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Atom Egoyan mounts new take on 'Salome' while juggling more film and opera

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TORONTO - Atom Egoyan finds himself busier than usual these days, with two feature films and three operas all demanding his attention at once.

"It's the busiest I've ever been," says the Toronto-based director, adding that he's managed to find pockets of time to work on each passion project simultaneously.

But it very nearly came crashing down on him when a northern Ontario shoot for his upcoming drama "Queen of the Night" nearly derailed rehearsals for his upcoming opera "Salome."

"My nightmare kind of came to pass in the new year where I was shooting right until the day before rehearsals for 'Salome' started," Egoyan says in a moment of downtime, recapping his various projects with the rapid-fire delivery of a man with little time to spare.

"So (I) was literally leaving Sudbury and then coming down and starting rehearsals the next day (in Toronto). If anything had gone wrong with the film shoot or if we were delayed, then it would have been impossible. But you just have to think it'll work out. And sometimes it does and other times it doesn't."

His immediate priority is "Salome," which opens in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company on Sunday.

In many ways it's a remount — Egoyan directed the Richard Strauss tragedy twice before for the COC in 1996 and 2002. But this version will feature several new elements, including the work of shadow artist Clea Minaker meant to highlight the abuse and violence at the heart of the tale.

Adapted from Oscar Wilde's play, the 100-minute opera recounts the ancient story of Salome, who demands the head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in return for performing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Egoyan says he sees Salome not just as a femme fatale, but as someone who suffered extreme violence in her childhood. When she demands the head of John the Baptist, it's rooted in her own tortured past.

This connection was also made in Egoyan's previous versions of "Salome," but hindsight now has him considering those efforts "too extreme."

"What I'm hoping to do with this production is actually tone it down a little bit and be more observant of the tone of the libretto and the way the story is told," he says.

"I had such a mission with the first production and I really wanted it to get across but I think it was overstated and there's a way of stepping back a little bit and allowing it to be even more powerful."

Instead of the earlier film and slide projections, this version will feature digital images that offer greater flexibility "to do wildly different things," he adds.

"It's this privilege of being able to finesse something with the distance and being at a different stage in your life. That was 17 years ago and it was a different time on a number of different levels," he says.

Salome is played by Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegardh, making her COC debut in the title role. Canadian tenor Richard Margison appears as Herod.

Referring to Wilde's libretto "an amazing piece of text" and Strauss' music as "revolutionary," Egoyan says he finds himself continually drawn to its dark themes.

His first production was mounted between shooting "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter," two films that also featured young women reeling from childhood assaults.

"I see it as part of a trilogy of the examination of abuse and the residual effects of sexual abuse on characters — between Christina in 'Exotica' and Nicole in 'Sweet Hereafter' and certainly Salome. You have these three very different experiences of people dealing with their own sexuality in light of this traumatic early experience," he says.

The through-lines continue into his current work, most notably the Chinese opera "Feng Yi Ting," opening in June for Toronto's Luminato Festival.

With music by Guo Wenjing, the work explores the tale of the beautiful Diao Chan, played by soprano Shen Tiemei, whose charms ignite a dangerous rivalry between a warlord and a general. It will be sung in Mandarin with English and Mandarin surtitles.

Like Salome, it focuses on a seductive woman who brings down the powerful men in her life, notes Egoyan.

"They're both involved with changing power structures, though they couldn't come from more different vocal or operatic traditions," he says of the two operas.

"When you see this production of 'Salome' and you see 'Feng Yi Ting' there's very strong visual similarities. There are things I learned from doing 'Feng Yi Ting' which I'm definitely bringing into 'Salome,' with shadow work, especially."

Egoyan also sees a through-line to his film "Queen of the Night," starring Ryan Reynolds and Mireille Enos as parents of an abducted child. Eight years after she was taken, the child's father becomes convinced the now 17-year-old is alive.

"It's based obviously on the Queen of the Night, the character (from 'The Magic Flute'), and there is an operatic element that is woven into 'Queen of the Night' the film," says Egoyan.

"Ideas of abduction and power and manipulation of reality, all those themes are in that film as well."

His other film is "Devil's Knot," an account of the West Memphis Three saga that Egoyan says he hopes to submit to the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, it tells the story of three men convicted of torturing and murdering a trio of eight-year-old boys in 1993.

"'Devil's Knot' is the study of the most evil thing that can happen to a community," says Egoyan.

"The community needs to have answers and so they rush to judgment and three 17-year-olds are convicted, who actually had no connection to that crime it would seem at all. It's a huge miscarriage of justice and it's a very complex rendering of this kind of a piece of American mythology."

His third opera is Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," also for the COC and set for next year.

Fitting in time for all these projects has been challenging: "It's literally an hour here, two hours there," says Egoyan.

"We're seeing the first assembly of 'Queen of the Night' and then I'm working on 'Devil's Knot,'" he says of the rest of his day.

"I have a big meeting with the producers in about half-an-hour to talk about various things to do on that. And then there's the opera. And then I have a huge... design meeting for Cosi (fan tutte)."

Does he thrive on such activity?

"It is a crazy way to work but on the other hand that's the way it happened and it's also a really wonderful way to work."

Sung in German with English surtitles, "Salome" runs for eight performances at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts starting Sunday. It continues April 27, and May 1, 4, 7, 10, 16 and 22.

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