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Canadian soprano Ambur Braid.Anya Shor/Handout

Royalty and opera both live in spaces of extreme stakes, and that’s precisely where Canadian soprano Ambur Braid prefers to spend her time. “Extreme people are much easier to unpack,” says the B.C. native, who has portrayed opera royalty from Mozart’s Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute to Sabina Augusta in Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian.

Next month, Braid will star in the COC’s Atom Egoyan-directed production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, the one-act, scandal-laden opera based on the 1891 play by Oscar Wilde (Feb. 3-24). She will embody the Biblical Princess of Judea famous for demanding the death of John the Baptist – and for earning his severed head with her “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Salome is indeed one of those stories about a woman that’s told by men, but Braid has more to say about the young Princess. “I think it’s boring to play the spoiled little princess,” she says. “There is vulnerability there, there has to be. She’s a real human being who’s misunderstood, like most women.”

Braid insists that the famed dance, which the teenaged Salome performs at the request of her stepfather, King Herod, is no sexual transaction – despite the sensuality of Strauss’s music, and the tradition of Salome appearing nude at the end, her seven veils vanished.

“It’s that she has been enraptured.”

Trapped in a world without agency and surrounded by people who treat her as a commodity, Salome creates what Braid calls her own “little reality” – by, say, muttering about white, virginal moons – as protection from the lecherous gaze of those around her.

Perhaps when Salome’s obsession with John the Baptist reaches its bloody peak, she’s not playing the femme fatale, bent on punishing the prophet for ignoring her. Maybe, Braid muses, she’s choosing the death penalty, which will surely come from asking for the prophet’s head. “Because what else are you doing? You have no escape in life.”

Braid has a special fascination with powerful women. Her onstage portrayals, marked by her commanding, ever-morphing instrument, are famously bolstered by her voracious need to examine the world around her. “When you’re trying to study the human,” she says, “everything is useful.”

Reading is her preferred method of research, and Braid’s current stack is peppered with books on the Getty family dynasty, London’s interwar society ladies, Hillary Clinton and her favourite topic: Tudor queens. All of it, Braid funnels into onstage characters that go beyond operatic archetypes.

Be it staying unmarried or dancing toward death, opera’s powerful women wield fierce power even within the confines of their sex. “It’s a continuous thing about women trying to keep their power,” says Braid, spotting a pattern from antiquity to today. “The problems haven’t changed.”

Becoming Salome: Six book, TV, and music picks that inspire Ambur Braid

Off With Her Head: Three Thousand Years of Demonizing Women in Power – Eleanor Herman, 2022

New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Herman (Sex with Kings, Sex with Presidents) scans history for the pattern of misogyny against powerful women, from Cleopatra to Kamala Harris. “The one thing that they all have in common is that they’re alone. Your survival is based on keeping your emotions and your thoughts to yourself.”

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Ms. Braid.Anya Shor/Handout

The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I, Thomas Seymour, and the Making of a Virgin Queen – Elizabeth Norton, 2015

Braid admits that out of the Tudor queens, she’s “most obsessed” with Elizabeth I. “I find her relevant for everything.”

Norton’s book focuses on Elizabeth I’s teenage years, during which she learned the value of being – or appearing to be – a virgin queen. “She is the only one who learned at a very young age that the only way to keep her power was to not marry a man.”

Becoming Elizabeth – TV series by Anya Reiss (Starz)

Anya Reiss’s Becoming Elizabeth (Starz, 2022) leans into that same period in Queen Elizabeth I’s life, focusing on the flirtatious relationship – possibly even sexual – she had with her stepfather, Thomas Seymour. “It’s another lecherous stepfather and powerful stepdaughter relationship at play and it’s very well acted,” Braid says.

Salomes past

Like any good student of history, Braid has her favourites among the Salomes who came before her. “Definitely Ljuba Welitsch,” she says, nodding to the late Bulgarian soprano who starred in Salome at the Metropolitan Opera in 1949. “She was Strauss’s favourite.”

And for pure sound, Jessye Norman. Braid has been listening to Norman’s studio recording of Salome, made in 1994 with Seiji Ozawa and the Staatskapelle Dresden. “It has the most incredible tempi for everything,” says Braid. “There’s enough time where [Norman] can really colour everything.”

Backstage adrenalin shock: Kill Bill by SZA

What does Braid do if she needs an extra jolt of pre-show adrenalin? “There’s this new song by SZA and it’s called Kill Bill,” she says with a smile. No doubt, there’s something Salome-esque about the song’s chorus: “I might kill my ex, not the best idea / His new girlfriend’s next, how’d I get here? / I might kill my ex, I still love him, though / Rather be in jail than alone.”

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde – Neil McKenna (1991)

Oscar Wilde, as famous for his clever social commentary as for being an openly gay man in his lifetime, held a unique, Old Testament-like sort of misogyny, according to McKenna’s 1991 book. “Oscar wrote a lot about women and his belief that they set out to ruin men,” Braid says. “After he finished Salome he said, ‘her lust must be an abyss, her corruptness, an ocean.’ … So I’m sure that he rather liked her!”

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