SYDNEY, Australia – The silhouette is unmistakable. A rifle pointing upward from his hip, the man in the fedora swaggers through the smoldering ruins of a Jewish temple. Saddam Hussein (search) is taking center stage in an Australian production of Verdi's classic opera "Nabucco (search)."
The opera, which opened at Sydney Opera House this week, tells the biblical story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (search) driving the people of Jerusalem out of the Holy Temple and his subsequent battle for power with his daughter Abigaille, whom he adopted from a slave.
Alluding to the 19th century nationalist struggle in Italy, Verdi intended for the oppressed Jews to represent Italians fighting to unify their homeland.
Making his Opera Australia debut, director David Freeman (search) said he wanted to update the production for an audience that likely knows little of Italian history.
"It's trying to give edge to a work which once had an edge, but that edge was Italian politics," he told The Associated Press. "It's making it about the politics of today."
Freeman has cast Nebuchadnezzar, whom Verdi called Nabucco, as a Saddam-like figure in his initial appearance on stage, complete with gun, hat, gangster-like suit and the trademark bristling mustache.
In his next appearance, he struts in brown knee-high boots, a military cap and white trench coat, which is drenched in blood by a vengeful God after the king blasphemously declares himself God.
Later, his grip on power loosening, he is a crazed figure with shaggy hair and beard, bringing to mind pictures of Saddam soon after his December 2003 capture by coalition forces in Iraq. By the time the curtain falls, he is in the traditional costume of a Babylonian king from 600 B.C.
Explaining his idea for the Saddam figure, Freeman said: "I came across a few years ago ... a poster in the style of a painted Hollywood poster of the 1930s ... of Saddam Hussein as Nebuchadnezzar. In his chariot with four white horses charging out into the desert and him with Nebuchadnezzar's bow in his arm but there's also an Exocet (missile) and a helicopter and a destroyer in the picture as well."
A replica of the poster forms the backdrop for part of the production.
For Freeman, Saddam fits the mold of a stage antihero.
"I think he's a rather operatic figure actually, or Shakespearean figure," he said.
He said Saddam's capture in a cramped underground bolt hole was loaded with symbolism.
"To be an absolute ruler and a very tyrannical ruler who even was killing members of his own family and then have your world reduced to virtually a coffin underground, that is a Shakespearean metaphor," he said. "It's like King Lear."
The Nabucco figure is not the only character given a modern twist.
The chorus, portrayed as Jews, also get updated costumes.
"The piece plays in different periods," Freeman said. "The Jews are dressed from the 1930s and '40s because that is the period of their greatest persecution."
But in a jab at modern-day Israel, Freeman also has the chorus in one scene stand behind a depiction of walls Israel is building in an attempt to increase security against attacks by Palestinian militants from Gaza and the West Bank.
"Walls imprison people on both sides," he said.
And the location of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon is not lost on Freeman.
"Babylon is within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Baghdad," he said. "So trouble is still in the same spot after all this time."
The opera opened Wednesday, with 10 more performances scheduled through Aug. 12.