Opera Australia's Salome at the Sydney Opera House
Beneath desire, depravity. Beneath lust, bloodlust. Beneath the veils, everything is laid bare. Strauss’ taboo-breaking opera strips back Oscar Wilde’s play to its core: a gripping journey to the outer edges of human behaviour.
Hamish speaks with Jacqueline Dark, currently performing in Salome about the controversy of the plot, and critics' responses to the production. Read the full interview below:
Can you take us through the legend of Salome? Why do you think that Strauss chose to adapt this ancient story – or more specifically Oscar Wilde’s version of the story – to Opera? What does the new medium add to the tale?
Salome is the daughter of Herodias and step-daughter of Herod. Herod, my current husband, is the brother of my deceased ex-husband, and is completely in lust with my daughter, so the whole scenario is quite incestuous and repulsive. Herod lasciviously demands that Salome dances for him (in front of a roomful of religious dignitaries whom he has invited for dinner to debate life, the universe and everything), promising her whatever she requests in return. When she acquiesces and then demands the head of John The Baptist, he is absolutely horrified, believing him to be a holy man. I, as Herodias, am thrilled, because John is forever screaming out of his dungeon to all who’ll listen that I am the Whore of Babylon and other choice insults, which my husband blithely ignores.
The opera is almost a direct translation from the Wilde play, so it is incredibly rich in detail and characterisation, and the language is poetic and gorgeous.
All of this make it obvious fodder to be adapted for the operatic stage – a dramatic storyline of biblical proportions filled with complex, twisted characters, blood and murder, combined with a telling expose into family dynamics and the human psyche. How could it NOT be operafied!? Strauss’ music adds a whole new dimension to the piece. It is at times soaring and majestic (as when Salome finally achieves her goal), at times whining and tottery (the Herod sections) and elsewhere honed to a pinpoint-fine, almost unbearable tension. It is a work of absolute genius and I adore every second of it.
Both Oscar Wilde’s play and Strauss’ opera were very controversial at the times they were written. Do you think the opera is still controversial? How important is Salome in both the history of opera and in the history of popular morality?
Absolutely! I think it is even MORE controversial and relevant in this era, with its major theme of the inappropriate attentions of a powerful but morally weak man causing absolute devastation. The appallingly unhealthy family and human dynamics at play will be appreciated to some degree by every single person in the audience – haven’t we all been involved with a toxic personality at some point? We’ve all witnessed someone who wants to get their way, no matter the cost, and all too often that cost is revealed to be unbearable. In our production, the director Gale Edwards has chosen to reinvent the famous Dance of the Seven Veils as a spotlight on seven classic male fantasy objects. Instead of having Salome the singer dance the whole piece (although she does dance several very disturbing sections), we are confronted with dancers presenting seven quintessential fantasy women: the dominatrix, Marilyn Monroe, the Madonna (and THAT one has stirred up more than a little controversy – you have to witness Kelley Abbey’s brilliant choreography for yourself!), the child (utterly repulsive but also totally relevant to current affairs), and the naughty French maid, amongst others. This section is always controversial, but I love the concept that women sometimes don ‘veils’ to make themselves appealing to men, and this version of the dance is exposing that – it’s a fascinating modern take on an ancient text.
Of course, the opera has been banned time and again, which makes it all the more important in the repertoire, as a piece that challenges and disturbs and shakes up the audience, leaving them to consider its implications in the wider context of their lives and world. To me, that makes it a work of absolute genius, from both Wilde and Strauss.
Musically, Strauss employs a wide range of leitmotifs, which are incredibly evocative and satisfying to the listener, hugely challenging musical and vocal phrases and ranges (I often think that genius composers write works that bad singers simply can’t attempt, to cheekily guarantee a decent cast every time), chromaticism, dissonance, and (my favourite) unexpected modulations. I never tire of hearing Strauss’ modulation ‘slips’, as the music resolves into a completely unexpected key or chord … it’s extremely tricky when the singer has to hit the right key and drive the modulation before the orchestra – it’s beautiful, but you have to keep your eye (or ear) on the elusively resolving ball!
You play Herodias, King Herod’s wife and Salome’s mother. Could you tell us about Herodias’ relationship with her daughter in the opera? How will modern audiences view this relationship?
