, sex and ob­ses­sion.

Cen­tre to the con­tro­versy was the Dance of the Seven Veils, the fa­mous se­quence in which the las­civ­i­ous Herod begs Salome to dance for him.

At first re­luc­tant, Salome agrees when Herod prom­ises to give her any­thing in re­turn.

Salome has been shunned by John the Bap­tist, or Jokanaan in Strauss’s opera. A head on a plat­ter comes to mind. Salome per­forms the dance, re­mov­ing seven veils, end­ing naked at Herod’s feet.

Di­rec­tors and singers have been grap­pling with the scene and how to stage it since.

Ger­man so­prano Marie Wit­tich re­fused to per­form the dance in 1905 when a bal­le­rina was brought in.

Strauss al­tered his score when he re­alised the orig­i­nal re­quired singers not al­ways suited in voice or stature to play­ing an ado­les­cent.

Lad­ner will dance in State Opera’s sea­son but the di­rec­tor, SA-born Gale Edwards, has spared au­di­ences and singers the ig­nominy of a lit­eral trans­la­tion.

In her pro­duc­tion, Edwards says, the veils have been

re­cast as rep­re­sen­ta­tions of “seven dif­fer­ent roles women adopt for the plea­sure of men”.

Lad­ner will dance three but de­clines to elab­o­rate be­cause she wants to re­tain an el­e­ment of sur­prise.

Two pro­fes­sional dancers will per­form the re­main­ing four “veils”.

As a re­sult, re­hearsals have been more en­er­getic than usual for Lad­ner.

“It’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing be­cause it’s not only a very phys­i­cal show but it’s quite in­tel­lec­tual as well,” she says.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic gift but at the same time quite chal­leng­ing and scary.”

Lad­ner, now based in France, was in­vited to play Salome for State Opera three years ago when in Ade­laide star­ring in Aida.

Since then Salome, cre­ated for the Opera Con­fer­ence con­sor­tium of Aus­tralian opera com­pa­nies, has been lauded in sea­sons in Syd­ney and Melbourne, win­ning four Help­mann Awards, in­clud­ing best opera.

It’s a tri­umph for Edwards and a work last staged in Ade­laide al­most 20 years ago and, prior to that, not since the 1960 Ade­laide Fes­ti­val.

With beau­ti­ful mu­sic per­formed over one hour and 40 min­utes, in opera terms Strauss’s work is short but dark and more closely aligned to Wag­ner than Puc­cini.

Not the first choice for com­pa­nies and au­di­ences tend­ing to­wards the big ro­man­tic reper­toire.

But Salome is per­fect for Lad­ner, who carved a ca­reer in Mozart’s op­eras but is just at home with more dra­matic ma­te­rial.

SA au­di­ences re­mem­ber her per­for­mances in both Ade­laide Ring cy­cles, as Wald­vo­gel and Woglinde, one of the three Rhine­maid­ens, in the im­ported Chatelet Opera Paris pro­duc­tion of 1998, and Freia, Helmwige and third Norn in the first all-Aus­tralian Ring in 2004.

Nev­er­the­less, Lad­ner feels she’s been “thrown in the deep end” in her first Strauss opera, al­though “the mu­sic gives you a lot of in­sight into the char­ac­ter, and Strauss is just a ge­nius”.

“If you sing what’s on the page, Salome’s there, she’s alive, with all the tur­moil and all the lyri­cism when she’s try­ing to ma­nip­u­late a sit­u­a­tion,” she says.

“It’s also quite a low role. It’s not of­ten a so­prano gets to give the chest a real belt.

“I love that – the idea of us­ing dif­fer­ent colours in my voice to match what’s on stage.

“It’s about find­ing the right mix and bal­ance, and trust­ing in the orches­tra, which is large in this opera, with 120 play­ers.

“It’s about know­ing how to sail over the top. It’s chal­leng­ing but ex­cit­ing and, over the past few years, I

What sort of world is this, that runs with blood, where ev­ery­thing is eaten or killed or used in some way?

think it’s the di­rec­tion my voice has been head­ing in.” There are some con­ces­sions. Salome’s death is chill­ing but brief. Yes, Lad­ner must sing erot­i­cally to Jokanaan’s sev­ered head for 20 min­utes, but the plas­ter cast is a replica of her old friend, SA opera singer Dou­glas McNi­col, who will sing Jokanaan in Ade­laide.

“It’s great to be back in Aus­tralia work­ing with peo­ple and a com­pany I love,” she says.

Edwards, work­ing with Lad­ner for the first time, says she’s blessed to have the South Aus­tralian in the role suc­cess­fully per­formed by Cheryl Barker in­ter­state.

“Kate has cre­ated her own Salome,” Edwards says. “She’s a coura­geous per­former, phys­i­cally very fit and ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful. And she sings the part bril­liantly.”

Edwards and de­signer Brian Thom­son’s slaugh­ter house-in­spired set of a feast in progress was a sen­sa­tion in Syd­ney and Melbourne.

“Herod comes from a lin­eage of killing and his fam­ily is ex­traor­di­nar­ily cor­rupt,” Edwards says.

“He’s killed his own brother. In the first five min­utes of the opera he walks on to the stage and slips in blood.

“He or­ders the body be taken away. So it’s a place where killing is as ca­sual as ca­sual can be.

“What sort of world is this, that runs with blood, where ev­ery­thing is eaten or killed or used in some way?”

Au­di­ences shouldn’t miss it, she says, if only be­cause Salome is un­likely to ap­pear on a stage in Ade­laide again for an­other 20 years.

“This is a great clas­sic work writ­ten at the very, very end of the 1800s, which was rev­o­lu­tion­ary at the time, and changed the na­ture of opera and mu­sic,” Edwards says. Salome will be per­formed at Fes­ti­val Theatre on Au­gust 24, 27, 29 and 31.

Salome sings to Jokanaan’s sev­ered head

Kate Lad­ner will dance as well as sing in Salome

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