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Sex, violence and Strauss: Arizona Opera's "Salome" is Rated R

Photo courtesy of the Arizona Opera
Salome (Amy Johnson) performs the Dance of the Seven Veils in an opera the Arizona Opera says is "for mature audiences only."
By Jessica Suarez
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday January 16, 2003

Incest, lust, nudity, necrophilia and a nasty beheading aren't usually what first come to mind when one thinks of opera. And for good reason. No one wants society ladies fainting off their chairs. But "Salome," a passionate opera by Richard Strauss based on the play by Oscar Wilde, broke all taboos when it was first performed. Almost one hundred years later, the Arizona Opera presents a production of this still-controversial opera at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, Jan 17-19.

"Salome" is the name of the opera's main character, one of the most notorious women in the Old Testament. She lusts over John the Baptist, who is being held prisoner by her stepfather, King Herod. When he rejects her advances, she agrees to do a seductive dance for her stepfather, called the "Dance of the Seven Veils," in exchange for the head of John the Baptist. Salome performs the dance, and receives the head of John the Baptist, which she kisses lustily. Her depravity so shocks King Herod that he has her killed as the curtain falls.

The "Dance of the Seven Veils" is the highlight of the opera. During the dance, Salome slowly removes each of her filmy veils, ending the dance in the nude.

Charlie Roe, director of the opera theater and a vocal arts professor at the university, says this can make the role difficult to cast. The female lead must have both a strong voice and a sexy appearance to pull off the role.

"Big voices usually come in big bodies, so you have to find an artist that has a nice figure," Roe said. He said that it has traditionally been a problem when trying to cast the role, depending on how far the dance goes and how much of the singer's body the audience will see by the end. Salome is also a teenage girl in the play, so the role demands someone who can pull off the youthful role. In other words, there won't be a fat lady singing at this opera.

Nudity is just one part of the opera that audiences find challenging. People also often don't want to mix scripture with sex.

Ed Murphy, a professor of music theory, wrote an article for The Music Review, an academic journal, entitled "Tonality and Form in Salome." He finds a wonderful contrast between the beauty of "Salome's" music and the ugliness of its subject matter.

"You have a Biblical story here. Whenever you do a Biblical opera it's always a little iffy," said Murphy, who also said no other opera explores themes as uncomfortably as "Salome" does, prompting one opera scholar to call it, "the nastiest of all operas."

"It is sort of immoral," Roe said, adding that in the production he saw, Salome was completely nude by the end of the dance, something that other productions will leave out depending on the audience. The scene where Salome kisses the decapitated head of John the Baptist is also changed in different productions. In some, his head is covered and the scene is fairly tame. In others, his bloody head is in full view while Salome kisses it passionately.

Mark it

What: Richard Strauss' "Salome"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday
Where: TCC Music Hall
Cost: $25-$90
Contact: 293-4336 or 321-1000

Murphy, who calls the opera "an overpowering, dramatic experience," also sees the character of Salome as an essentially "innocent" girl surrounded by depravity.

"She's a young girl, 16 years old. She's always had people after her, it's a constant bombardment," he said.

Her stepfather's lust for her, which is played out in their interaction before the dance, makes audiences particularly uncomfortable.

"There's nothing like it in opera," Murphy said.

But Murphy calls the music, "beautifully tonal" and "lyrical," and considers "Salome," a good introduction to opera, since both the music and the subject matter is so intriguing.

Other characters in the opera include a chorus of Jewish priests who argue amongst themselves over John the Baptist's proclamation of the coming of the messiah. Todd Strange, a graduate student in vocal performance, plays one of these priests. He calls the chorus "almost comedic," in that they provide somewhat of a break from the story of Salome.

"We're arguing about the same things we've always argued about. They have John the Baptist, they have him held captive, he's talking about the coming of the messiah, and none of us agree with him," Strange said. "I play the old one, even though I'm the youngest. Basically he (Strange's character) doesn't agree with anybody."

The chorus also watches and responds to the rest of the action on stage, mirroring the sort of responses the audience might have.

"I go on to see the interaction between Herod and Salome. Our reaction is that it's a bit disturbing to us. After Salome disrobes we're all completely appalled," he said.

Technically, Strange says the singing can be challenging.

"It's a bunch of priests bickering with each other. It's very difficult music, very difficult to sing. But it paints the argument very well. We're singing in different keys and in different rhythms," he said. The dissonance of the music may be discerning for even seasoned opera fans, but it fits the action on stage perfectly.

As for how far the Arizona Opera production will go with the "Dance of the Seven Veils," Strange says rehearsals have been different every day.

"I'm actually curious to see what happens," he said.


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