Dance for me, Salome."
With that seemingly innocent request, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea, unleashes not only a famously diaphanous display, but a force of imposing evil. By agreeing to her lecherous stepfather's request, Salome gains access to the thing she most covets - the head of John the Baptist on a silver charger.
Her Dance of the Seven Veils represents one of the ultimate exercises in decadence, which no doubt explains why it has been immortalized so brilliantly in literature, art and music. Today, a reference to Salome can't help but conjure up the deliciously florid language of Oscar Wilde's 1893 play about her and, especially, the 1905 opera Richard Strauss fashioned out of that play.
In the opera, Strauss provides 9 1/2 minutes of over-the-top music to send Salome's hips and aspirations into motion. The dance sequence presents no small challenge to any soprano cast in the title role. That role calls for an enormous amount of potentially lung-busting vocalism before the dance occurs and, afterward, a nearly 20-minute solo final scene of even more demanding musical intensity.
No wonder that at the premiere of the opera, a dance double jumped out to fling the veils, while the star soprano hid behind the scenery to rest up. Such sleight-of-eye still occasionally happens in opera houses, sometimes to save a singer's energy, sometimes (especially in the case of less than svelte singers) to avoid embarrassment. Neither contingent is being considered in the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Salome, which opens Saturday. Nina Warren doesn't need any such precautions.
Having studied ballet for 15 years and given more than 90 performances as Salome with major companies throughout the United States and Europe, the American soprano approaches the assignment with considerable poise. "Yes, I'm completely exhausted, wiped out and out of breath after the dance," Warren says. "But if I didn't do the dance, I'd miss it.
"When I get to the final scene, my body is already warm from the workout, so my ribs can expand easily as I sing. I work very hard before rehearsals even start to get in shape for this. I sing a lot of Mozart, to help get my voice together. Then, once onstage, I don't think technically, I just do it. Luckily for me, Salome is a perfect fit vocally."
It also fits physically. And when it comes to the Dance of the Seven Veils, Warren is not the type who's content to wiggle a little bit and demurely wave a veil or two around; she throws herself entirely into this wild biblical boogie. "I like to be pushed [by a choreographer]," says the soprano, who last appeared with Baltimore Opera in the 2001 production of Strauss' Elektra. "But I don't like the dance unless the drama continues through it. If it's just a dance, it's boring. This is where the dark side of Salome comes out, and the audience has to feel that."
Helping Warren bring out that darkness in Baltimore is Sergio Trujillo, whose work as a dancer and choreographer on TV, Broadway and beyond has earned acclaim. He stepped into this Salome production on short notice, replacing New York City Ballet's Nilas Martins, who withdrew due to "scheduling conflicts," and has had only two days, a week apart, to rehearse with the singer. It's the second time Trujillo has put Warren through her seductive paces as Strauss' anti-heroine.
"There was an instant connection, a real chemistry when we first worked together a few years ago," the choreographer says. "I knew from her first step what she could do. She's an amazing dancer. Of all the sopranos I've worked with, she is the least afraid of taking chances. And she's just incredible musically."
Warren returns the compliment. "I've done probably 15 different productions, and he's my all-time favorite choreographer," the soprano says. "He is the Lord of the Dance, not that other guy. After all the years of being a dance major, I know what moves look good on me, what works with my body. And I trust him to make my body as good as it can look."
For this staging, Trujillo had hoped to dispense with the seven veils entirely, to create a dance that didn't need those props, those associations. But the Baltimore production uses costumes that suggest the original time period of the story, so the veils are in. So are lots of sexy moves. This Salome isn't above resorting to a little bump-and-grind, not to mention some pretty earthy lap-dancing on Herod.
No nudity, though. Unlike a handful of sopranos who, in recent times, have bared it all as the last veil falls, Warren doesn't go beyond a body stocking. "For me, the dance is not about nudity," she says. "I'm a mother of three. I have no desire to do that. It's an aesthetic and moral choice."