Beginning tonight and continuing with performances on Saturday and Sunday, the Arizona Opera Company will present "Salome," a classical opera composed by Richard Strauss. Sung in German with subtitles, the lavish production features a large cast and a full orchestra. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, which was itself an interpretation of a Biblical legend, the classic human dramas Ÿ lust, anger, betrayal, and desire Ÿ are explored in this production.
Deborah Raymond is one of the two singers performing the role of Salome. She has performed extensively in Europe and the U.S.
Mutato: Why are there two singers dividing up the role of Salome?
Deborah Raymond: This is one of the most demanding roles in the whole repertoire: it is an hour and 45 minutes, one act, no intermission, and the character of Salome comes on stage and never leaves, singing the whole time Ÿ she has about 56 seconds to change before she returns to do the dance of seven veils, but that's all, plus she has an 18-minute monologue.
M: What's the scale of the production? Will it be huge, or merely large?
D.H.: The production calls for a 70-piece orchestra Ÿ actually it was written for a 114-piece orchestra, but back then the only women who could be heard over such a large orchestra were, well, really huge, and that didn't mesh with Strauss' vision of Salome. So he wrote a reduced version of the orchestral score to accommodate women with quieter voices, and to play the opera in places with small orchestra pits.
M: Which nights are you performing?
D.H.: Thursday and Sunday in Tucson, and then Thursday and Saturday in Phoenix.
M: What sort of experiences do you bring to the role of Salome?
D.H.: Well, this is the Seventh production of this opera I have been involved in, and I have sung 25 performances of this role Ÿ sometimes you think you know it, but when a new stage director comes along that shifts the role and complicates it.
M: I understand that this time the stage director is also your husband.
D.H.: Nando Schellen and I have worked together four times so far, and it is wonderful: he knows me so well and knows what I can do And I feel totally free to try things that are risky, which is more difficult with some directors who want to rule the show.
M: Not only do you have to sing, but you have to dance a great deal, and seductively. How does this physicality affect your interpretation of Salome?
D.H.: Some roles are more physical than others, and Salome is the most physical role I've ever done. But I took dance lessons as a child, and I have a great choreographer, David Hochoy, who choreographed the dances Ÿ it's not a classical ballet, but it is still quite athletic. Often the famous "Dance of the Seven Veils" which Salome does is shown as a striptease, which doesn't reflect the actual history Ÿ the striptease is a recent development, historically. So the dance has been brought back as a seduction, not a capitulation.
M: Both the posters and the billboards for this opera warn me that it contains nudity. Should I be warned?
D.H.: Well, some people need to grow up and deal with these things, so we are warning them in advance. The nudity seems very natural to me. When I'm up there, it's not Deborah Raymond taking off all of her clothes, it is Salome. She knows her demand, the head of John the Baptist, will require a heavy price, so she pays it: and I think it would be odd for the dance to end without Salome being nude at the end Ÿ this is the natural conclusion of the seduction. I think the lust of Herod and the severed head of John the Baptist are much more offensive than simple nudity Ÿ the nudity is the least offensive of the elements of the opera.
Dean Ryan is the Musical Director of the Arizona Opera Company.
Mutato: Is your production similar to Strauss' original design?
Dean Ryan: The music was written for a large orchestra, and the production we are doing is slightly smaller than the original. But that was with Strauss' approval, since this opera was performed with many different numbers of performers.
M: How would you characterize the music of "Salome": Tragic? Dramatic? Or both?
D.R.: The music is very dramatic; the opera is only a tragedy in the sense that John the Baptist gets his head cut off Ÿ [Salome] doesn't fit into any mold, it's a work that stands alone by itself. What Strauss did was capture the decadent atmosphere of that time, completely. He used musical elements such as bitonality and other such modern details that still sound very fresh and new.
M: What did Strauss bring to the play as he turned it into opera?
D.R.: If you read the play and then the opera, it's obvious that Strauss used a German translation of the Wilde play almost word-for-word Ÿ there's something almost musical about the play. It lent itself very well to musical production.
M: The Oscar Wilde play was written over a century ago. Is this an opera that can be presented through history, that is always relevant?
D.R.: This opera survived 90 years Ÿ it premiered in 1905, so I guess it will keep going for a long time.
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