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Opera Theatre's 'Salome' elevates dance with the music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2009 - Richard Strauss' "Salome" dances onto stage center in Opera Theatre of St. Louis' season Saturday night at the Loretto-Hilton Theatre in Webster Groves

It's a hot ticket in several meanings of the word:

  • as in demand for seats,
  • as in fiery flashes of sensuality,
  • as in calls for repentance to avoid the fires of hell.

"Salome" is the second of the four operas being presented in OTSL's spring festival season and will be performed seven times in rotation through June 28.
The Soprano

Lyric soprano Kelly Kaduce - a St. Louis favorite - dances and sings the title role.

Last year, her convincing fluency in the title role of Madame Butterfly at OTSL put her on the cover of "Opera News" magazine. While she has sung with opera companies across the country and overseas, the Minnesota native, who now lives in Texas with her husband, has offered some of her best efforts here.

Kaduce's title roles here include the world premiere of David Carlson's "Anna Karenina" in 2007, the American premiere of Michael Berkeley's "Jane Eyre" in 2006 and Puccini's "Sister Angelica" in 2004.

Her ability to dance first caught the attention of the late Colin Graham, OTSL's first artistic director. Before she ever came to St. Louis, Graham cast Kaduce in a dancing singer role in the world premiere of Bright Sheng's "Madame Mao," which he directed in 2003 at Santa Fe.

Dance, she does in "Salome." Even people who have never heard of the opera have likely heard of Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils." Its name became a barkers' euphemism for flashes of nudity at country carnival side shows and decrepit urban strip joints.

The Story

Salome, the headstrong teenage Judean princess, is torn from the gospels of Mark and Matthew. But neither evangelist named the seductive dancing princess. However, the 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote:

"Herodias was married to Herod, the son of Herod the Great. (She) had a daughter, Salome, after whose birth Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod, her husband's brother ..."

In the Gospel stories, her mother ordered the teen to suggestively dance for Herod. She told her daughter to demand a horrific reward. Opera goers must not depend on biblical expertise to follow the turns of this opera plot.

The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde tossed Salome's obey-mom motive for his 1893 play "Salome." Instead of obeying her murderess mom, Wilde deepens the pouty teen's own depravity. Wilde writes about a teen lusting for the handsome John the Baptist especially as the prophet calls for her mother to repent her sins. In 1905, Strauss chose to use Wilde's play for his opera libretto.

The opera opens when the teenager steps outside her stepfather/uncle's palace during his birthday orgy. In the garden, she hears the baritone voice of the imprisoned John the Baptist, who is called Jokanaan and sung by baritone Gregory Dahla. He proclaims the arrival of the Messiah and says that her mother is not legitimately married to Herod.

Intrigued, the princess wants to meet him. She flirts with the captain of the palace guard - sung by tenor Eric Margiore - and persuades him to bring the charismatic prisoner to her. When she sees the prophet, she tries to kiss him. Jokanaan rebuffs her and continues his prophecy about Jesus coming. The captain, who had been sweet on the princess, is so appalled by her actions that he kills himself.

The drama only heightens from there.

Tenor Michael Hayes sings the role of Herod, Judea's tetrarch, its ruler. Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak sings Herodias, whose rap sheet before the opera begins includes murdering her husband so she could marry his brother Herod. 

The music carries the story, said Stephen Lord, the production's conductor and OTSL longtime music director. The Wilde play was rarely given on stage, never winning the success of his classics "Lady Windermere's Fan" or "Importance of Being Earnest." Wilde sandwiched writing "Salome" between those two hits. He wrote all three within four years. When Strauss laid his music on the "Salome" script, it heighten the work's emotional pitch, Lord said.

The Dance

Body movement, of course, is important in a dancer's tale. Strauss' "Seven Veils" dance music runs seven minutes. To make those minutes move, a veteran choreographer is making his directing debut. When considering who should direct the company's first "Salome," Opera Theatre's new artistic director James Robinson said he knew in a flash that choreographer Sean Curran would be a perfect fit. Over several years the two men have worked as a team in several opera houses. However, Robinson was always in the director's chair while Curran served as choreographer.

Curran, clearly pumped at making his directing debut, presented his case to opera buffs by explaining that his work as a choreographer was "always driven by music." He spoke about his directing concept at OTSL's "Spotlight On Opera" Monday evening series at the St. Louis Ethical Society. To help buffs understand his inspirations for "Salome," Curran cited four early 20th century American dancers: Loie Fuller's gracefully manipulation of huge swaths of transparent fabric; Ruth St. Denis' passionate oriental dances; Isadora Duncan's fatal scarf drama, and Martha Graham's revolutionary body movements. Curran hired New York dancer Elizabeth Coker Giron to work daily with Kaduce on Salome's dance. The very first day Giron was delighted to find that the lithe soprano had dancing experience and understood dance vocabulary.

The production's set and costume director Bruno Schwengl, an Austrian, said he believed it is important to present John the Baptist as a holy man. Schwengl who called himself a devout Catholic said that he wants his designs to give the holy man a setting that evokes a halo about him.

Unlike most operas, Strauss gave his most stunning and famous note not to a singer but to musicians in the pit. Few music lovers can forget when the double bass play a haunting B flat at the play's horrifying tragic moment.

In this rollercoaster in and out of gore, Strauss still sends opera lovers home with tunes to hum. 

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer, has written about opera for three decades.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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