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Giselle: How real-life heartbreaks and tragedies inspire my performance on the stage

Belfast-born opera singer Giselle Allen discusses her role in notorious opera Salome and how she prepares for challenging parts

By Una Brankin

Giselle Allen isn't the obvious choice to play an exotic, teenage seductress with tendencies towards necrophilia - a controversial and challenging role for any performer. At almost six foot, with womanly curves and a thatch of startling copper curls, the fair-skinned fortysomething could easily take on Gloria Swanson's famous role in Sunset Boulevard, and she'd be perfect as Elizabeth I. But this redhead has a pair of powerhouse lungs to match her acting talent, both of which are required in abundance for the demanding operatic role of Salome, the notorious Richard Strauss opera based on Oscar Wilde's banned 1891 play about the troubled stepdaughter of Herod.

It's not certain that the internationally renowned soprano will perform the legendary Dance of the Seven Veils - in return for the head of John the Baptist - in Northern Ireland Opera's production in February; there's talk of a professional dancer being brought in for the scene. But Belfast-born Giselle is up for it.

"Salome is meant to be 17 and she's completely depraved sexually," she says. "She would dance for her stepfather and began to like the power that gave her. I'd have to go to the gym and get a personal trainer to do it. I don't know … I'd give it a go!"

We meet in the foyer of the Grand Opera House during rehearsals for the glamorous production by NI Opera's dynamic director Ollie Mears, who has put a 14-plus age limit for tickets due to 'scenes that younger audiences may find disturbing'. Giselle has driven in from Carrickfergus, where she lives, when not travelling, with her daughter Sophia, by her ex-husband, the Italian/American counter tenor Laurence Zazzo. He's now married to a Brazilian 13 years younger, she tells me under her breath, with a slight roll of the eyes and a half-laugh: "Hmmm. Ah, you know, we get on well enough. It is what it is."

While Giselle's away on her extensive touring circuit, Sophia is looked after by her grandparents, James (77) and Doreen (65), who named the younger of her two daughters after the heroine of eponymous romantic ballet. The erotically-charged role of Princess Salome is miles away from the delicate peasant girl in a tutu, but the cultured Mrs Allen, a former singer herself, should be able to take the risque elements in her stride.

"The end scene with the head is pretty extreme," the soprano admits. "Salome is sexually deviant - she's a bit of a necrophiliac, absolutely! She was probably sexually abused by her stepfather. She's young but she has her head on her shoulders. She always wanted John the Baptist sexually and she gets into this trance-like state with his severed head, and kisses and caresses it.

"It's all in the libretto - 'Now I've kissed your mouth, when you were alive you never looked at me with those eyes. You're silent now'. Strong stuff."

Given the spate of beheadings by militant Islamic group Isis and the constant cases of sexual abuse coming to light, NI Opera has a readymade modern context for this epic Biblical story, set to lush sweeping strings reminiscent of Wagner. It's the biggest and most challenging role to date for the award-winning Giselle, who began her singing career with the choir in her local church in Cliftonville, north Belfast, and it comes in the wake of rave reviews for her performance in the British premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, an opera about the Holocaust, during which time the composer lost most of his own family.

Giselle went to Auschwitz to research the part of Marta, the passenger of the title, a former concentration camp inmate who meets one of her SS overseers on a cruise ship 15 years later. The Financial Times reviewer wrote how Giselle's performance "wrenches the heart", while her role was described respectively by The Independent and The Times as "outstanding" and "stunning". And writing in The Sunday Times, Hugh Canning said: "If there is a star, though, it is Giselle Allen's Marta. The Belfast-born singer, a stalwart with Opera North for a decade or more, emerges as a singing actress of the first order."

"I felt I owed it to the production to go to Auschwitz for three days on my own to absorb it," says Giselle, sitting up straight, all in black, chunky turquoise bracelets on her wrists and knuckle-busters on her fingers.

"I had to take a tour with the main group with bored teenagers who didn't realise the significance of it - the Germans had flattened the gas chambers at the end of the war but you could still see parts of them and, of course, the railway tracks into the camp.

"My uncle was married to a German woman and I remember him telling me there were no birds or plants growing there. It was eerie but I found it very peaceful. There are some birds singing there now, and there was Jewish choir around the gas chambers and the mass grave where they got rid of the bodies on the last day of the war. It was a surreal experience to be there."

The role of the Marta was based on a real Auschwitz survivor, who attended the opening night.

"She came up for the curtain call and the whole audience stood," Giselle recalls, moved at the memory. "I had her identification number on my arm and of course she had the real one on her arm, and I thanked her for allowing me to tell her story. I was very nervous conveying this character - a living person - based on her memories, but it felt great to do that. She came to the dress rehearsals with a translator and brought photos of herself before and after Auschwitz, when she emigrated to the USA, and pictures of other survivors."

So how did this tall glamazon transform herself into a frail concentration camp prisoner?

"Well, she had her hair shaven at Auschwitz so I had a bald cap on for that part of the opera, then by the end I played her as an older woman with grey hair - my dad said it was like seeing a ghost because I was the picture of my great aunt!

"It was an amazing experience; there was no diva behaviour at all in rehearsals. There can be in this game - Ollie will tell you I have my moments, but it's usually over something that's not right, and that I can't act that way or when I feel the character wouldn't do something in the way I'm being asked to. But Ollie always discusses these issues with me and we work them out."

As a casting director at English National Opera drily put it after one particularly passionate audition by the soprano: "Yes. Intense. What we've come to expect from Giselle."

She chuckles at the reminder and admits she feels an affinity with the conflicted women she plays, which could include the iconic Maria Callas if plans for a tribute concert in Belfast next year come to fruition. Like Callas, she has had her heart broken more than once, and when I tell her about the soprano I saw singing Visi d'Arte from Tosca in a Dublin tribute, beside a huge, haunting image of the American-Greek beauty, she gives a little shudder.

