It isn't the heavy breathing over Salome's dance of the seven veils that bothers opera singer Michael Devlin. It's being upstaged night after night by his own disembodied head.
"It's very strange, it's very strange indeed," says Devlin, who plays John the Baptist in the Washington Opera production of Richard Strauss' "Salome," and loses his head over a pretty woman.The head, of course, is fake. But a strikingly realistic fake. It lolls on Salome's silver platter, eyes rolled back, blood oozing from beneath its long, matted hair, with a latex face that looks exactly like Devlin's.
To judge by the gasps from Kennedy Center audiences, the head almost steals the show. It's a big enough star to command a personal makeup artist and stagehand.
The head was made from a life mask of Devlin, a baritone from Seattle, for the original Peter Hall production of "Salome" at the Los Angeles Music Center in 1986.
The head was bald when it arrived in Washington, so wigmaker Dennis Bergevin spent 40 hours hand-stitching and stapling a three-foot mane of human hair and cotton dreadlocks to the skull. The wig cost about $1,000.
Before each performance, a plastic bladder inside the skull is filled with a $37 quart of Nextel Brand Simulated Blood, a urethane-based suspension of red microbeads. It is unplugged shortly before the head is presented to Salome.
As soon as the curtain falls, a makeup specialist and the stagehand rush the bloody head to a janitor's sink and wash it clean with cold water. Then it is carried downstairs in an elevator and put under a hair dryer for two or three hours.
Shortly before its next stage appearance, the face gets a fresh layer of greenish white pancake makeup with dark shadows here and there, bright red lipstick on the mouth and a coating of glycerine to make it look sweaty.
For much of the opera, John the Baptist or Jokanaan (the prophet's Hebrew name) sits in a dark cistern where Herod has imprisoned him. He shouts dire warnings to the sinners above and emerges briefly to scorn seductive Salome's advances.
"I'm sitting down there on a chair, singing into a microphone and watching (conductor) Gerry Schwarz on a little television set," says Devlin. "And two feet to the right is my head, lying in a bucket of blood. It's quite disconcerting."
Jokanaan doesn't get the girl, and who can blame her? After all, he denounces her as a "daughter of Sodom" and refuses even to look at her. So she strikes her bargain with Herod: she dances her veils away to total nudity before the leering king, and she wins Jokanaan's head on a platter.
After the executioner's ax falls in the dungeon, Devlin sneaks to the wings to watch soprano Maria Ewing, who plays Salome, make steamy love to his head.
Jokanaan might be forgiven for asking himself, "Did I say something wrong?"