SALOMELiverpool Philharmonic Hall 10/5/18
Opera North – the Leeds-based award-winning national opera company – brings Richard Strauss’ shocking masterpiece SALOME to Liverpool this May. The performance at the Philharmonic is part of a series across the UK that aims to bring opera out of traditional opera houses and into concert halls, encouraging new audiences to experience their full musical impact. The opera house’s tour of Salome follows on from celebrated concert performances of the Ring Cycle, Turandot and Billy Budd.
Making her Opera North debut, American soprano JENNIFER HOLLOWAY sings the part of Salome, fresh from her critically-acclaimed interpretation of the role in Dresden. Salome is a character of deep complexity, and a singing role that makes enormous demands of the performer. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, Strauss’ opera tackles the darker fringes of human nature, with a plot based around obsession, desire and unequal sexual politics. Salome, the step-daughter of King Herod, is an object of obsessive desire for all the characters around her, but she herself is fixated on the imprisoned Jokanaan (better known as John the Baptist.) When Herod offers her any gift if she will perform the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils for him, she demands the head of the prophet in return.
The opera was written in 1905, and its sound world is immersed in the vivid musical experimentation of that era. Salome utilises one of the largest orchestras ever assembled for an opera, in a score of unrivalled complexity and richness. James Davidson spoke to Jennifer Holloway about the opera’s controversial nature and reprising her role as Salome.
Salome caused a sensation when it was first performed in 1905 in Dresden. Performances in London were banned at that time, and in New York it could not be staged until 1934. Do you think that the opera still retains its power to shock or to cause controversy today?
I think any opera and piece of art has the ability to shock or to cause controversy – isn’t that why we love and need art? It has the ability to open us up to a new, and often uncomfortable, way of thinking… sometimes about something that we thought was not up for debate! In Strauss’ Salome, we have characters who we would normally judge as “good” or “bad” pretty quickly and easily: the mother who turns her head while he daughter suffers abuse, the paedophile step father, the unfairly imprisoned religious pacifist, or the murderess who kills an innocent man. But Strauss doesn’t allow it to be so clear cut: “Why am I delighted by this mother who has neglected her daughter?”, “Why do I want to help the paedophile convince his victim?”, “Why am I angry at this wrongly imprisoned man?”, “Why do I want to comfort the murderess?” The most successful productions subtly explore each of these questions. The team usually knows the audience well and knows just how to make them question a bit, but also to delight them.
But I also respect any production that pushes the audience to question every expectation to its fullest, or to turn the story on its ear – to challenge the audience to see everything in a way that feels wrong or counterintuitive (as long as it still honours the words and the music!) It is an extraordinary and courageous thing when a composer, performer, or director takes the chance to push too far and makes people angry because they have said too much or ruined the preconceived notions the audience had about the story. More often than not, however, this extra challenging experience will have forced the birth of a new path of thinking. It may be for that reason that often, a piece which was hated at first, becomes something beloved once its elements are no longer so out of the ordinary.
Salome is one of the most enigmatic characters in all of opera. She is a voyeur herself, as well as the object of the beholder’s fascination, exerting tremendous power on all the other characters around her. How do you personally relate to her?
When I play a character, I must be able to understand and have a reason for every move, thought, word, note, and action, so I make sure that every characteristic is a very human one when exploring. There is nothing about this young woman that is so enigmatic to anyone who has ever been a girl. This is the story of a young victim who finally has the opportunity to get back at and to feel power over her long-time abuser(s). The tragic dilemma for Salome is that the only way to achieve this is to destroy the only thing that has ever filled her with an honest feeling of love. When given the choice, she chooses to feel the power of revenge.
I have never been physically abused but, as with every woman I have ever met, I have been made to feel less, and sometimes even powerless, because of my gender. I can only imagine how a girl who has been abused, and who has been rendered powerless and worthless at every moment, must feel. I can only imagine the rage she would have toward her abusers and their facilitators. I can imagine that, especially remembering the fervour and impulsivity of my teenage years, I would have jumped at the opportunity to right the wrong. I can also remember the regret, guilt, and sadness I felt when I realised the consequences of my impulsive actions. Luckily for me, my regretful decisions didn’t have such high stakes.
The last year has seen increased attention paid to issues around gender inequality, particularly across the arts and including the emergence of the #MeToo movement. Is it tempting to return to the major female stage roles in search of new nuances in the light of this? Do you think Salome can be seen as a feminist figure?
I make jokes about a lot of operas that, if the women were in charge, all of the problems would be fixed in the first act. It would make for a lot of very short evenings! Anyone who knows me will know that EVERY character I play is done so with a feminist heart. I will fight tooth and nail with a director if I disagree with the way women are being depicted. That does not mean that every woman I play is strong or outspoken. Instead, it often means that I have to depict how, despite societal norms that aimed to crush the independence and power of the female sector, the women I play figure out how to find what power they do have and make the most of it… but it is important to show how women’s hands have been tied.
I believe most things in life are about power. Feminism is no exception. It is about not having power unfairly taken away, about the struggle not to be made to feel powerless. This is a story about this girl’s struggle to find her own power when it’s been wrongfully taken from her. It is the story of the lengths one might go to if made to feel completely powerless.
Salome poses unique difficulties for a performer, making not only extraordinary demands on the artist’s vocal abilities, but also on their acting and even their dancing skills. Do you approach this role primarily as a singer or with a shared focus on acting?
