‘A fun, demented girl’

Marquita Lister is a young soprano. She refuses to say how young (early 30s is a good guess), yet she has already made herself recognizable to Michigan Opera Theatre audiences — as Aida in 1997 and as the murderous, passionate Tosca in an incandescent performance in 2000. She's also taken on one of opera's greatest femme fatales. "I've done five or six Salomes," she says. "She's a fun, demented girl."

The complex, vivid emotions played out in Richard Strauss' dramatic, dissonant score make Salome the operatic equivalent of a page-turner, and one of the most coveted roles for a singing actress. But aside from the character of a willful teenager, there are performance challenges for the young Lister to tackle.

For starters, the text is in German. "Even for German speakers, it's difficult." But she explains that the characterization is more important than the singing. She's also required to hit very low notes, such as G and A, and to project them over a large orchestra. She demonstrates this with chest tones, using the lower range of her voice. Here in Detroit, the MOT orchestra is the largest it's been all season, using 71 musicians — 10 more than during the season premiere of Aida — so it can produce the big, clanging, lush sound, a mix of late romanticism and modernism that Strauss pioneered in the early 20th century.

Another challenge is that the character of Salome is onstage most of the time during the hour and 45 minute-long piece. And then there is that dance: "The choreographer wants a real dance with back bends. It is one of the most challenging dances I have ever done," says the tall and slim Lister about the Dance of the Seven Veils.

There's nudity during that dance, when Salome removes one veil at a time. As to whether she will take off some of her costume or all of it, she says she wants to surprise us. "I come from a moralistic society: African-American, church-raised," she says. The decision to undress is not an easy one. When Maria Ewing performed it with MOT in 1996, she performed in total nudity but only for the briefest moment. At the end of the dance, when the last veil was removed, the stage went dark.

In Europe, where she sings frequently, Lester says, "Opera directors take any opportunity to add blood or nudity. In the classical arts, you have to be careful because it follows you."

Michael H. Margolin writes about theater, dance and opera and other performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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