Thursday, June 22, 2000

'Salome' draws out soprano's stamina

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stephanie Friede sings Salome.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        “I don't always feel like singing,” says opera singer Stephanie Friede. “There are days when it's a job, believe me. It's extremely hard work. You have to constantly be aware of your health, how you're feeling, your body and what you're eating.”

        But even when a singer would rather be home and curled up with a good book, something magical and energizing happens when you put on the costume and the makeup, she says.

        “You're vocalizing, then — wow! It's another evening, it's a whole other experience, it's a new performance.”

        Ms. Friede was warming up backstage at Music Hall for her role debut for one of opera's most demanding characters: the title role in Salome, which opens the Cincinnati Opera season tonight.

  What: Cincinnati Opera, Richard Strauss' Salome, Peter Werner, designer; Nicholas Muni, director; Stefan Lano, conductor; soprano Stephanie Friede (Salome); bass-baritone Ronnie Johansen (Jokanaan); tenor Jacque Trussel (Herodes); mezzo-soprano Susan Parry (Herodias); tenor Scott Piper (Narraboth); bass David Michael (First Guard); mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek (the Page); Gary Rideout, Thomas Baresel, Richard Furman, Daniel Weeks and Thomas Sherwood are the Five Jews; Richard Bernstein and Daniel Okulitch are the Nazarenes; Wayne Tigges, Second Guard.
  When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday.
  Where: Music Hall.
  Tickets: $12-$85 (limited seats available tonight). 241-2742.
        She calls it “a Gatorade kind of night.”

        “It's unlike anything I've ever done. It's my first Strauss, it's a big tour-de-force,” she says. “You need a lot of stamina and concentration. You're singing page after page. That's the hard part — the physical, mental stamina.”

        Salome has riveted opera lovers since Richard Strauss composed the opera to Oscar Wilde's play in 1905. Based on the biblical story, the shocker involves the teen-age Salome, who sheds her seven veils for her lascivious stepfather, in exchange for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. She then proceeds to kiss the severed head.

        “She's often played as sort of a sex-crazed, head-chopping freak,” says Ms. Friede. “Thank God, we have not gone in that direction.”

        Her character, she says, will be a real, vulnerable girl who has grown up in a strange environment, pampered and pedicured to prepare for her eventual life as the wife of a wealthy man.

        “I think that she feels a great emptiness in her life. She feels that she's alone in her little cocoon, until she meets Jokanaan (John the Baptist), and he strikes a chord in her,” Ms. Friede says.

        As Salome becomes more desperate, she lustfully craves his body, his hair and finally, his mouth.

        “But it's not a sexual thing,” Ms. Friede says. “It's more about a deep emotional, spiritual connection to him.”

        The famous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she says, is “an emotional turning point for Salome. During the dance is when she realizes that she needs to have his head. It's connected to the rest of the opera.”

        Ms. Friede does not want to reveal how she will perform the dance — in which some divas have been known to strip down to bare skin — except to say it is “not a traditional seven veil dance.”

        A few years ago, Ms. Friede would not have guessed she would be singing a dramatic soprano role such as Salome. She started out as a lyric mezzo-soprano.

        “I never thought I'd go from Cherubino (the mezzo "pants' role in The Marriage of Figaro) to Salome. It's quite a stretch,” she laughs.

        As her voice developed from lyrical to more dramatic roles, she discovered that her niche was Puccini, Strauss and Wagner.

        “The minute I started to do roles like Madama Butterfly, I felt like I was going in the right direction,” she says. “Puccini's Tosca, Butterfly, Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) — they fit me dramatically,” she says.

        Last summer, she stepped in to sing Marguerite in Cincinnati Opera's Faust. She will sing Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walkure and Brunhilde in Siegfried with Zurich Opera next season.

        Ms. Friede was born in New York. Her parents were survivors of the Holocaust, miraculously escaping Poland and Ukraine during the war years and meeting in the United States.

        “If you hear my parents speak, they both have such beautiful, resonant speaking voices, somewhere along the line, there must have been a singer,” she says.

        She went to Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory of Music, planning to be an opera singer from the start. Then a mezzo, she performed her first operatic roles, Cherubino and Hansel (Hansel und Gretel) in Ohio. After graduation, she moved to New York and studied for a while at Juilliard, until she began to get job offers — and said “ciao” to school.

        She got her start performing the regional opera circuit. Now, the diva, who lives in Antwerp with her husband, Job Maarse, an orchestra manager, conducts an international career that has taken her from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with Riccardo Chailly (Mahler's Eighth Symphony) to the NHK Symphony in Japan, for a concert broadcast live on radio and TV.

        She is confident and happy to be singing her first Salome.

        “It's funny how roles come to you when you're ready for them,” she says. “I think it's right for me.”


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