By Suzanne Vanstone, Senior Communications Manager, Editorial
The story of Salome has always been a shocking one. Be it the biblical account, Oscar Wilde’s play, or Richard Strauss’s opera, the subject matter is erotic and brutal. The young girl Salome, to the horror of her stepfather Herod, demands the head of John the Baptist in return for performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. Acclaimed film director Atom Egoyan first mounted Salome for the COC in 1996, and subsequently in 2002, and brings his searing production back this spring. Joining him for this remount is shadow designer and performer Clea Minaker, whose work with shadow and light will further unveil the abuse and violence at the opera’s core.
An artist’s work is influenced by so many factors and Egoyan discusses his thoughts about when he first directed this work. “I see this production as originally part of a trio of projects I had where I was dealing with the notion of abuse. In Exotica (1994), Salome (1996), and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), young women had been traumatized by a history of abuse. Each of the characters – Christina in Exotica, Salome and Nicole in The Sweet Hereafter – react differently, but it is clearly an abusive situation. I don’t understand how you can’t address that in the production – it’s there.
“Salome was a work that came from a certain period in European literature and music where there was the idea of the temptress, the female character having an unbridled sexuality that leads to ruin. We are not mounting it in that period, and while we have to observe that this is a brilliant piece of text by Wilde, it is open to all sorts of interpretation. To fix it in that period seems limiting. In the 1990s there was a whole wealth of literature that was exploring the theme of abuse and this production was inspired by that. It would be very difficult to present Salome with anything but a dark portrayal of a supremely dysfunctional family. The violence that is extended to Salome – and the violence that she very naturally inflicts on Jochanaan – does not come out of nowhere. We see this with abused victims, especially when they are young – there is a repetition of the way that they have been treated.”
In the original production Egoyan made use of multi-media elements, including film and video projections to heighten the opera’s impact. The Dance of the Seven Veils was performed behind a screen using elements of shadow and light and Egoyan’s theme of abuse further uncoiled as Salome fell victim to rape while Herod watched with relish. “Now that we have a chance to perform it again I want to refine the storytelling in the Seven Veils scene. We know that Salome is being gang raped but we don’t need to see it all – just glimpses. We need to integrate it into the drama of the piece. At the time it was a pretty bold way to approach the dance, but now I feel we can take this whole section to another level and reinterpret it.”
Enter Clea Minaker. Egoyan first saw her shadow puppetry at a Feist concert and thought she would bring something very special to Salome. “I was excited by her work and loved what she was able to do with storytelling in a very childlike yet immediately identifiable way. The shadow play in the dance was a little long and needed something more. It is one of the boldest parts of the opera with that amazing eight minutes of music that Strauss provides.”
Minaker says, “Atom wanted to explore what the world of shadows could bring to the piece, not only during the dance but the moments with Salome leading up to it.” They discussed focusing on the world of childish play, perhaps Salome sitting while she fashions paper doll chains, with separate inspirations of toy ballerinas rotating on turntables – a world of innocence gradually collapsing into a world of violence. Minaker continues, “As we reach the dance, the atmosphere becomes more nightmarish, and we will add different layers of light to create multiple shadows; a montage effect. For instance, one light comes on and there is a shadow of the forest or the undergrowth; another light shows a close-up of a hand on Salome’s body; another light reveals the entire scene; then it all disappears and we’re back in the forest. We have gone back to the original production and pulled out these worlds and extended them.”
But the real work begins in the rehearsal hall where the ideas are fleshed out. “Puppetry speaks through its imagery,” Minaker says, “and you have to explore what the images are and let them tell you what they can do. You can know what you’re looking for, but if you try to anticipate it or plan it, it won’t work. The important thing for me is to create a space for the shadows to tell their story. Shadow theatre is unlike any other theatrical language and I am thrilled to bring it to this production.”
This article is published in our Spring 2013 issue of Prelude magazine. Click here to read the issue online.
Photos: (top) Dancer Carolyn Woods in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Salome, 2002. Photo: Michael Cooper; (middle) Atom Egoyan. Photo: Anthony Woods; (bottom) Clea Minaker. Photo: Nick Bostick.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001