La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Elsa Dreisig

A sensational Salome

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
6 min.

Currently preparing for our concert Salome's Dance, where she will sing excerpts from operas by Richard Strauss and Jules Massenet, soprano Elsa Dreisig talks us about her passion for the character Salome and the emotions a musician experiences before and during a concert...

In this concert you will perform two versions of the same character. What appeals to you about Salome?

First of all, what’s interesting is that she has always been confused with her mother, Herodias. It's a problem many people can identify with: not being able to break away from one's parents, repeating the same things... My mother is an opera singer and quite frequently, in interviews, the first thing people ask me is to talk about her. I always feel like saying: “Well, first get to know me and then, if you like, we can talk about my mother” (she laughs). It’s the same in the opera, when Jochanaan asks, in his great monologue: "Where is she who has been defiled by men...", and where Salome answers: "Er spricht von meiner Mutter" ("He is talking about my mother"). And yet, even among the audience, there is an unwitting amalgamation of mother and daughter. It's a serious injustice I struggle with, even if it's fictional, because I care too much about allowing a character to express herself freely. I developed a passion for Salome very early on because she is so misunderstood, so misjudged. I can see the dark and unhealthy side that was passed on to her as a result of perverse parenting. But in the end, she could have followed a different path if she had been given the chance. In opera, there is a tendency to impose a rigid personality on characters. And I enjoy restoring their complexity, proposing versions that are less typical and, from my point of view, truer to the piece.

To what extent do you think Salome's violent nature stems from this need for freedom?

I believe she may harbour the urge to revolt against the role that those around her want to impose on her. To demand that someone be beheaded is extraordinarily powerful, especially for a sixteen year old girl. She takes control of her destiny. She is not afraid of death. She comes out the other side. She no longer has a life strategy. The realm in which she lives is stifling, abhorrent, and she wonders what she can do to become totally elusive, and thus indestructible. At the end of Strauss' opera, in that ultimate act, she asks the severed head of Jochanaan: "Why didn't you look at me? Why didn't you consider me?" Her gesture is not a teenage whim. It’s existential. In short, she's a great character.

And what do you like about Massenet's version?

Well, not the text (laughter). I love this composer, but he didn't always work with people who could write very good librettos. He had a wonderful instinct for finding his subjects but, in their execution, the librettos often offer a highly fantasised romantic vision of things, and almost risk being disturbing. In Hérodiade, Salome falls madly in love with Jochanaan, there is none of Strauss’ ambiguity. But it's an absolute dream for the voice. It’s a joy to sing. Massenet, if you only read the text, may evoke a laugh, but you just have to add his music and the sound space that opens up is its saviour.

This is the first time you are singing with our musical forces and Kazushi Ono. What is it like to meet an orchestra and a conductor for the first time?

That’s one of the great difficulties of this profession. These are often new encounters that only give us two or three days of rehearsal to get to know each other, to understand each other, to be on the same wavelength. In opera, you have a little more time, but it's still brief. Even if you bring together the most dedicated and passionate human beings in the world with the same goal - to move the audience - it will take time for them to adapt. You have to get through the stage in which the project takes shape rather tentatively. It also depends on how new the piece you are performing is, whether or not you are familiar with the repertoire. If it's a piece I've never sung before, for example, I may feel more vulnerable. There are times when I envy my colleagues who perform lots of concerts with the same orchestra. It allows them to reach a level that evades us if we do not know each other very well. We’ll see how it goes in Brussels. The first rehearsal, the first hour, is always like taking a leap in the dark... You need nerves of steel.

Do you start the first day with your stomach in knots?

Yes, and often I am even more stressed at the end of it. I see all the things that are not working. I tell myself I'll never manage it. In fact, I almost find the rehearsals more difficult than the performance. On stage, you get the chance to channel something for an audience. In rehearsals, the room is empty but you still have to work as hard as you would on the big day, but without the adrenaline, without the energy within that drives the art. My biggest dilemma as a singer is not to tire myself at rehearsals. Every concert, every production, is a new challenge.

At the end of the 19th century, La Monnaie specialised in the creation of French versions of Wagner's operas. You are also performing the finale of Strauss' opera in French, the original version of which was also premièred in Brussels. What difference does this change in language make to your preparation?

It so happens that in my professional career I started out with the French Salomé. This created a degree of intimacy with the language that I didn't have with German, as I grew up in France. There is no distance between me and the words. And performing this version protects you from the expectations there may be with regard to the character: of a big, dramatic voice like Nina Stemme or Birgit Nilsson. All these comparisons do not exist in French. For the French première, Strauss altered the pace of the vocal line and even changed some of the notes. He didn't just copy and paste the translated text. He completely reworked the score. However, technically it is a bit trickier. French lends itself less to singing than German or Italian does. Knowing the language so intimately, one feels less free to distort the sounds and words, one almost wants to do too well. When I sing in French, I always have to make an effort to abandon this need for extreme loyalty.

Elsa Dreisig (Salome, Aix-en-Provence, 2022)
Elsa Dreisig (Salome, Aix-en-Provence, 2022) © Bernd Uhlig

You recently performed the role in its entirety at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Is your approach different in a concert?

I haven't sung this scene in isolation for over five years. I have to admit that I'm really looking forward to the concert - but am also a bit scared. In any case, I'm always scared. Stage fright is a constant in my life. In that production you mentioned, the final scene was precisely when I said to myself: "Phew, only 15 minutes left." What’s more, Andrea Breth had built me a little box at the front of the stage, like my very own custom-made sound box. So I could get rid of the tension. In this case, there will not be the accumulated energy of the whole opera, there will be no costumes... in a concert we are more 'exposed'. Usually, by the end of the opera, I have been forgotten. Salome is the only one you see. If anyone still sees Elsa, I haven’t done my job very well. The biggest challenge in a concert is that you have three seconds to forget yourself and become the character you're singing, and hope that maybe, through your singing you will convey who you are.

To do that, are you in control, focused on precision? Or do you let go? Or is there an amalgamation of the two?

I believe more in letting go on stage. When I'm in the audience, I can feel when there's too much control, when the singers use a particular effect to induce a reaction. I am allergic to that. In my preparation I try to be as precise as possible, both with a dramaturge, with my drama teacher and with my singing teacher, and to touch on all the aspects of a piece. You can't be lazy when you sing. The job is sometimes underestimated. You have to improve your technique, your presence and control of your body every day. But if you want to be touched by grace on stage, you have to allow room for a form of letting go, of improvisation, it has to come from the heart... Great sportspeople - I'm thinking, for instance, to the world of tennis - also talk about this aspect. When you listen to interviews with tennis players, their approach to the sport is very similar to that of a performer to the living art, opera. If they exert too much control, they cannot achieve that state of grace where the game has a fluidity that keeps people on the edge of their seats.

What would you say to someone who has never experienced this kind of music to convince them to attend the concert?

Richard Strauss' Salome is an emotional roller coaster. You never come out unscathed. You either love it or you hate it, but you will definitely experience powerful emotions. I don't know anyone who is not overwhelmed when they hear Salome. You should come just for that reason. It is an extraordinary piece. And I think it's very interesting to hear the same character set to music by two different composers. It opens doors. This shows how misleading the limits we impose on our view of a heroine really are.