Atom Egoyan on ‘Salome,’ His Latest Opera Production: “It Will Always Be Shocking”

Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan, seen here at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019, returns to the opera with a new production of 'Salome' in Toronto. Photo: Rocco Spaziani/Archivio Rocco Spaziani/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

“I’m about to go into an intense period,” says Atom Egoyan, which is a little like saying human beings need oxygen.

Egoyan, in fact, is almost the dictionary definition of “intense.”

Not to mention “prolific,” “artistically provocative” and “insanely creative.” Other adjectives: author, theatre director, librettist, art show curator, mentor, screenwriter and producer.

Of all his roles, he is best known as an idiosyncratic filmmaker, with two Oscar nominations — Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay — for The Sweet Hereafter, his breakthrough 1997 film that also won the Grand Prix at Cannes and a slew of critics’ awards.

These days, the 62-year-old has been preparing his new production of Salome for the Canadian Opera Company, which opens Friday (Feb. 3) at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Egoyan first directed the one-act Richard Strauss opera about the eponymous Biblical princess — step-daughter of King Herod — and the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist for the COC in 1996. Speaking to Zoomer while on his way to rehearsal, he says of his 1996 interpretation of Salome that “things went too far in that production. It was very provocative at the time.”

He has, he notes, “recalibrated” for the times we live in today. “The tone has shifted.”

Whereas Salome was portrayed as a victim in an abusive relationship with Herod in the original 1996 production, in 2023 she is given more agency.

“She is not there to entice the male figure and that is most evident in ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils.’ Some might say it is less shocking now, but even though the tone has shifted, it will always be shocking.”

Salome, Egoyan says, “is an extreme story of obsession and what happens when you feel you are destined to be with someone you can’t have.”

He recalls that feeling from his youth in Victoria, where his Armenian family lived after emigrating from Egypt, where he was born.

About his “formative adolescent experience,” he explains, “I was very obsessed with this woman who was unavailable to me. We had a strong bond. I found out later that she was being abused by her father but that wasn’t discussed in our community.”


Michael Schade as Herod and Karita Mattila as Herodias, mother of Salome, in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of ‘Salome.’ Photo: Michael Cooper


Secrets, family dysfunction, obsession and emotional hunger are all part of Egoyan’s repertoire and have been since his first feature movie, Next of Kin, premiered in 1984 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

And unlike his production of Salome, Egoyan himself has not changed much since starting out as a fledgling filmmaker. He remains as driven, as intense, as fascinated with probing the mysteries of being human.

“People tell me to slow down, that I’m trying to do too much,” he admits, “but you have to be driven to tell these stories.”

Many of the stories that interest him are about people watching other people and the notion of surveillance — observing, witnessing, monitoring.

Although he is not on social media, he says he’s “fascinated with what technology represents. Technology can both enhance and torment us.”

While preparing for the first production of Salome in 1996, he was also working on The Sweet Hereafter, released the following year.

The opera was a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and, while he was directing it there, in a time before digital editing, VHS tapes of The Sweet Hereafter were being shipped back and forth between Toronto and Houston.

“But we managed to do it and get it ready for Cannes.

“You can never have too many balls in the air,” he adds.

Now the worlds of opera and film are colliding again for him, as he is starting work on a new film, yet to be announced.

“Filmmaking is a very different game than opera, where the structure is given to me to do my work. Film consumes you. Making independent films has become very challenging, working at a certain level and a certain budget.”


Ambur Braid stars as Salome in the new Canadian Opera Company’s production. Photo: Michael Cooper


As well, this year Egoyan is writer in residence at Toronto Metropolitan University, “offering my experiences on the frontline, how to deal with situations, the mechanics of getting a film made, story craft.

“A script has to make clear to other people why they should join you on this voyage.”

What would Egoyan tell his younger self?

He pauses to give it some thought.

“Part of me would have told my younger self not to stress so much, that things would fall into place. But given the limits of my own talents, I had to work really hard to be here. So I’m not sure if that would be good advice. All those stresses led me to this body of work. I had to accept that there were people who were not going to like what I did and I found the allies that I needed to do the things I needed to do.”

He settles on the best advice he could give the young artist he was.

“I would’ve told myself that you can’t please everybody and you don’t have to please everybody.”

Salome opens Feb. 3 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and follows with six additional performances through Feb. 24. Click here for more information.


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