"Oooh, I've got the shivers," she exclaims. "Callas was a super actress too. It's just as important in opera, to really believe the character. I love acting and exploring sides of the character - I get a lot of crazy ones to play and they're much more interesting.

"I don't use the Stanislav method but I do try to think how the part can relate to me. Life informs art and I use my experience in mine."

T hat includes her heartbreak and a sudden bereavement when she was teenager at Cardiff University, studying music and history.

"I've had my heart broken - I am divorced - and I lost a boyfriend at university to adult cot death. He was 24; I was 19, and he'd been my boyfriend for a couple of years. We'd split up at the time but he was my first love, and dying at that age … there was no explanation. He was an only child. And you know when you're that young, you've had no experience of death."

She's single at the moment and has no urgent desire to remarry.

"He'd need to be one helluva guy!" she laughs. "I would love to meet someone but I've been on my own for five years and I'm used to making my own decisions, for myself and Sophia. I'm away a lot, so mum and dad have looked after her since she was born - they spoil her."

She glances at her big bling watch, mindful of her lunch date with the boss, but is willing to chat on. She strikes me as good company on a night out after a performance; she likes a gin and tonic to wind down with other cast members.

"I'm a bit restricted during rehearsals - I have to get home because of childcare issues but I'll stay in town during final rehearsals. A friend of mine joined a group of us recently and said 'You're all mad!' We're so used to dealing with these big strong emotions head-on in opera that you become very open about everything and how you feel. Civilians - as we call them - find that very in-your-face!

"Saying that, I can be shy in certain situations I'm not used to, and doing this you become more sensitive; you have one less layer of skin. But in opera you can become somebody else. I get really nervous sometimes and I do get stage fright, but once you go on stage you are that other character. I prepare really well so I know I can do it."

Something she can't prepare for is over-amorous co-stars. I recommend actress Jennifer Lawrence's habit of eating garlic before on-screen smooches.

"Nice one. I've had a few trying it on in love scenes - you can always bite their tongue if you don't like it! At least I don't have to worry about that with John the Baptist. The scenes are so intense, though - I'm singing constantly for 20 minutes in some of them. It's exhausting and difficult emotionally but I think it's important to challenge your voice. It makes your grow."

Now coaching young singers in her spare time, Giselle barely sang a note until, aged 16, she performed a solo at a concert in her school, Victoria College. Someone suggested she get proper training but with so few singing teachers here, she was forced to move to London to pursue her career.

"Some of the young ones I teach are shy about putting themselves out there but you really have to," she says, gathering her belongings. "I love being on stage - you have to really love it and to believe in yourself. You're putting your whole self out there, not hiding behind an instrument. The voice comes from the soul so you really feel criticism."

Like Sting saying to denounce one of his songs is like saying his baby is ugly?

"Exactly. You've got to have a thick skin in this game!"

Giselle Allen stars in Northern Ireland Opera's production of Salome at the Grand Opera house Belfast from February 6-8 (visit goh.co.uk for tickets), and will sing with the Ulster Orchestra for their performance of Sibelius's ethereal tone poem Luonnotar, and Nielsen's Inextinguishable, on March 6 at the Ulster Hall (visit ulsterorchestra.com for details)

Seductive Salome on stage and screen

A century after his death, Richard Strauss's Salome can still cause a flutter among opera-goers.

The opera caused a sensation on its release in 1905 because of the supposedly lurid treatment of the melodies and the lyrical expressiveness with which Strauss wrote for the female voice. When he was working as the conductor of the Berlin State Opera, his employer, Kaiser Wilhelm II, said to him: "This Salome will do you no good." Strauss later wrote in his diary: "The 'No good' enabled me to build my house in Garmisch."

The combination of the Christian Biblical theme and the erotic, murderous antics which so attracted Oscar Wilde to the tale, shocked opera audiences from its first appearance. Some of the original performers were very reluctant to handle the material as written and it was banned in London by the Lord Chamberlain's office for almost forty years; the first public performance of Salome in England was produced by Nancy Price at the Savoy Theatre on October 5, 1931. She took the role of Herodias herself and cast her daughter Joan Maude as Salome.

Wilde had also faced censorship with his play Salome, but it proved a milestone for him. He didn't originally write it for his friend Sarah Bernhardt, but once the legendary French actress had read it, she passionately wanted the title role. Wilde later wrote: "The fact that the greatest tragic actress of any stage now living saw in my play such beauty ... always will be a source of pride and pleasure to me."

After several silent and black-and-white versions, Columbia Pictures released the first technicolour screen adaptation of Salome in 1953, starring bombshell Rita Hayworth, opposite Stuart Granger and Charles Lawton. According to her biographers, Hayworth's erotic Dance of the Seven Veils routine was "the most demanding of her entire career", necessitating "endless takes and retakes".

The most recent Hollywood actress to tackle the role was Jessica Chastain, star of Zero Dark Thirty and The Help. After seeing Chastain play the part on stage in Los Angeles in 2006, Al Pacino directed a raunchy film adaptation with her and released it in 2011 along with a documentary on the play.

Chastain, interviewed at the time of her LA performance, commented that, raised in a family of irresponsible hedonists, Salome initially "decides that she's going to be pure. She's going to be a virgin, and she won't be sullied by all that's going on around her. Then she meets John the Baptist, who is all that she aspires to be: this chaste, beautiful man who is condemning her mother (Herod's wife)."

Pacino reportedly became obsessed with Salome when he starred in a 1992 Broadway production. He plans to play King Herod in a new production of the play in London's West End in 2016.

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