The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s music director designate Fabio Luisi keeps a very busy schedule when he’s not in Dallas. The Italian-born maestro also serves as principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony and general music director of the Zurich Opera, in addition to high-profile appearances as guest conductor for orchestras and operas around the world.
Luisi also gained acclaim, not the least of which is in the form of a Grammy Award, leading the Metropolitan Opera as principal guest conductor from 2011 until 2017. All of this to say: Luisi’s opera conducting is legendary.
“Opera is a very complete form of art, involving music, stage acting and visuality,” Luisi tells the Observer. “The conductor has to manage the balance between stage and orchestra, leading singers who are singing by heart and acting — a huge responsibility!
“I enjoy the storytelling of operas,” he adds. “They appeal to our feeling in a very immediate way.”
Luisi is currently preparing to lead the DSO in performances of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, coming up Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, but audiences may notice a few important details missing. There will be no set, no costumes and no staging of any kind — just the orchestra and a cast of singers onstage at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Luckily for any audience members who may miss the staged aspects of a traditional opera performance, Strauss’ score is filled with drama and intensity.
“The music can lead [audience members] through the plot,” Luisi explains. “The music not only illustrates the words and the situations, but it also explains the very feeling of the characters, reaching with great immediacy our heart.”
Salome is definitely not lacking in characters with feeling. Romantic German composer Richard Strauss had his heyday in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, a world away to those of us living in 2020. Strauss’ father Franz was a notable French horn player and made sure his son had all the best musical training available at the time under one condition: that he be taught in the conservative, Brahms-ian school of thought. But it wasn’t long before the younger Strauss revolted and paved his own way, pushing the boundaries of his music way beyond the traditional romantics of his time.
Just in case you’re confused, yes, there are a few famous Strausses — The Strausses of Vienna (most notably Johann and Johann Jr.) are the guys who wrote all those pretty waltzes. But Richard is known for his grandiose symphonic poems like "Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life)" and "Don Quixote" as well as his innovative, provocative operas. The two Strauss families were not actually related but just happened to have the same last name and lived in Europe around the same time.
Salome, which premiered in 1905, was one of R. Strauss’ first operas, and what a way to start off one’s operatic career. The one-act production is based on a scandalous play of the same name written by Oscar Wilde and first published in 1891. Strauss decided to set the entire play to music himself, rather than use a librettist as was the common practice at the time.
The plot centers around the young princess of Judea (Salome) who has a crush on a prophet, John the Baptist, who is imprisoned by Salome’s uncle, Herod. Herod has a strange obsession with his niece and makes his incestuous feelings known, to Salome’s disgust. John rejects the young princess’ advances, which of course only makes her want him more. Salome wants him so badly, in fact, that she decides to make a deal with Herod. Her creepy uncle tells her that if she dances for him, he’ll do “anything she asks.” Once the deed is done, Herod is shocked when Salome wishes for John’s head to be presented to her on a platter. Spoiler alert: She gets what she wishes for, and the story ends with her kissing John’s severed head. Yeah. Weird story, right?
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Truth be told, opera can be quite intimidating, even when the subject matter doesn’t involve incest, decapitation and a little necrophilia. So if you’re intimidated or new to the opera world, Maestro Luisi has some advice: “I usually suggest to read the plot, if possible, but then just to immerse [yourself] into the performance.” (You can thank us later for the plot summary above.)
Luisi officially begins his music directorship in the 2020-21 season, and he has committed to leading the DSO in an opera in concert each season. One may wonder why, when Dallas is also home to an opera company (hi, Dallas Opera), the orchestra would want to present works of this magnitude.
“It is very important for all sides — conductor, orchestra and audience,” Luisi explains. “The audience can focus on the power of the music without visual ‘distractions’ of the stage; the orchestra can enjoy works that are rarely played by a symphonic ensemble; and the conductor can also focus only on the musical aspect of the work, without having to manage the difficulties of the stage acting.”
Who needs all those costumes and set designs, anyway?