A moving Salome
“Salome has to dance. She has to knock it out of the park and then sing nonstop for the last 10 minutes of the opera.”
You don’t want to end up hating her,” said Seán Curran, choreographer for Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Salome, describing the character with all the veils. Curran has worked on several SFO productions, including 2011’s The Last Savage and
Oscar in 2013. “Why does she ask for what she asks for?,” he said, referring to Salome’s request for the head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist). “She’s a teenage girl.” Oscar Wilde’s play, the basis for the opera’s text, suggests that she had a sexual yearning for the prophet.
In April, the opera flew Curran to Paris to work on the dance. He spent 48 hours in a studio with Salome’s director, Daniel Slater, and their Salome, Alex Penda, who lives in the city. Slater has chosen to set the production in 1905 Europe, the year Richard Strauss’ opera premiered in Dresden. “It’s very Downton Abbey — Edwardian,” Curran said. “There are no biblical references. All the slaves become servants. As for the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” he said that “it feels like Art Nouveau — like a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.”
Curran said Strauss made his job easier. “Salome is one of the great operas. The music evokes so much emotion — it does the storytelling for you. Strauss does tonal painting. You can see the color of the grass. You can hear the wind. It’s visceral, violent, sexual music to me.”
At the rehearsal studio, Curran led a warm-up with Penda — as a way of easing her into the movement but also as a way for him to begin to understand the singer as a dancer. “Alex has played this part before,” Curran said. “I directed and choreographed it for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Danny has never seen or directed the show.”
Slater is a director who likes to be involved in every aspect of a production. He knew that Strauss was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, which were coming into vogue in Vienna’s intellectual circles at the time of the opera’s origin. “Slater wanted a psychological take on the dance,” the choreographer said. “There was an image of an iceberg and the psyche. Here is a woman only exhibiting the tip of the iceberg until she starts to dance.
“Alex has a fearless physicality,” Curran continued. “She understands the difference between energy and effort. She’s not afraid to look awkward or ugly.” Together with Slater, they developed movement motifs — “the silent scream,” “the mourning section,” and “the daddy dance.”
“We wound up with a hybrid. My ingredients, Danny with the big picture, and Alex’s contributions.”
Curran’s previous experience with the opera gave him an understanding of the physical requirements for the soprano, not just the emotional aspects. “Salome has to dance. She has to knock it out of the park and then sing nonstop for the last 10 minutes of the opera. You have to have the body of a sixteenyear-old and the lungs of a forty-year-old to do this part.”