You may not know her name yet, but Melanie Henley Heyn is a star in the making—and singing the title role in this season’s all-new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Born in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Henley Heyn studied at Manhattan School of Music Manhattan School of Music, University of Southern Carlifornia, and the Konservatorium Wien (now the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna) in Austria. And though she’s sung professionally in countless orchestral and vocal concerts around the globe, performing as Salome at Spoleto Festival USA will be her full-length opera debut. The role’s a doozy, too—from the revealing “Dance of the Seven Veils” to the oh-so-dramatic final scenes, Salome’s character undoubtedly demands much from its singer.
What does it take to prepare for such a role? We caught up with Henley Heyn to find out and learn more about this gifted dramatic soprano.
Before you get to rehearsals, what do you need to have prepared?
My job is to have a point of view and be ready to meld it with the team and the directors. I have to be technically prepared so that the music and text aren’t stumbling blocks. Strauss’s music is thorny at the start, but shines through bright and clear when you dig deep enough. Finding a word-for-word translation of the Greek/Hebrew bible and reading Oscar Wilde in French have helped me take in all of Strauss’s notes and polyrhythms.
I’ve also been working out—taking dance classes, doing yoga, and training with my sister, Emma Nation, a burlesque performer. I need to get to a point where I can still sing after 10 minutes of dancing!
What about Salome’s personality do you most connect with?
Salome comes face to face with a type of man she’s never experienced before. He doesn’t come after her; in fact, he rejects her, and she needs to get to him, to get under his skin, to have him. She’s then presented with a path to get there—and she takes it. We see the result as extreme, but her goal resonates.
What helps get you into singing the role of a teenager?
Well, I was one.
This is your American stage debut. What does that mean?
This is actually my debut, full stop. I’ve performed numerous operas with community companies, universities, and friends. I’ve sung concerts professionally with orchestras, chamber ensembles, and amazing pianists. But this is my first professional gig in a costume on a stage. It is a huge risk for any company to take—and all I can say is, ‘Gratitude rains down.’
On one of your off-days during Spoleto, what other performances do you hope to see?
Shakespeare all the time! My grandmother was a huge aficionado and gave me a velvet-covered copy of the complete works in eighth grade.
What was your first opera role?
When I was 10, I played Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti.
Do you have a favorite movie about music?
Straight Outta Compton
What would you do for work if you weren’t a musician?
When I was a kid and folks asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “I AM a singer.” Eventually, in my early 20s, I decided I should have an answer to the inevitable Plan B Question. So…librarian, although, I did work demolition when I lived in LA.
Instrument you’ll never learn—but want to:
What cities have your favorite music scene?
Los Angeles, hands down. After I graduated from USC, I used to fly back there just to attend concerts at the LA Phil or Master Chorale. Plus, the city also has The Industry and the Ojai Festival.
If you could drink onstage, what would be your drink of choice?
Cold ginger tea
Current Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime binge?
The Good Place. Ted Danson is my inspiration.
Most used emoji in conversation:
The heart from the card-playing symbols. I just like that red better.
Musician (of any time period, today included) you’d most like to meet:
Paul Robeson, Jr.
Out of these names, play “Date, Marry, or Make Disappear”: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Willie Nelson
I’ve gotta go with Jochanaan, Jochanaan, Jochanaan.
Ready to see Melanie Henley Heyn in Salome? Get showtimes and tickets here.