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Headless in Judea: Atom Egoyan Dials Back the Kink

04/24/2013 10:49 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

The opera SALOME opens in Toronto

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Atom Egoyan believes it wasn't adolescent angst that made a young princess demand the head of a prophet as payment for dirty dancing in front of her stepfather. No, says the Canadian filmmaker (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) who is back directing the revival of the opera Salome, it is all about voyeurism, frustrated desire, paranoia and the decay of the human soul.

The Canadian Opera Company's eight-performance run of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss's Salome, at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts in Toronto, marks the return of the celebrated Canadian director. This is the third time that he has directed on the Toronto stage, the often-shocking opera about 13-year-old Salome (danced by Linnea Swan / sung and performed by soprano Erika Sunnegårdh), her Dance of the Seven Veils and the beheading of John the Baptist -- the prophet who foretold the coming of Christ.

"In terms of the Biblical references, in terms of Oscar Wilde's rendering of her, she was an adolescent, I don't disagree with that," explains the director. "But I don't think that is the point. I am not of the opinion in this production that her behaviour is the action of a petulant teenager who wants her way; it is something much deeper than that -- we are using this depth as a launching pad."

Oscar Wilde wrote the play in 1891 at a time when it was illegal to depict Biblical characters on the English stage. To avoid this Blue Law, he penned the work in French, a language he had never before written in.

The work was completed in one sitting. And the result? Oo la la! Shocking. Outrageous. Beyond the pale. The controversial play wasn't produced on the Paris stage until 1896 at which time Wilde was in prison, ostensibly for the crime of being gay. Strauss, the German composer, saw the production and built a German opera around it.

This is Opera's take on the New Testament's most vile female villain, Salome. It is Salome, the Princess of Judea, who demands the head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in return for performing the Dance of the Seven Veils in front of her stepfather Herod and his court. The year? About 35 A.D. and Salome lives in Jordan, with her morally bankrupt mother Herodias and her perverse stepfather, Herod (who in real life not only permitted the beheading of John the Baptist but gave Pontius Pilot permission to crucify Christ).

Salome's desire for the imprisoned Jochanaan -- who spends his days screaming out Herodias' sexual irregularities from a cell underneath the minimalist sloping stage, is mirrored by a soldier's tortured infatuation for her, and Herod's own lust for his stepdaughter. Consumed by suicide, rape, murder and passion, the Royal family is inevitably torn apart by these destructive obsessions.

Celebrated Canadian tenor Richard Margison, dominates the stage as King Herod. According to the COC, Margison is "hailed for his ringing top notes and spine-tingling power. Margison is one of the most critically acclaimed singers on the international stage."

Hanna Schwarz, a noted German soprano makes 69 the new 40 in her portrayal of Herodias. A few months short of her 70th birthday, Schwarz owns the stage and sings, unmiked, in a strong voice that seemingly has lost none of its range.

At the opera's original premiere, the audience and critics were shocked by its subject matter and erotic themes; Salome's world of voyeurism and sexual abuse still elicits an equally visceral response today, although this time around, Egoyan has dialled back on the often-explicit interpretation of Salome.

"I can't help but look at Oscar Wilde's play and see that he is dealing with something that he might not be completely aware of himself, of something being held back, " continued Egoyan. "This was written late in his career when there were all sorts of pressures building against him, which lead ultimately to his tragic death. I think he was very aware of this idea of how a voice can be stifled, suppressing all the forces that go into repression and the effects that it has on the human soul, the human condition. I think he put a lot into this play that he might not have been aware of on a conscious level."

"It is one of his most challenging pieces of text, it is very difficult to mount as a traditional play because his language is so over wrought, so purple, but, it works wonderfully as a libretto."

"In a traditional presentation of Salome the set is referred to as a Biblical court where there are these courtiers, guards and various hangers-on" explained Egoyan during a break in Salome's final rehearsal. The current "set is stripped away and we are in the antechamber of some strange sanatorium. Everything is being videotaped, there is surveillance everywhere and this supports the idea of King Herod's paranoia."

"Everything that happens outside his immediate view is being recorded. So this is a heavy sort of sub theme in the Opera because we are dealing with voyeurism."

When it comes to costumes, Egoyan gets tied up in the Space Time Continuum in settling who wears what. The Royal family is in togas, the hired help carry Glocks and are dressed in cheap 1950s style suits and the Jews and the Nazarenes are in white face, bald wigs and all white suits reminiscent of the costumes worn by the aliens in the movie Dark City.

The camera toting characters skulk. The men in white are wide eyed while the principal characters can't seem to make eye contact with each other.

"Salome is looking at Jochanaan, who won't return her gaze and you have another character, a female page, who is in love with the head of the Guard and he won't return her gaze either (although he does let her perform Toronto's first operatic fellatio interruptive on stage -- he shoots himself in the head during their sex act)," said Egoyan.

In death, Jochanaan's head still can't return Salome's gaze. She sings to the head as if it was alive and asks it why it still refuses to look at her!

"This idea of frustrated desire and voyeurism -- people looking at something they can't have is woven into the piece," explains Atom Egoyan. "I think the music by Strauss supports the idea of this turbulence and paranoia and these very extreme emotions."

The Canadian filmmaking director has dialled back some of the erotic shock value he employed in his first go at Salome. Salome's dance and subsequent gang rape in front of Herod is done in this production in a multi-media fashion. Salome dances on stage behind a scrim along with shadow puppetry, for seven-minutes, heightening the tension on stage and leading to the bloody climax of the is 90-minute long operatic Bible story.

Salome runs for eight performances at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on April 21, 27, May 1, 4, 7, 10, 16 and 22, 2013.

Photograph Page of the Salome Dress Rehearsal and Director Atom Egoyan by Stephen Weir and George Socka

YOU TUBE VIDEO -- George Socka's video of Stephen Weir's interview with Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan's website

Canadian Opera Company's Salome website