There's a heat wave coming Friday in Corbett Auditorium. The University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music concludes its “Great Decade” festival with a concert performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome, an opera that packs enough obsession, erotic sensuality and dysfunction to fuel an entire reality-show season for E! — in 90 minutes.
Oscar Wilde based his Symbolist play Salome on the New Testament story of a young woman whose dancing won her the head of John the Baptist. The play was banned in London; Wilde translated it into French for the Paris premiere in 1896 and Strauss used a German translation for the libretto of his 1905 opera.
“It’s a brilliant satire on human nature, and everyone is skewered,” says Mark Gibson, head of CCM’s conducting department. Gibson leads the performance featuring the CCM Philharmonia, CCM faculty and students. “Strauss’ score is equally brilliant. He captures the decadence and eroticism that defined Vienna in the early 20th century. This was the age of Freud, of Klimt and Schnitzler, and Strauss was part of that culture.”
The character Salome has evolved into the epitome of sexual depravity, but for contemporary directors, she’s moved into the realm of dysfunctional family victim.
“My instinct is to completely empathize with her,” says soprano Amy Johnson, a CCM voice professor who sings the title role. “She’s tremendously misunderstood. Salome’s a teenager, and she knows her mother hates John the Baptist, so that makes him instantly attractive, right?”
Even John the Baptist’s adamant rejection of Salome’s seductive charms makes him more appealing. “The only vocabulary she has is through manipulation and materialism,” Johnson says. “No one’s ever told her ‘no.’ ”
Johnson has performed as Salome several times, including in a Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre production broadcast on Iowa public television and released as a DVD. But recreating the character is always a challenge.
“The opera is so complex and disturbed that I’m constantly reevaluating my choices and reminding myself that this is a teenager,” she says. “Fortunately, I can always ask my students for help with that part of it!”
And that’s an irony of sorts. Salome may be a teenager, but the vocal challenges are beyond what is reasonable for most students, so CCM faculty are taking on three of the lead roles. Baritone Kenneth Shaw is John the Baptist and tenor Tom Baresel makes his role debut as the lustful Tetrarch Herod Antipas. Shaw and Johnson co-produce CCM’s undergraduate opera productions and gave a joint recital last spring, but this will be their first opera performance together.
Salome’s mother Herodias is sung by acclaimed mezzo Elizabeth Bishop, a Met Opera Audition winner and a frequent
Students with smaller roles have the unique experience of working closely with their teachers as colleagues onstage. That, Gibson says, is another goal for the concert. “Young singers are always going to be working with more experienced colleagues, and what a great opportunity to learn from some of the best singers who are also their teachers,” he says.
Under Gibson’s direction, the CCM Philharmonia has given brilliant performances of difficult opera scores, and Strauss’ is among the most challenging.
“It’s 90 minutes nonstop, beginning with a lyrical serenade and moves quickly into wild and often raucous music,” Gibson says.
Salome caps a season devoted to exploring what he calls the Great Decade, between 1900 and 1910. “Music changed dramatically during this decade,” he says, “And Strauss’ music for Salome was like nothing heard before or since.”
Johnson supports Gibson’s penchant for scheduling grand operas like Don Carlos, Turandot and Salome. “I give Mark a lot of credit,” Johnson says. “He’s adamant that his conducting students know the meat and potatoes of opera, and that extends to singers and orchestral musicians. And for the singers, it’s such a luxury to have someone with such extensive opera experience and sensitivity to the voice in the pit.
“Student singers get exposure to smaller roles, the conducting students learn how to handle it, the orchestra performs it and they’re loving it,” she says.
Chances are the audience will, too.
CCM Philharmonia presents SALOME Friday at CCM’s Corbett Auditorium. More info: ccm.uc.edu.