Of course, the first thing I work on when learning any role is the singing. I have studied with the same incredible voice teacher, Marlena Malas, for 18 years now and, together, we continue to work very hard on my technique and the ever-changing apparatus in my throat. Equally important to me is the language, out of which the character is born. I study each role for many months (sometimes years) with my team of trusted musical and language coaches so that I have a firm grasp on all everything vocally and linguistically before I try to start telling the story with my body in staging rehearsals.
It is in the staging rehearsals that I really get to know a character. It is also where the music finally makes total sense. I love finding this relationship between the characters, the words, and the music. I think I approach most roles as an actor rather than as a singer. That can sometimes get you into trouble, but I think I have learned how to balance the two fairly well in the last few years. I would much rather attend an opera where the singers are singing actors rather than acting singers, and so I try to be for the audience what I would like to see myself.
The most famous section of the opera is the Dance of the Seven Veils. How have your prepared for this scene?
As this performance is a concert staging, I haven’t had to think about it much! I will say that this music is some of the most important story-telling in the opera. The beginning is either a bit coy or a bit clumsy, and by the end of it, I am in a frenzy of dread and horror. The orchestra is actually the most important character in Salome!
Salome is enormously challenging to sing, using a wide range, sitting mostly very high, but with its lowest notes in the contralto register. You have recently switched your main repertoire from mezzo to soprano. Does this background offer any insights into how to approach the part?
One thing you learn pretty quickly in this business is that everyone has an opinion, everyone has advice, and 99.9% of it is BS. I was born with a very wide range – and a very loud voice. I did nothing to make that happen. There was always a question about what exactly my voice type was. I sang the bass line in the a capella choir, but was also relegated to the role of General Matilda B. Cartright in Guys and Dolls in my senior high musical because I was the only one who could sing a sustained top C! I have always had a ton of people telling me I was definitely a mezzo, and others who decided long ago, “Honey, you’re a soprano”. The smartest people said, “you can choose.”
Luckily for me, the .1% has been louder and more nurturing than the others in my career. One of the most important parts of that group of advisers is John McMurray, the former casting director of the English National Opera. I was in London singing Orlofsky in [Johann Strauss’] Fledermaus, and John suggested I look at Leonore in [Beethoven’s] Fidelio. I would have just written this guy off, but I had witnessed the care he took with the singers in our cast, as well as the incredible casting in all of the productions I’d seen at ENO. My colleagues spoke so highly of him that I decided to take a look at his suggestions. I remember sitting in a practice room reading through “Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?” and it was as if a light had been switched on. It was so easy to sing. It didn’t feel high or difficult, and musically, it felt like home. From there, John suggested I look at Sieglinde [of Wagner’s Die Walküre] and Cassandre [Toussaint Bertin de la Doué and François Bouvard], and Salome. I did. When I got back to New York, Marlena was stunned and excited and eager to meet this guru who suggested all this magically just-right rep. ENO hired me to sing my first official soprano role, Musetta in La bohème. After feeling successful with that, I had the nerve to move forward with an official voice type change. The following year, I auditioned on the stage of the Semperoper in Dresden with Salome’s final scene and was hired for their upcoming new production. I am not sure how he knew to suggest this rep based on Orlofsky, but thank God for talented advisers!
So, because it just fits, as with everything I have ever sung, I try to approach the role with my own voice. Mostly, I think that when a role feels good to sing, it’s probably a good role to sing! My goal is just to tell the story with my voice.
The musical language of the opera is incredibly rich, utilising dissonance, chromaticism, and polytonality. Nonetheless, Salome has secured a place on the stage as one of the most widely-performed operas of all time. How to you explain the enduring popularity of this complex music?
This opera is only 1.5 hours long. In that time, we learn so much about every character. We witness so much suffering, and indecision, but also calm. We see so many sides of so many coins. Strauss’ musical language keeps us all on the edge of our seats, but always learning more about the scene in front of us. Every chord is so lusciously stacked to give us just the right bite; every unequal phrase just off centre enough to make us wonder what the actual truth is; every changing metre perfectly placed to make us feel a little unsettled; every consonance just the right amount of exhale. Every moment in this score means something. The musical language is not something just for a music theory textbook, it gives us something visceral. This music goes right to the gut. For 1.5 hours you are on the edge of your seat, and at the end of it you have felt… everything. I’d say that’s a recipe for enduring success.
This will be a concert staging meaning that the audience will be able to see the whole orchestra on stage, unlike traditional opera houses in which the players are hidden in the orchestra pit. How does this affect performance for you?
I think it is a wonderful opportunity to appreciate all the intricacies of this amazing orchestral score! There is always something exciting going on. You will be able to see how hard the players have to listen to the singers and how lightly they often have to play in this dense score. Strauss said it should sound like fairy music, but it is difficult and precise work to make that happen when he wrote such huge arching lines! That, in contrast to the absolute gut wrenching all-out playing of sections like the dance and the scene changes (when there is no singing). It is a sight and sound to behold, and I hope that each audience fully appreciates the special opportunity that these concerts provide to experience it.
As for singing, the most difficult part is that our amazing leader, Sir Richard Armstrong, will be behind us! I depend so much on the connection with the conductor, that I will feel naked without him in front of me. The second most difficult part will be the extreme intimacy of being so close to the audience. On an opera stage, there is a separation. There are costumes, and a proscenium, and an orchestra pit, and a conductor between the singers and the audience. We can easily separate our world from the real one. One of the most difficult things to do is to look an audience member in the eyes and tell a story right to them. It becomes raw and very personal. I believe it is actually the most wonderful way to share a story, but for me, it is definitely the most challenging.
Opera North’s production of Salome comes to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 10th May.