Construction crews may be busy restoring Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre, but the renovations will not be delaying the opening of Utah Opera's 2013-2014 season.
Moving to Abravanel Hall, Utah Opera opens its season Oct. 18 with a semi-staged production of Richard Stauss' "Salome" — a piece director Kevin Newbury described as a great introduction to opera.
"It’s a perfect first opera because it’s an amazing score, great cast, really provocative story and it’s 90 minutes long. So it’s the perfect first night at the opera," Newbury said.
The biblical-themed opera follows Salome, Herod's step-daughter, as she navigates Herod's dysfunctional court and becomes obsessed with the imprisoned John the Baptist.
Soprano Marcy Stonikas will make her Utah Opera debut playing the title character while Utah Opera veteran Michael Chioldi will play John the Baptist (Jochannan).
"The story is so well-known and it’s such (an) ... abusive, crazy story. That in itself is intoxicating," Chioldi said. "It’s this horrible awful thing but you can’t look away from it. You actually want to know more about it, like why? Why did that happen? How does that happen to someone?"
The opera features a diverse troupe of characters — the sensual Salome, the disturbed Herod, the prophetic Jochannan — but Stonikas said it's Strauss's music that helps to give nuance to the characters and their personalities.
"Without any type of back story you know who these people are. Immediately," Stoninkas said. "This orchestra music is like a movie soundtrack almost. You know the mood. You know what every character is feeling and you get carried along for the ride."
The orchestra becomes a character itself.
Leading the orchestra in creating that presence will be conductor Stewart Robertson. This is Robertson's third time conducting "Salome." When asked what his favorite aspect of the opera is, Robertson sighed and said, "How do I pick?"
"If you thought opera was boring, you should come to this piece because it’s kind of like a rock concert," he said with a smile. "The orchestra colors and the voices and things like that, it’s just ... The sound just envelops you and you feel the floor vibrate. It’s very, very powerful music."
Robertson said he particularly likes the contrast between John the Baptist's hymn-like melodies against the discord of Herod's court. In one scene, John the Baptist sings a simple melody in which he testifies of Jesus Christ. He urges Salome to seek Jesus at the Sea of Galilee and he will cure her of her sins.
Robertson said at that moment, one can almost hear the audience sigh.
"It’s such a quiet moment in the score. It's almost like a hymn tune or a folk tune," Robertson said. "It’s just such a contrast to everything going on around. It's kind of wild and crazy, and suddenly, there’s this moment."
Audiences usually never see the orchestra hidden in the pit. But, due to the renovations on the Capitol Theatre and the move to Abravanel Hall, the orchestra will be on stage with the singers.
"I know it particularly came about because the theater is under renovation. But you know good things can come from ugly necessities," Robertson said. "I think it’s the opportunity to do something rather rare and very exciting. It’s kind of a one-time deal."
Having the orchestra and singers all on the stage together created a unique challenge to the director and set and costume designer Vita Tzykun.
Newbury and Tzykun worked together to design a set that incorporates the orchestra, rather than becoming a separate element. A starry sky of lights above and a large moon behind envelop the orchestra so it becomes an integral part of the set and character in the opera.
"This score is so complicated and so gorgeous and lush that watching the instrumentalist play it as we’re enacting it in a simple way in front of them is very powerful for this piece," Newbury said. "I think people will really dig it. Especially in a theatrical setting."
According to Newbury, space constraints forced them to focus on what objects were essential for telling the story, and construct the acting around that.
"You could tell the whole story with one moon, a pair of chains and a chair," Newbury said. "We’ve done a lot more than that, but it’s amazing how you can take a few basic elements and it communicates great depths of the story."
Tzykun said instead of focusing on a literal interpretation, she wanted to return to the more symbolic elements of the opera.
For the opera's famous "Dance of the Seven Veils," Tzykun replaced the veils with seven metal moons. Each sphere emits more light symbolizing Herod's increasing desire for Salome.
"It’s going to be much more than people expect," Tzykun said. "When you say that it’s a semi-staged production, what they probably think there’s going to be an orchestra on stage and people standing facing the audience and singing. ... They’re going to be extremely surprised because it’s going to be much more developed than that."
"Salome" will be performed Friday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m. The opera will be sung in German with English subtitles.
Tickets range from $18 to $95 and can be purchased in person at the Abravanel Hall ticket office or at utahopera.org. Discounted tickets are available to patrons 30 or younger for the Sunday matinee for $10 through the Utah Symphony Utah Opera Upbeat program.
Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: harmerk