Salome is a tricky ask for the soprano, requiring a big voice to get over the orchestra, but considerable delicacy as well. Did you always hope to sing the role, how long did wait, and how did you decide you were ready?
I never exactly imagined I would sing Salome, it was just not something on my radar until I started singing so much Strauss. Strangely enough, it was one of the first operas I saw live as a student and I still remember the opening chords, and the otherworldly quality of the score. Like many other roles in my repertoire, it just happened to be the right combination of an offer, the right timing, and having the guts, or insanity, to tackle it.
Soprano Emily Magee. Photo © Johannes Ifkovits
Your interpretation seems to perfectly balance strength with lyricism. Did you come to it with any Salome role models?
I always came to Salome with the idea of her being sung beautifully, although it is difficult to do so. I do think she needs a heroic voice behind the beauty, but more than that I find the role extremely vocally colourful, so one needs to have an immense variety of colour and tone. I do think she can be sung in a variety of ways, the trick being, always, to sing her with your voice, and not emulate anyone else. I remember when I first started studying her I listened to a great deal of Hildegard Behrens and also, maybe interestingly, Montserrat Caballé. I try to listen to a wide variety of voices in new roles, but in this one it never did me much good to be listening to Nilsson or a super dramatic voice. I feel the role is just filled with different colours, and I try to make the vocabulary as great as possible.
What did you think the personal challenges would be for you, and having performed the role, were you right, or did you find other hurdles?
Salome is not a “natural” role for me, like some others. Her character, the character of the opera, and the vocal difficulties are not what I would call second nature for me. This does not make it impossible, and in fact makes it very, very interesting to tackle. Many times the roles you struggle with in personality become the very favourites to perform. Salome is one of the most “outside of me” roles that I have ever done. In that sense, it is a relief to try some deep and disturbing thoughts, and not always be the good girl in white.
Getting inside her head, how do you find the personality of Salome? Is she the monster that Herod calls her at the end? And how would you like the audience to see her?
This opera is, for me, one of the very most complex in the character study, and one which I don’t know that I will ever TRULY understand. It comes down to, for me, the fact that she is a very young girl. The fact that she has this sexuality and sensuality at such a young age, and added to that her immense personal POWER, means to me that there is something fundamentally wrong in her psyche. It definitely suggests some sort of abuse or family disorder. I feel she is some sort of angel/devil. On one hand, I would not be surprised to call her innocent, but she could equally be sexually deviant. This is what makes the character, and moreover, the opera, so incredibly fascinating and visceral. As an opera, I find it to be truly genius. The different characters are exactly what the audience sees them to be. This is the mark of the greatest art in my estimation. We do not want to be told WHAT to think, HOW to interpret. The music is so very evocative, and the characters so interestingly drawn that the audience must decipher the meaning for themselves, and I think what they feel is different at every performance. This is a work of art for the ages.
Given the notoriety of the dreaded Dance of the Seven Veils, were you ever nervous of either a 10-minute solo dance or the prospect of taking off all of your clothes?
In a word, YES! I am not the type to take my clothes off and bare everything. In the right setting I would be brave enough to try it, I think, but I am not a 15-year-old girl, nor a dancer. Every production has to be done with the performers on hand in mind. One of the greatest interpretations I have seen was Catherine Malfitano, who sang brilliantly, acted brilliantly, danced like a dream, and bared it all in the end. AMAZING! But, I could not do the same performance. So, we all have to find our limits and what we can bring to the role, within the production. I have to say, also, anyone who can REALLY perform the dance as a dancer and then sing the final scene has my utmost respect. It is not easy!
In productions you have done to date, how differently has the Dance been staged?
Honestly, I have only done one staged version so far, and the dance was quite modernly staged with a whole group of Salomes of different ages. So I had to move quite a lot, and climb a lot of large scenery, which was tiring, but I didn’t have to “dance” as such. Stay tuned!
Given the challenges of acting with a freshly severed head, have there ever been any unexpectedly comical moments?
Given the nature of the last scene, there is always bound to be some unintended comedy, and honestly, during rehearsals, a bit of levity is welcome. In the Stefan Herheim production, which is the only staged one I have done so far, rather than a severed head held in my hands, it was an oversized head, which I danced upon, and crawled into and out of… it was very vivid, and gave a very dramatic and suggestive picture. I don’t recall any unintended comedy, but I could imagine that it was very disturbing for some.
You are quite a Strauss specialist, having sung the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, the Empress in Die Frau Ohne Schatten, the title role in Arabella and the Countess in Capriccio. Do you have any other Strauss heroines in your sights?
I’m not sure that there are any Strauss roles left for me to learn! I have sung the Marschallin, the Empress, Arabella, Capriccio, Ariadne, Chrysothemis, Daphne, and Salome. I suppose in future years there is something left for me. Despite the difficulty and depth of these roles, they have been my favourites. I love the challenge, and the musical language of every Strauss opera is so different and evocative, I never tire of the pieces. I love each and every one.
Emily Magee sings the role title role in Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s recording of Salome with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, which is Limelight’s Recording of the Month in January/February.