Sex, severed heads, horrible deaths – Salome is opera for True Blood fans.
Kate Ladner has to exercise more than her voice to play a troubled teenager in her latest role for State Opera.
Ladner has the lead in Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Salome, opening for four performances at Festival Theatre on August 24.
Strauss threw everything at his title character, a 15-year-old doing her best to survive in a brutal and loveless family.
Salome, Ladner says, is used and abused and ultimately disposed of.
Her job involves helping the audience make sense of her.
To do this the South-Australian-born soprano must sing passionately to a severed head, and die horribly on order from Salome’s despotic stepfather Herod. “All that,” Ladner says. “And then there’s the dancing.” Salome shocked audiences at its German premiere in 1905 and the opera was banned in London.
Based on Oscar Wilde’s play from the biblical tale it combined religious and erotic content in a bloodthirsty plot around themes of power, sex and obsession.
Centre to the controversy was the Dance of the Seven Veils, the famous sequence in which the lascivious Herod begs Salome to dance for him.
At first reluctant, Salome agrees when Herod promises to give her anything in return.
Salome has been shunned by John the Baptist, or Jokanaan in Strauss’s opera. A head on a platter comes to mind. Salome performs the dance, removing seven veils, ending naked at Herod’s feet.
Directors and singers have been grappling with the scene and how to stage it since.
German soprano Marie Wittich refused to perform the dance in 1905 when a ballerina was brought in.
Strauss altered his score when he realised the original required singers not always suited in voice or stature to playing an adolescent.
Ladner will dance in State Opera’s season but the director, SA-born Gale Edwards, has spared audiences and singers the ignominy of a literal translation.
In her production, Edwards says, the veils have been
recast as representations of “seven different roles women adopt for the pleasure of men”.
Ladner will dance three but declines to elaborate because she wants to retain an element of surprise.
Two professional dancers will perform the remaining four “veils”.
As a result, rehearsals have been more energetic than usual for Ladner.
“It’s going to be interesting because it’s not only a very physical show but it’s quite intellectual as well,” she says.
“It’s a fantastic gift but at the same time quite challenging and scary.”
Ladner, now based in France, was invited to play Salome for State Opera three years ago when in Adelaide starring in Aida.
Since then Salome, created for the Opera Conference consortium of Australian opera companies, has been lauded in seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, winning four Helpmann Awards, including best opera.
It’s a triumph for Edwards and a work last staged in Adelaide almost 20 years ago and, prior to that, not since the 1960 Adelaide Festival.
With beautiful music performed over one hour and 40 minutes, in opera terms Strauss’s work is short but dark and more closely aligned to Wagner than Puccini.
Not the first choice for companies and audiences tending towards the big romantic repertoire.
But Salome is perfect for Ladner, who carved a career in Mozart’s operas but is just at home with more dramatic material.
SA audiences remember her performances in both Adelaide Ring cycles, as Waldvogel and Woglinde, one of the three Rhinemaidens, in the imported Chatelet Opera Paris production of 1998, and Freia, Helmwige and third Norn in the first all-Australian Ring in 2004.
Nevertheless, Ladner feels she’s been “thrown in the deep end” in her first Strauss opera, although “the music gives you a lot of insight into the character, and Strauss is just a genius”.
“If you sing what’s on the page, Salome’s there, she’s alive, with all the turmoil and all the lyricism when she’s trying to manipulate a situation,” she says.
“It’s also quite a low role. It’s not often a soprano gets to give the chest a real belt.
“I love that – the idea of using different colours in my voice to match what’s on stage.
“It’s about finding the right mix and balance, and trusting in the orchestra, which is large in this opera, with 120 players.
“It’s about knowing how to sail over the top. It’s challenging but exciting and, over the past few years, I
What sort of world is this, that runs with blood, where everything is eaten or killed or used in some way?
think it’s the direction my voice has been heading in.” There are some concessions. Salome’s death is chilling but brief. Yes, Ladner must sing erotically to Jokanaan’s severed head for 20 minutes, but the plaster cast is a replica of her old friend, SA opera singer Douglas McNicol, who will sing Jokanaan in Adelaide.
“It’s great to be back in Australia working with people and a company I love,” she says.
Edwards, working with Ladner for the first time, says she’s blessed to have the South Australian in the role successfully performed by Cheryl Barker interstate.
“Kate has created her own Salome,” Edwards says. “She’s a courageous performer, physically very fit and extraordinarily beautiful. And she sings the part brilliantly.”
Edwards and designer Brian Thomson’s slaughter house-inspired set of a feast in progress was a sensation in Sydney and Melbourne.
“Herod comes from a lineage of killing and his family is extraordinarily corrupt,” Edwards says.
“He’s killed his own brother. In the first five minutes of the opera he walks on to the stage and slips in blood.
“He orders the body be taken away. So it’s a place where killing is as casual as casual can be.
“What sort of world is this, that runs with blood, where everything is eaten or killed or used in some way?”
Audiences shouldn’t miss it, she says, if only because Salome is unlikely to appear on a stage in Adelaide again for another 20 years.
“This is a great classic work written at the very, very end of the 1800s, which was revolutionary at the time, and changed the nature of opera and music,” Edwards says. Salome will be performed at Festival Theatre on August 24, 27, 29 and 31.
Salome sings to Jokanaan’s severed head
Kate Ladner will dance as well as sing in Salome