Atlanta Opera music director Arthur Fagen
Caption
Atlanta Opera music director Arthur Fagen

"A psychological thriller draped in lust, incest, power and seduction."

That's the Atlanta Opera blurb for the company's new production of Salome, which runs Jan. 25 to Feb. 2. 

Set in King Herod's palace and culminating in a teenaged girl's kissing a severed head, the opera shocked when it was new. Even now it comes on strong. And it's not trivial to mount.

Music director Arthur Fagen sat down with GPB's Sarah Zaslaw to dish about the challenges of Richard Strauss's most scandalous opera.

Arthur Fagen on Salome

Interview Highlights

On Salome’s popularity despite its ick factor

I think the ick factor is done in a very sensationalistic way, and people like sensationalism. It’s a plus.

On this production’s Salome, Jennifer Holloway

The most amazing thing is that we have a [singer] from Georgia who is one of the most noted Salomes now in Europe, sings it in Dresden, which is the primary Strauss theater in the world. She grew up here and went to the University of Georgia in Athens. She lives here, but her most of her career is in Europe. And she can do it all. She has the vocal ability, the talent. And she's an incredibly intelligent singer. She has tremendous command of the role. She brings a lot of nuance to it.

On the strip-teasey Dance of the Seven Veils

I don’t think it’s going to be taken absolutely literally, down to the last veil. In Germany, full frontal nudity happens all the time. In fact, it's something which helps the box office a lot.

On the challenge for the orchestra

The amount of difficult playing concentrated into the short period is really remarkable. They got the music at least a month in advance with a note from me that they should take a good look at it and perhaps even listen to a recording or two, because some of it goes by much faster than one would expect just looking at the music.

On the challenge of conducting Salome

It's so compact and there are so many tricky corners, constant meter changes, constant attention to keeping the lid on the volume of the orchestra, many coordination problems with the stage. To put that all together, I have to be super focused. Strauss said it should be conducted like you're conducting Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. As if it's very, very light. If you're conducting one of the big Strauss tone poems and you get carried away and the orchestra will start blaring, it's okay, it works in a concert performance. But if you get carried away with Salome, you'll obliterate anything that's coming out of the stage. The music is so intense and so powerful, you have to be so on. I just did Parsifal, which is five hours long, and that's a much easier opera to conduct than Salome.

On whether he caffeinates before shows

Yes, I do. That's problematic because I don't sleep well afterwards. I may even do something like ginseng. I tried Red Bull and stuff like that — it’s almost going too far.

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Jennifer Holloway in the final scene of Salome at Bilbao Opera

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhaM3TwYYx4