Thursday, 23 February 2012 17:25

New Orleans Operagoers to Find Out in Strauss’ SALOME

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Mlada-Khudoley“Will she or won’t she?” That is the question most often asked before each performance of Richard Strauss’ one-act opera, SALOME.

Will the title character take it ALL off at the conclusion of the opera’s signature “Dance of the Seven Veils”? Three sopranos in recent times already HAVE: Americans Catherine Malfitano and Maria Ewing and Finland’s Karita Mattila, and their decision to do so probably made them more famous than their actual singing.

 Will it happen here in New Orleans? Opera fans will just have to wait till either March 2 or 4 to find out. Tickets are now on sale for SALOME from the New Orleans Opera Association or directly from the box office of the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday, March 2 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 4. The opera will be sung in German, with English supertitles (translations) projected above the stage.

In all likelihood, Russian-born soprano Mlada Khudoley will conclude the sensuous, eight-minute dance in a sheer stocking suit like nearly all others who sang the Salome role since its 1905 premiere in Dresden. Nonetheless, no harm in fantasizing, is there? After all, there IS a precedent in New Orleans. Carol Neblett’s “take it all off” Kodak moment in Massenet’s THAIS in 1973 made international headlines (not to mention riling up the strippers on Bourbon Street who protested the unfair competition).

However, rather than continuing to focus on the prurient, there is another scene in the opera that is, believe it or not, even more controversial. And morbid! I won’t go into detail about what Salome does with the decapitated head of the man she loves but it’s more than enough to have shocked audiences for over a century, not to mention get her killed (at least in the opera, anyway, not in real life).

The story, which Strauss adapted from Oscar Wilde’s 1896 play of the same name, comes from biblical references in the books of Mark and Matthew and the historical account of Flavius Josephus. The real-life Salome was the daughter of Herodias who, in violation of Hebrew customs at the time, left her husband to marry King Herod in the early 1st century A.D. This earned for Herodias the wrath of John the Baptist who, in the process, made an enemy of the most powerful woman in Judea. So, when Salome performed her 1st century burlesque number at Herod’s birthday party and actually DID take all seven veils off her nubile young body, the lecherously smitten king vowed to give her anything she wanted. After a brief consultation with her mother, the girl’s request was the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And it was done.

Not unlike today’s “Hollywood version” of historical events, opera has been doing the same thing for three centuries: distorting the facts for the sake of a more dramatic story line. In the stage and opera versions of SALOME, Wilde and Strauss have her falling in love with John (renamed Jochanaan) even though there is no historical evidence to suggest that they ever even met. However, the dramatic effect of the pious Jochanaan’s rejection of Salome’s amorous advances makes for a better story line than the way it REALLY went down. It offers a more convenient and convincing justification for Salome’s death wish as payback for being rejected.

Keep in mind, also, that writing motifs of the late 19th/early 20th centuries popularized the notion of the “femme fatale” – the girl as the “bad guy” – and the Salome story fit neatly into the mold. With the rise of the feminist movement, that notion, of course, has been discredited and artistically trashed.

In any case, SALOME has found its place in the standard operatic repertoire more so for its music and singing than for the drama surrounding the sequence of events. The role of Jochanaan will be sung by Ryan McKinny (baritone), Herod by John MacMaster (tenor), Herodias by Gwendolyn Jones (mezzo-soprano) and Narraboth, the captain of the guard, by Sean Panikkar (tenor). The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Maestro Robert Lyall and Katrin Hilbe stage directs.

Tickets can be obtained from the New Orleans Opera Association’s office at 1010 Common Street, Ste. 1820, in downtown New Orleans, or by calling and reserving by phone at 504-529-3000. Tickets can also be purchased online at or directly from the theater box office. The Mahalia Jackson Theater is located in Louis Armstrong Park with its entrance on Basin Street.

Coming Up in April

The fourth and final mainstage operatic performance of the 2011-2012 season comes on April 27 and 29, with the double bill of two one-act operas: Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. PAGLIACCI (“Clowns”) tells one of most powerful and tragic stories in the standard operatic repertoire. The lethal passion unleashed by overwhelming jealousy explodes in a final scene that is one of the most unforgettable conclusions ever witnessed in a live performance.

PAGLIACCI also features the heartbreaking aria, "Vesti la giubba" (Put on your costume), rendered timeless by four generations of immortal Italian tenors – from Caruso to Lanza to Pavarotti to Bocelli, and countless others of many nationalities. And, in case you’ve ever wondered where the notion of the clown who’s “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” originated, this is it.

The evening’s pairing concludes with Orff's celebration of life, Carmina Burana, in its premiere production by the New Orleans Opera. The award-winning New Orleans Ballet Theatre (2010 Big Easy awards for "Best Contemporary Choreography" and "Best Classical Performance") will dance to this powerful rhythmic and passionate music, joining the combined choral forces of the New Orleans Opera Chorus, Loyola University Chorus and the New Orleans Vocal Arts Chorale (NOVA).

Advance tickets are still on sale.


by Dean Shapiro

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