Heads Will Roll 

Nashville Opera, emboldened by recent successes, stages its most challenging work to date

Nashville Opera, emboldened by recent successes, stages its most challenging work to date

Salome

Presented by Nashville Opera Association

April 15 & 17 at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall

Nashville Opera Association is on a roll. The company has sold out the last seven consecutive performances of its most recent productions, Pagliacci and The Pirates of Penzance. Now NOA pushes the envelope of its growing success with a daring mounting of Richard Strauss' Salome, the fourth and final entry in its 2003-2004 season.

It would have been quite enough for NOA to mount the Strauss work—a Nashville premiere—under ideal conditions, especially since Salome, even 100 years after it first debuted with the Dresden Opera, continues to challenge audiences with its complex music and controversial libretto. But things got even trickier for opera executives Carol Penterman and John Hoomes when, due to illness, dramatic soprano Deidra Palmour had to vacate the leading role after a week's rehearsal.

"We've been fortunate in the past that we've rarely had to replace a singer. But sometimes replacing a major cast member after rehearsals have already started can add adrenalin to a piece," says general artistic director Hoomes. "In this situation, it's stressed us, but it's energized us too." No surprise there, since the new company member is Eilana Lappalainen, a Finnish-Canadian soprano with serious general credentials and an international reputation as an interpreter of Salome's title character. "Eilana is fantastic," Hoomes continues. "She's performed Salome many times in the U.S. and Europe. I'm so thrilled that she's with us."

With his cast finally in place, Hoomes was able to return to the daunting task of staging this 100-minute, one-act extravaganza, which will cost the company upwards of $300,000 once all the bills are paid. The investment in time and resources is huge—as is the faith Hoomes expresses in the ever-widening Nashville opera audience.

"Rarely do regional houses do works like Salome," Hoomes says. "I'm not necessarily pushing people to like it, but I feel we need to expose our audiences to it. On a scale of 1 to 10 in difficulty, it's an 11. It's almost as if Strauss wanted to make it as difficult as possible. Yet we have to do works like this. Nashvillians are relative novices to the art form, but instead of being more exposed and overly opinionated as in other cities, Nashville audiences say, 'That sounds intriguing....' "

With Salome, intrigue is certainly what they'll get. Strauss (1864-1949)—probably best known to music lovers as the composer of tone poems such as Also Sprach Zarathustra—has written a work that Hoomes compares in historical impact to that of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. "At the 1905 premiere, there were riots and fistfights," he says. "When it was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907, some theatergoers were so offended that they threatened to pull their funding. It wasn't produced at the Met for another 27 years. On a purely sonic level, the music would make people pass out. It's often absolutely chilling."

Yet if the Strauss score seems only a little tamer to 21st century ears, it's the rather macabre scenario that begets the most provocation. The heart of the story derives from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, but Strauss' libretto is based on Oscar Wilde's fanciful 1892 one-act illumination of the infamous biblical tale, in which the 16-year-old step-daughter of King Herod agrees to dance for her lecherous step-father, in return—much to his horror—for the severed head of the imprisoned John the Baptist. The production of this saga of jealousy, vengefulness and eroticism comes with a "mature subject matter" label.

"My intent is not to outrage," Hoomes says, "but the staging needs to be shocking. We're being true to the intent of the piece. Wilde turns a biblical tale into one of strange obsession. We learn that human beings are capable of horrific things. We have an uneasy sympathy for Salome, who goes beyond the boundaries of legitimate behavior. Ultimately it's a very moral piece: She pays for her sins."

Along the way, leading lady Lappalainen will execute the nine-minute Dance of the Seven Veils, then bring the proceedings to a startling conclusion with a 15-minute scene with the object of her twisted affections. Hoomes adds his own intense staging elements. "In opera," says the director, "you can explore the dark side of humanity."

Among the other stellar cast members joining Lappalainen onstage are bass baritone John Marcus Bindel as Jokanaan (John the Baptist) and veteran lyric tenor William Lewis as Herod, a role he has performed 65 times previously. "When you sing Strauss, you can plan on a night's work," says Lewis, who has sung 140 major roles in 10 languages, and has performed with every major opera company in the world. "It takes a real group effort. This is a very striking opera with a brutal message. It's a stretch for any company, but this one is up to it."

The Nashville Symphony, 75 pieces strong, will provide the accompaniment, attacking an intricate and physically demanding score originally composed for an ensemble of 110. "Contrabasses must effect sounds beyond the normal technique, and other instruments are scored for notes outside of their range," says Hoomes. "Thankfully, we have Marc Flint, who's a fabulous conductor." Flint most recently worked with the symphony holding the baton for NOA's Tosca last fall. Another key contributor is designer Pam Lisenby, whose costumes, wigs and elaborate makeup accurately reflect the Asian influence in the opera's mythic biblical historical setting. The stoic, column-dominated set itself is on loan from the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

Salome will be sung in German, with English supertitles—translated and adapted by Hoomes himself—projected for the less initiated. "They are a new art form in their own way," says Hoomes. "Supertitles are a great tool for communication. They've changed our business."

An unpretentious yet galvanizing presence, Hoomes, with Salome, leads Nashville and its opera-loving community out into previously uncharted waters. "I love the danger," he says. "We strive to do the highest-quality productions at NOA. You can love it or hate it, but mediocrity is not an option."

Tickets for Salome range from $17 to $75 and are available at www.nashvilleopera.org, at Ticketmaster outlets, or by calling 255-ARTS (2787). A limited number of pay-what-you-can tickets are available at the Nashville Opera office, 3628 Trousdale; Student Rush tickets, when available, are sold for $5 each at the TPAC box office 45 minutes before curtain (student ID required).

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