Dallas — Richard Strauss’s tragic opera Salome (1906) will be performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, conducted by Fabio Luisi.
Based on the Oscar Wilde play, the opera is a strange and lurid piece of art best known for the lascivious tale of the title character, a princess who falls in fascinated love with the prophet John the Baptist only to have him killed by her obsession. Without question, the most iconic moment is the frenetic and erotic “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a paramount vocal and performance challenge for any soprano. The opera has shocked audiences with its brutality and eroticism since its earliest performances and has even been banned in major venues like Austria and London during its history.
Despite its sensational nature, at the heart of the play and the opera is a serious discussion of the nature of God and religion and the reception of the iconoclastic message of Christianity. Long before the bloodthirst and passion take over, the stage is set by a dense philosophical argument by a group of learned Jewish leaders which heralds the arrival of the Baptist. From there the headlong action of the drama commences. It is a moment often overlooked, but one that Wilde felt was of paramount importance to his poem and one which is exquisitely framed by Strauss. Without the discussion by the Jews, the opera is just a grotesque tabloid story.
One of the singers in this seminal scene, tenor Matthew Corcoran, discusses his part in the action. He also talks about the efforts of mounting a major production and about an opera’s ability to shock in the twenty-first century.
TheaterJones: Matt, this is your first performance with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Welcome. Can you tell us a bit about how you became involved in this project?
Matthew Corcoran: Thanks. To be honest, it’s still a mystery. I don’t know how they got my name or who recommended me, but I got a call to ask if I wanted to sing in the production. I play the part of the Third Jew, one of a quintet of tenors who have this animated discussion about the nature of religion and God. It’s an amazing piece of music, angry, yelling and bombastic. It starts up and then takes off like a rocket, building in intensity until suddenly the voice of John the Baptist cuts through. It’s a blast to sing.
Were you familiar with the opera coming in?
I had heard snippets of the opera before. And of course, I knew of the “Dance of the Seven Veils.” It’s one of the most famous scenes in all of opera. But I hadn’t heard the whole work until I got the part. It’s a stunning piece. It’s all done in one long act, but it is so active and engaging that it just seems to move forward.
Salome has a long and controversial history. What can you share about the current presentation? How will you perform the climactic scenes? Can an opera like this still shock people nowadays?
I think so. First of all, it involves the beheading of a prophet, so no matter what is going on in society, that’s still a shocking thing. The most important thing is to find a unique way to spin the story, so that it feels fresh and new, even though it’s a hundred years old.
The amazing thing about classical music is the way that weathers the test of time. I think about the recent production of Carmen [by the Dallas Opera in 2018]. It’s a classic and they made some important changes to the story, but it still felt like something that was relevant.
We haven’t started working on the staging yet. Rehearsals start this week. I know that the opera will be semi-staged, so I imagine for my part that will mean to be animated and to make sure that we are telling the story. I don’t know what the plans are for the “Dance of the Veils,” whether there will be a dance of not. I guess the audience will just have to come out and see. You don’t want to reveal everything before its time.
Sure. Keep the audience guessing. This is your first performance with a major music company like the Dallas Symphony. What has your journey been like to get to this point?
I have performed at the Meyerson before in a concert production of Candide with the Dallas Winds, but I agree this is the highest-level performance I have ever done.
I was raised in a small town in Massachusetts called Ipswich, which is not far from Salem where the witch trials were. My musical background was in a rock band, although I always liked art songs. I decided to study Music Education and went to one of the state schools that had a strong program in that. But I did some work in the opera workshop and kind of fell in love with the music and with singing theatrically. I was not in theater in high school, I was on the football team. I guess I did pretty well because I was encouraged by my instructors to go on in the field, and I got my master’s from Boston University. But at that point, I felt like I hit a wall. I didn’t feel like I was progressing as fast as I should have been and started to have some self-doubts. My teachers at BU suggested I look at other parts of the country and when I first sang for Clifton Forbis at SMU [Southern Methodist University, Meadows School of the Arts], I knew that this was where I wanted to be and who I wanted to be training with.
Dallas has been so exciting and welcoming. And it’s been a great place for my wife, who is an Audio Engineer.
You were accepted for a Vocal Fellowship at Tanglewood in Massachusetts for this Summer as well. What can you tell us about that opportunity?
I have always loved the idea and the intimacy of Art Song, and Tanglewood, which is where the Boston Symphony Orchestra has their Summer Festivals, is this symbol of art song and music performed in this beautiful setting up in the mountains. I heard about the Vocal Fellow program so sent in a couple of art song recordings and then flew to Chicago for the audition. It’s another great opportunity and I feel like things are really starting to move forward for me, not just here in Dallas but all over.
At the risk of asking a trite question, how important is this role in Salome to you?
I don’t want to come off as a typical blasé performer, like this is just another role. This opera is a huge thing for me. To get to perform with such a great conductor [Maestro Luisi] and to be sharing the stage with so many great singers. And to know that I belong here just shows how much hard work pays off.
I think this part is a measure of some of the success that I am having both here and beyond. This is my last semester at SMU and I definitely see myself staying in Dallas. But I am hoping that this will be the springboard to other opportunities.
It has been a blast to sing at the Meyerson. In Boston we have Symphony Hall, which is this amazing world-famous theater. The Meyerson has the same feeling. So much tradition and so many people.
Since we haven’t started rehearsals, I don’t know how different a production with the DSO will be from others I have done. But I know what the expectations are for me. I want to be completely prepared, have the music memorized (which I do), know the opera, and know what I’m supposed to be doing at all time. I want to show up and do my job and who knows, maybe they’ll call me back again.
I think people who come to Salome or to any performance show have to realize how much work goes into a production, from the singers and musicians to the production staff and backstage crew. We have worked our tails off and the reward is a final product that we can all be proud of and that we hope the audience will enjoy.