Salome at Houston Grand Opera: The Corruption of Human Desire

Laura Wilde as Salome.
Laura Wilde as Salome. Photo by Michael Bishop

A scandalous opera based on a scandalous play by Oscar Wilde — Salome — complete with the Dance of the Seven Veils is about to receive a new production courtesy of Houston Grand Opera and according to the opera folks, even in our modern age it's still not suitable for children.  Even if it did start with the Bible (John 6:14-29).

Soprano Laura Wilde (no relation to Oscar) is making her role and Houston Grand Opera debut with the title character, but the composition style of Richard Strauss is not new to her.

"I've done a lot of Strauss in my past," says Wilde explaining that while she was with the Lyric Opera of Chicago she sang a lot of his work and jumped at the chance to do Salome.

"I love his orchestration, the bombasticness of it. I love the complexity. I find Strauss, he’s cerebral and intellectual in a way that there's no end to the layers that you can dig down in, both from a dramatic and musical standpoint.  I think that he’s one of the hardest composers to learn as a singer for me but once you get it learned it makes complete sense and and couldn’t be done any other way. It's a lot of very hard tedious work in the preparation and it feels like you'll never get it in your body in your voice and in your head and when you do it’s sort of the genius that you can’t believe someone put this together."

In the one-act of 1 hour and 47 minutes (no intermission). Salome, a stepdaughter of Herod,  winds her pretty destructive, petulant and self-serving way through the people around her, including Jokanaan (John the Baptist). Herod has Jokanaan, a fiery prophet, locked up in a palace cistern. Intrigued, Salome manipulates a young palace guard (who later kills himself) to let the captive out.

Once freed, Jokanaan hurls insults galore at Herod and his family, especially Herod's new wife, Salome's mother. Salome wants Jokanaan; he rejects her repeatedly. Herod wants Salome; she rejects him repeatedly but agrees to perform the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils after Herod promises to do whatever she wants.

Unfortunately, what she wants is Jokanaan's head which, after arguing against this, Herod gives in. When presented with the head, Salome kisses it repeatedly which appalls Herod, who belatedly orders his soldiers to kill her. (This accounting differs from the Bible version).

Wilde calls her character complex and describes how she goes about deconstructing a role she is playing.

"A lot of the people in my life are in the mental health industry and so a game we play is diagnosing opera characters before I go off to do a job.  I studied Salome sort of from different standpoints: is she a clinical narcissist, is she a sociopath, is it childhood trauma?. I think the way that we're  going in this production, the layer that I'm using for this, she's sort of a cautionary tale of what happens when a child is raised in a world where human life is disposable.

"The way that we set the stage is a world where everyone is using other people to get what they want. Everyone is sort of awful so if all a child has is this world how do you develop empathy, how do you develop sympathy, how do you see human life as something worthwhile?"

John the Baptist remains an enigmas to Salome, Wilde says.

"John the Baptist is representing really genuine love. There's something John the Baptist is speaking to that she's never heard before.  We also explore childhood trauma that she has suppressed. All of a sudden she has a possibility of not being rescued from it but she sees a glimpse of redemption. But because she doesn't understand John the Baptist's world, he rejects her because she’s coming on with her sexuality because that's the only thing she knows in this world.

"I think the tragedy was that John the Baptist was not Jesus and was not able to actually come and speak to her where she was. She sort of has this snap and then she clearly goes down a mental illness hole by the end of it."

All of which, gives Wilde a meaty role to work with and as she puts it: "fun to play,."

"I think it's very important for me as a performer not necessarily to like a character but try to ask the why behind motives, to ask why they're doing it. And there's hundreds of different answers that could come with Salome but I think our production comes to a really intersting one.

Although the opera is not considered very long (as far as opera go) Wilde says it's very demanding on her. "I leave the stage for less than 10 to 30 seconds twice in the entire night. I sprint off stage, chug as much water as I can and then come back on.

"There are two big sections of singing for Salome that just are pretty relentless. And they are very fast and he doesn’t give you a chance to sort of breathe and settle. It is an extremely  emotional and physical role. It's complex in its actual singing and counting the notes. But on top of it you’re running around and having a mental breakdown at the same time and trying to make it all seamless.

"Very often with these Strauss roles they're not the kind of role where the director just has you stand and sing in one place.  As the audiences will see; I'm crawling and running  and getting thrown around the stage. I'm covered in bruises from all of the staging rehearsals. So there's a freedom that comes with that."

Wilde is originally from Watertown South Dakota where she studied trumpet for many years until switching to classical voice as a major while attending St. Olaf College. The other transition she made was from mezzo to soprano. Along the way she also has 14 years of dance training so the Dance of the Seven Veils was not a huge challenge for her.

Spanish director Francisco Negri is also  be making his HGO debut, in a production that is both more modern than the original setting and is also "out of time," as Wilde puts it. Two Houston favorites bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Jokanaan and tenor Chad Shelton as Herod, also take the stage, with .  Keri-Lynn Wilson conducting.

Asked who will this opera appeal to, Wilde says: "I would say if you are a theater lover.  if you are someone who loves being surprised, who enjoys thought-provoking film or thought-provoking theater, wants to be challenged and enjoys really lush music.

"It's  not a simple easy opera to ingest and  it’s shocking, but I think it's perfect for people who don’t want to be bored. Who want to be excited, who want to be intrigued, who want to be challenged. "

Performances are scheduled for April 28 through May 12 at  7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Wednesday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Theater, 501 Texas. Sung in German with projected English translations. For more information, call 713-228-6737  or visit houstongrandopera.org. $20-$210.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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