The relationships between all of the characters in this story are fraught, to say the least. The family is completely dysfunctional, with all three of us being more than a little psychotic. I’m fascinated by the relationship between Herodias and Salome. Obviously, the queen is hugely threatened by her youthful and beautiful daughter, and hates the power she wields over the men in the piece – a power that she no doubt once commanded herself. She’s terrified that her daughter will usurp her throne, and in my reading of the role, I assume that when I hear Salome demand ‘Den kopf’ that it’s MY head she’s asking to be delivered up to her. It makes the moment I hear ‘Jochanaan’ utterly delicious, because it’s mortal relief and exultation all rolled up into one, and makes the subsequent scenes so rich as I explore the delight and burgeoning horror the queen feels towards her daughter. I’m obviously a mother who has been incapable of showing much love to my daughter, due to neglect or jealousy, and one of my favourite moments in the whole opera is when I’m watching Salome sing to Jochanaan’s newly-severed head ‘You never saw me. If you’d seen me, you would have loved me.’ – she realises that requesting the head was not just a power play on Salome’s behalf, but a result of her daughter’s desperate need for affection. That’s the moment where Herodias comes completely and utterly undone and it is a devastating and cathartic moment to play. What a gift!
Both the play and opera run rather unusually in real time for a single continuous act. How does this contribute to how the audience perceive the opera, its characters and its themes?
I think this lends an air of hyper-realism to what is already a seriously verismo piece. It refuses to let the audience off the hook. There is tension from curtain up to curtain down, with no intervals or scene changes, which makes for a harrowing but incredibly rewarding night in the theatre. It also puts the onus on the performers, who are onstage for the whole opera, to create and maintain the world of Salome for the duration of the show. I find it incredibly physically demanding, as my character is required to be rather tense and grotesque, which manifests in angular body positions – I often crouch or position myself uneasily between two steps or levels to give physical expression to her inner turmoil and twisted nature. I need a massage!
Over the years, many critics have had strong yet varying opinions on the orchestrations of the opera. What is unique about Strauss’ orchestrations in Salome? What are your opinions regarding the orchestrations?
The original orchestrations are MASSIVE, so Strauss oversaw a reduced orchestration to make producing the opera more readily achievable, both in terms of orchestra size and casting choices. The orchestral choices are famously brilliant, from an almost jazzy clarinet opening to the incredible strings, brass and woodwind writing, and the more rarely used instruments (celeste, harp, percussion instruments) … the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and evokes a dramatic world unlike any ever heard before. You can hear the characters breathing and living through the music – each of us has a texture and feel, and every dramatic turn is given its own colour. It truly is spectacular writing, and we are so fortunate to have the chance to live inside this world for a little while!
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Oh, my goodness – there are so many! Honestly, I’d have to say that Les Miserables was a revelation for me, and I adore every note of it to this day. Baz Luhrmann’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and OA’s La Cenerentola were magical, the STC’s recent Mary Stuart is still percolating in my brain. A musical I saw recently called There’s Something About Jamie knocked my socks off – I need someone to cast me as the mum in that immediately!
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
I’ve never been to the UK (I know!!!), so I’d visit England, Scotland, Ireland – the home of my ancestors. Also, always New York (I would just watch three different shows a day and be in absolute heaven!) … and I’d love to visit Africa and Iceland.
Dream show (and role) to perform in?
I think my favourite role of all time has been The Composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. It was the role where I discovered what my voice could do – I felt like I was flying, and I will always be grateful to Richard Gill for trusting me to sing it. I’d LOVE to sing the lead role in Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna again – I sang it for Adelaide Festival, with Rufus gently guiding us every step of the way, and the character of Regine has settled deeply into my heart, so I’d love to revisit her.
Plays, musicals or operas?
I’m going to be completely greedy and say that I need all three in my life!
A hobby you have beyond the opera?
Physics. I was a physicist before I was a singer, and I am still incredibly passionate about it, and about sharing that passion. My six year old already discusses The Big Bang and quizzes me on faster than light travel and relativistic time dilation. Get ‘em young!
What’s next for you after this show?
I’ve just finished performing Paul Mac and Lachlan Philpott’s The Rise and Fall of St George, and we’re recording bits of that now – such an important piece and an honour to be involved. I head to Melbourne later in the year to sing Norma for Melbourne Opera with two brilliant Aussie colleagues who are taking the world by storm – Helena Dix and Sam Sakker. We are three very naughty and inventive individuals, so I cannot wait to see what we create together!
Salome is currently playing at the Sydney Opera House until March 26 2019. You can get your tickets here.