Salome Weekend Recap: Guest Blogger John Mac Master

Acclaimed Canadian tenor John Mac Master is in Philadelphia this week to perform the role of Herod in Richard Strauss's SALOME, a co-production of The Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia.  John has been documenting the rehearsal process in a daily blog, which you can follow here.  Check back often for his insights into this historic collaboration.

John Mac Master



Friday began rehearsals in Philadelphia for a staged production of Salome, presented by The Philadelphia Orchestra in cooperation with Opera Philadelphia. This is not your grandmother's "semi-staged" opera! While presented by The Philadelphia Orchestra in their own Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Centre, and with the orchestra on-stage, a large playing area 12' above the stage has been created in the choir stalls above and behind the orchestra. Kevin Newbury's staging is clear, focused and inventive, and Vita Tzykun's designs for costumes, "set" and lights are fabulous...and the Cast! Well watch out...this is thrilling and the way you want to see opera. The production sold out in days after being announced. These performances are going to be talked about for some time!

Kevin Newbury and Vita Tzykun during the set presentation


What a fabulous and intense first two days of rehearsal! We finished rough blocking the opera (how a tight schedule focuses the work!) and what a joy working with Camilla Nylund as Salome and Alan Held as Jochanaan. (Birgit Remmert, our Herodias, arrives today.) We are all committed singing actors and director Kevin Newbury is the type of director who is so confident and prepared that he encourages you to bring your "A Game," and then tweaks and shapes within his overall approach. Exhilarating! Yannick has been busy with Bruckner Nine concerts here in Philadelphia and last night at Carnegie Hall so we have been guided by the very able Cristian Măcelaru - newly promoted to Conductor in Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. We begin music rehearsals with Yannick today, and based on my fond memories of performing Salome with him for Opéra de Montréal, I know we will have a terrific day today. I know I always say that "my favorite opera is the one I am singing in right now" but really, Salome is one wild ride. You are shot out of a cannon at the top, and don't stop until an hour and three quarters later! It really does not get much better than this. And Herod's "Jewel Song" is one great sing, if you treat it with the respect it deserves. 



Part I:
Saturday was day 3 of Salome rehearsals in Philadelphia. Saturday morning Séan Curran arrived from New York to work on the dance with Camilla, and I was there to react to Salome's moves. Séan is artistic and general director of the Seán Curran Company, a cutting edge dance company in NYC, where he also teaches at NYU. I know him from the fabulous Salome he directed and choreographed in our wonderful production with Opéra de Montréal in 2012. He is an Irish-American leprechaun, and brims over with joy, wit and the ability to build and refine movement on any singer/actor/dancer in front of him. Designer Vita Tzykun and director Kevin Newbury have built our production around seven moons (laser cut spheres that will hang over the stage, rise and fall, and will be lit to effect/affect) and so Séan and Camilla Nylund-Saris have worked her command of the moon into the dance to great effect. The crew was starting the installation onstage Saturday morning, and we will be in the hall on Monday. I am LOVING the focus that this intense production schedule is creating!

Saturday afternoon also brought the first music rehearsal with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who had just finished Bruckner Nine concerts in Philadelphia on Thursday and a Friday night run-out performance to Carnegie Hall in NYC. What a joy to hear this impressive cast really let fly vocally with Yannick encouraging the best from us all! All of his podium movements and gestures are at once sensuous, lyrical AND absolutely clear and precise! An experienced boy chorister before becoming a conductor, he breathes and phrases naturally with all the singers. Without needing to say very much, he welcomes the best we all have to offer, and seems to support, refine, mold, shape and call even more from us, but in a way that is so supportive, and never judgmental. It was really a joy to sing this score - or indeed anything with him - and Camilla as Salome and Alan Held as Jochanaan were simply stunnning, ravishing. This was radiant vocalism of the highest order!

Nicholas Masters, Corey Bix, Wayne Tigges, and Dominic Armstrong

Part II:
Last night we had our first "stumble-through" or run without stops in this magnificent production. The wonderful Birgit Remmert has now joined us as Herodias, and Andrew Staples is an ardent Narraboth. We ran the whole show in the rehearsal room with Yannick conducting - what a great night! We certainly have a show, and a strong telling of this story. I must add what an impressive group of young artists make up the rest of the cast: Dominic Armstrong, Roy Hage, Joseph Gaines, Corey Bix and Nicholas Masters as our five Jews singing perhaps the most complicated ensemble in the standard operatic rep and we haven't had it fall apart yet (knock on wood!). Cecilia Hall (Page), Allison Sanders (Slave), Keith Miller and Donovan Singletary as the Soldiers, Wayne Tigges and Eric Dubin as Nazarenes and Cappadocian. The Nazarenes and Cappadocian - along with Jochanaan have some of the most moving, beautiful lines in the opera when they speak of Jesus, and it is lovely to hear all of these young artists sing so well. What a strong ensemble cast and today we get to sing through much of the opera with the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra. It doesn't get much better than this. Onward and Upward!