‘Salome’ production lifts the veil on first collaboration of Philly orchestra, opera company

As Salome lifts the severed head of John the Baptist above the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra and Opera Philadelphia will be celebrating their first-ever collaborative production.

The orchestra’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, wanted to bring Richard Strauss’ score for “Salome” into the regular concert season. But he did not want it to be a concert with singers. To give the score its due, Nézet-Séguin approached Opera Philadelphia with the idea of a full theatrical production.

“As a score, even without voice, this could be heard as one of the greatest scores of the 20th century,” said Nézet-Séguin. “In order to make it really essential and have people understanding how powerful it is, [we need] to have these visual elements to go with it.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia travel in similar circles of the region’s classical music universe, but they have never embraced before this production. During the opera company’s relatively short life (40 years next season, compared with the orchestra’s 114 years), their respective leaders had never reached out to each other in a significant way.

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Now, orchestra president Allison Vulgamore, board chairman Richard Worley, and Nézet-Séguin are looking for new ways to present classical music, as are Opera Philadelphia’s executive director David Devan and his board chair Daniel Meyer.

“The people for the first time are hardwired to work together,” said Devan. “We all respect each other so much, that we can bring what have to the party. Because it’s a different party — we bring different things. Our schedules are different. How we produce is different.”

The performance will be at the orchestra’s home venue, Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center — a concert venue, not an opera house. The Philadelphia Orchestra is nearly twice the size of a typical opera orchestra, and there is no orchestra pit. The 100-plus musicians fill the stage, leaving little room for the sets and action of an opera.

Opera Philadelphia constructed a stage arching over the musicians, on which Salome is able to dance for her stepfather, the king, and under which John the Baptist is imprisoned in a dungeon. The company also had to install the largest mobile lighting rig Verizon Hall has ever accommodated.

Orchestras and opera companies everywhere are starting to look at each other differently, said Montreal native Nézet-Séguin, whose lively career keeps him hopping around the world.

“Anywhere — I’m thinking about New York, about Boston, even Montreal — for a long time in our world, maybe in the art world in general and I would say in the world, period,  it was not the original impulse to do co-productions and collaborations,” said Nézet-Séguin. “To put together each other’s strengths and make a whole that is greater than the two parts.”

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