EARLIER THIS YEAR the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra announced plans to regularly feature opera music in its annual programme, beginning with the 2004/05 season. Next month will see the first of such concerts, the 20th-century one-act classic Salome. Richard Strauss' work, based on Oscar Wilde's portrayal of the self-obsessed, neurotic daughter of King Herod and her obsession with John the Baptist, was originally criticised for being unconventional and immoral. But the work has been performed by every major opera house since its premier in 1905. HKPO artistic director and chief conductor Edo de Waart said there were many reasons for presenting certain operas in concert. The operas of Wagner and Strauss, in particular, worked superbly in concert because the two composers used the orchestra to set the scene and tell the story. 'Without the distraction of the scenery, costumes and acting, the music is allowed to engage the imagination of the audience and to take you deep into the drama and into each character,' de Waart noted. 'Wagner and Strauss used a compositional technique in which each character, place and event had its own theme, or leitmotif, which recurs in the music throughout the opera. These themes are related to each other and transform themselves as the characters and the action develops. 'By making the music the primary focus of the performance, these musical details are revealed much more fully, especially as the orchestra will be on stage and not in the pit.' Operas performed in concert are a unique art form and pose a challenge for both conductors and musicians. The orchestral writing becomes every bit as important as the words to the songs (and often more so), and tremendous demands are placed on virtually every member of an orchestra and the singers. 'In the case of Salome, the soprano taking the title role has to have incredible vocal stamina to survive the evening, especially with more than 100 musicians behind her,' said de Waart. Soprano Susan Bullock, who has recently sung at opera houses in Bonn, New York and London, was chosen for the lead role. De Waart said: 'There are very few sopranos in the world who can sing this role ...Together with a gloriously full dramatic soprano sound, [Bullock] has a wonderfully expressive range and a great freshness to her voice, which brings out the youthful nature of Salome.' The HKPO has never performed a concert comparable to Salome with a cast of such strength, but de Waart is confident the performance will blow the audience away. 'My greatest hope is that people will be so knocked out by this experience that they will want to come back next season,' the conductor said. Salome will be performed on January 20, 22 and 24 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. Tickets cost $680, $480, $340, and $220 from Urbtix (2734 9009) or Cityline Credit Card booking (2111 5999).