Soprano Kirsten Chambers has made a name for herself performing difficult roles in impressive venues at a moment’s notice. She made her Carnegie Hall debut singing Maria in Strauss’s Friedenstag with just two days’ notice. And her Metropolitan Opera debut as Salome came with just hours’ notice.
I spoke with Chambers in January as she was preparing for another house debut as Salome—this time with a little more notice and at Florida Grand Opera.
Salome is an impressive role for your debut at Florida Grand Opera.
Yes, it’s my first time singing here. My husband, Keith Chambers, went to the University of Miami, so we have a connection there.
And you performed Salome for the first time in Hong Kong in 2014–15.
Yes. When I did my first Salome in Hong Kong, I realized it was different from many other roles I had done. You are firing on all cylinders and you leave everything on the stage and don’t get a break. You don’t want to drink too much water beforehand! That’s my number one advice to singers singing it for the first time.
In 2016, you had the distinction of singing Salome at the Metropolitan Opera on short notice.
Yes. They had hired me to be second cover for Isolde, and then for Salome. I was having fun and enjoying myself in my audition. They thought I was fearless. They said, “We’re not used to having someone sing for us the first time and not be nervous.” But if you’re singing Salome, you just can’t be nervous.
It was around 2:30 in the afternoon when Judy Montgomery [the Met’s manager of artist relations] called me. She said, “Hey, Kirsten. How are you?” I said, “I’m well. How are you?” She said, “I’m well, but Pat Racette isn’t feeling well, still. How are you feeling?” I said, “I’m feeling good.” She said, “How do you feel about being here in an hour? Everyone is ready to work with you.” I threw on a leotard and I posted on Facebook, “I’m singing tonight at the Met!” They didn’t even have time to do my makeup. There’s a lot I don’t remember about that experience, but I feel grateful that it happened.
Of course, one of the high points for the audience is the Dance of the Seven Veils, which often makes casting the title role difficult, because not everyone who can master Salome’s difficult score can master the dancing requirements.
It’s a seven-minute dance, and then you have to sing the final scene. You have to keep in mind that you have to sing after. One person noted that my dance was acrobatic and that I did it like an athlete. I have a dance background. I have taken ballet, modern, jazz. I did Moorish dancing, flamenco, Irish step dancing, [and] ballroom dancing. I stopped dancing, I would say, right after graduate school. Dance ran in my family.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an opera singer?
In fifth grade, when I was singing at Pittsburgh Opera in Carmen. I knew I didn’t want to be a Micaëla. I wanted to be Carmen!
It wasn’t my dream to sing Salome at the Met. I thought I would sing Traviata or something else. But it’s a good thing to make your debut on a few minutes’ notice at the Met. She’s fearless, so you are going to feel fearless. She puts you right in the moment.
Do you think Salome is a creature guided solely by instinct?
It’s so stream of consciousness. She is just going, going, going and does, does, does and doesn’t really think. I find myself just going, going. It almost makes sense that she dies at the end: she’s gotten what she wanted. She wanted love all along. It’s such a fast progression. It occurs in real time. It makes sense to me. I love how real it feels.
Obviously, I’m not Salome. But there’s part of her in each of us. You also see her grow up. She starts as a bratty teenager and begins asserting her independence, realizing her power and how to get what she wants. It’s a funny show, too. Sometimes they don’t show that. It’s really a dark comedy.
One of the most compelling things about the opera is Salome’s twisted relationship with her mother, Herodias.
She hates her mother. I felt like in our production at the Met she ignored her—you know, “You’re nothing.” There isn’t a lot of interaction between them. She doesn’t want her mother’s story to be her story.
How did the audience at the Hong Kong Arts Festival respond when you sang it there?
I think the Hong Kong audience was shocked by it. It was a very modern production. It was very sexual from the get-go—which is not my interpretation, necessarily. But it’s my job as an artist to be flexible.
I met people on the street who called out, “Salome!” Lots of people were taking my picture whenever I went anywhere. But when it came to nudity, they were a bit conservative. [But] I wasn’t fully nude in that production.
There was one review that said something about me being a slut. I said, “Mother! They said my Salome was a slut!” She said, “A slut? I didn’t even think you were sexy! Remember when you pulled down your dress? Well, you were so polite that you didn’t let anyone see anything!”
You have sung a great deal of thorny modern music in your career. I presume that you’re a fast study?
I’ve done a lot of modern music. I’m a “jump-in.” That’s a lot of what I made my career doing. I learned Maria in Friedenstag at Carnegie Hall on two days’ notice. That’s what I do. I can sight-read really well. Vocally, it’s so rangy and it sits up at the top of your register, so you’re soaring. But Strauss writes so great for the soprano voice that it feels like you’re flying. Your voice carries so easily over the orchestra.
I learned how to open up my chest voice singing Salome. There are times when you need a fully open chest, so her ferocity comes through. I feel like that’s more of a challenge musically—the low Gs. Sopranos rarely sing them.
Bernard Uzan, the director of FGO’s Salome, has staged the work a number of times in the past.
I’m very excited to work with Bernard Uzan on this. I covered a Turandot in Arizona and he was directing it. All these years later, finally having an opportunity to work with him on a production from the start.
Is there a particular interpreter of Salome whose performance resonates for you above the others?
Leonie Rysanek [is] probably my favorite. I like singers who take you somewhere. She gave everything she had when she played Salome—100 percent there. The challenge of playing her is being fully there.
CLASSICAL SINGER MAGAZINE