John the Baptist (Jokanaan) isn't the only man in opera to lose his head over a young woman, but he may be the only one whose head has a bigger stage role than he does.
Thus, in the Washington Opera's current production of "Salome" at the Kennedy Center, soprano Maria Ewing, in the title role, not only dances the dance of the seven veils and bares all in order to have the prophet's head harvested and given to her on a silver platter (Jesse Helms, call your office), but she also kisses and nibbles it afterward like an erotic guppy at feeding time.
Baritone Michael Devlin, who plays the undecapitated Jokanaan, gets no such treatment, poor fellow.
As might be expected, given such dramatic discrepancies, the head has now become a star. It has its own stage technician and makeup person. It gets a shampoo after every performance. And while Ewing is well supplied with her specified Gatorade before and after her show-stopping dance, the head gets a nightly refill of $39-a-quart Nextel Simulated Blood ("shake well before using"), a rinse-out urethane-based suspension of red microbeads designed for wash-and-wear grand guignol.
"Usually, I travel with my own head when doing 'Salome,' " said Dennis Bergevin, 39, the pony-tailed wig and makeup maven for Washington Opera and about 30 other regional opera companies around the country. "The challenge is making the baritone look like the head instead of the other way around. But this one" -- a foam plastic life mask cast from Devlin himself in Los Angeles -- "came with the production. It's really very nice."
As he spoke, the object of his admiration lolled on a nearby makeup table, pale lips agape, eyes evidently seeking test patterns somewhere in its celastic cerebellum. From its neck oozed little foam tendrils through which the blood seeps onstage.
"Its eyelashes get all matted," complained Bergevin's assistant, Cynthia Ludwig, 24, as she toned the head's ghastliness with green and blue pancake makeup. "But the teeth are nice."
When she's not doing opera hair and makeup, Ludwig does clown wigs for Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey back in Sarasota, Fla. She was loyally clad yesterday in a Clown College T-shirt and red slacks.
She and Bergevin estimated the head's net worth at between $500 and $1,000, plus another $1,000 for its wig. "It's all human hair," said Bergevin, fingering the dreadlocked tresses with an approving air. "Most of our hair comes from India and Korea. I scored $15,000 in wonderful hair last year in Cincinnati, but that was very unusual. We're always looking for sources."
The head spends about 45 minutes in the hair dryer between performances of "Salome," then another 20 or so being made up, including a last-minute coat of glycerine just before curtain to make it look sweaty. The remainder of the time it hangs around in the wig room or behind the scenes with its other keeper, stagehand Richard King, 46.
King, a genial former lighting technician for NBC News, handles the blood.
He was glad to talk about the head yesterday, but was working on the sets for "La Boheme" and had to be searched out backstage in 19th-century France instead of 1st-century Judea. Finally cornered with his tool belt in the Cafe Momus, he said the head was a good one and a pleasure to work with.
"The main thing is they want the bottom of the hair bloody but not the top of the head," he said, wiping his hands on his "Phantom of the Opera" T-shirt. He soaks the ends of the hair in blood in a Tupperware container while the head stays dry upside down on a shelf on top, he said. Then, with the head inverted, he pours a quart of blood into the neck, into a plastic bladder that seals with a plug. It stays upside down until it goes onstage.
"In the first rehearsal we didn't use the plug and all the blood came out in the cistern" below stage where Jokanaan is executed, King said. "With the plug it comes out slower and drips just right."
He smiled with satisfaction and tugged his mustache.
The head makes its dramatic first appearance on the arm of Glen Darby, who normally works in the Kennedy Center's backstage canteen but was drafted for the role of executioner because of his muscular build. Then it goes on the silver platter, and from there on it's all Ewing's. She clutches it to her breast and sings to it:
You would not allow me
to kiss your mouth Jokanaan.
Well, I will kiss it now.
I will bite it with my teeth
as one bites a ripe fruit ...
Meanwhile, the head drools blood all over her and onto the stage. Things were so slick opening night that one of Herod's guards almost lost his footing and director Jeanette Aster slipped and fell on her way to a curtain call.
After the performance, King takes the head on its platter back down to the wig room in the stage elevator. He was headed down with it one day Halloween week when a woman got on the elevator at the next floor. The door closed before she saw what he was carrying.
She tried to get out between floors.