“Ich bin bereit, Tetrarch”—”I am ready, Tetrarch.” Those four simple words usher in one of the most spectacular set pieces in all of opera: the “Dance of the Seven Veils” in Richard Strauss’s “Salome.”
In the approximately 10 minutes of the dance, thanks to the magic of sensual and fiery movement, a wicked bargain is consummated. Young Salome—daughter of Queen Herodias and a princess of Judea—enthralls her stepfather, Herod the Tetrarch, into offering her anything she likes, even up to half his kingdom.
But the canny and spoiled young woman has a different reward in mind. She demands the head of the prophet John the Baptist, for whom she has conceived a perverse and unrequited love, served up to her on a platter … with maniacal and morbid results.
“Salome” is mounted by the Santa Fe Opera this summer for the first time since 2006. Alex Penda takes the title role, with Michaela Martens as Herodias, Robert Brubaker as Herod, Ryan McKinny as Jochanaan, and Brian Jagde as Narraboth. David Robertson conducts.
The production team consists of director Daniel Slater, scenic and costume designer Leslie Travers, lighting designer Rick Fisher—and in the important role of choreographer, frequent Santa Fe Opera collaborator Seán Curran. In addition to his responsibilities in “Salome,” Curran also choreographs the opening opera of the 59th season, Donizetti’s comic “The Daughter of the Regiment.”
Reached by phone at his home in New York, in between work at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and his coming to Santa Fe, Curran discussed the allure and challenge of “Salome.”
“The interesting thing for me is that I [have] directed and choreographed my own production,” he said, “which has been to five different places. So I know the piece pretty well.” But, he also stressed, “I’ve been doing this long enough now that I can revisit a piece and see it through somebody else’s eyes, which is really exciting.
“Being the choreographer, you’re on the team, so you’re collaborating,” he explained. “It’s nice not to have to drive the bus all by yourself, you know.”
The title part of the opera is a big vocal conundrum. The part is written for a mature soprano voice capable of great range and power. But singers who can wield those attributes do not always look the part of a stunning adolescent princess. Strauss himself remarked that the part demands the voice of a Wagnerian Isolde with the physique du role of a 16 year old who can dance, and dance well.
In the past, this challenge has led to some odd theatrical results when the title role is taken by a soprano amplitudinous of both voice and figure. On the other hand, casting a slender youthful singer without the requisite vocal power is a halfway choice as well. But in Penda, Curran said, audiences will see and hear a singer well matched to the part.
“She’s done the role many times, she’s known for Salome,” Curran explained. “She’s fearless. She’s in her body.
“If you work with singers, sometimes they’re only worried about these two little muscles in their throat, and ornamentation, and vocal presence. But Alex is quite sensual and aware of the power of her body, as well as her voice.
“Alex is a tiny person, and she likes to wear very high heels, and she wants to do the dance in very high heels,” Curran noted. “So that suggests a certain way of dancing and moving. Danny is a very gifted storyteller as a director and the dance is going to be quite profound—the back story, if you will, of ‘Salome.’”
The creative trio of Curran, Slater and Penda won’t be starting from scratch when rehearsals begin here for “Salome.” Several months ago, Curran and Slater worked in Paris for two days with Penda, to explore initial ideas and make sure everyone was on the same artistic page.
“Danny is not looking at source material,” Curran noted. “He’s doing his own take on the piece and how it jumps off the page for him. But we found a common language.
“We worked hard with only four people in the studio for those two days—Alex, Danny, me and a pianist. So then I could come back and have time to dream about it. Ideas have been gestating, and we’ll see how those ideas have changed or lasted when we all get to Santa Fe. I’m so grateful to the Santa Fe Opera, because it gave me a jumping off place for this piece.”
Curran’s dance work began in Boston when he was a boy, with traditional Irish step dancing. He went on to be a leading artist with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and was an original member of the New York cast of “STOMP!”
As a pedagogue, Curran has more than two decades of teaching experience. He graduated in 1983 from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and now is chair of the Department of Dance, where he is especially interested in introducing incoming freshman dance students to the art of compositional choreography. He has set dances on companies including the Limón Dance Company, Trinity Irish Dance Company, ABT II, Denmark’s Uppercut Company, Sweden’s Skånes Dance Theater and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Theater.
His directorial work ranges from theater to opera, and he has choreographed for New York City Opera, Playwrights Horizons, Shakespeare in the Park, Lincoln Center Theater and the Metropolitan Opera. Among future projects, he will direct Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” for Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2016.
Unlike people who approach each work day with dread, Curran comes at tasks with admitted exuberance. “I get to work with this phenomenal music. It’s one of the joys of my job. And I’m never bored because I’m always working with a different population and a different group of artists.
“The rewards are many. I never say ‘Oh, I’m going to have to go work’ or ‘I have to go to my job.’ A rehearsal is heaven for me.”
Santa Fe Opera 2015 Season:
July 3-August 29 Gaetano Donizetti, The Daughter of the Regiment (first performance by SFO)
Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto (last performed at SFO in 2000)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, La Finta Giardiniera (first performance by SFO)
Richard Strauss, Salome (last performed by SFO in 2006)
Jennifer Higdon, Cold Mountain (libretto by Gene Scheer). Commissioned by The Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera; world premiere
Single tickets: $31-$220; various discounts and Family Night tickets available
For more information on “Salome” and the Santa Fe Opera 2015 season, go to santafeopera.org or call 505.986.5900.
Story by Craig A. Smith