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Operapedia: Salome 

HENRY STEWART sorts out Strauss’s titillating shocker, so you won’t lose your head trying to do the same.

Operapedia Strauss Portrait lg 615  The Basics

The titular stepdaughter of King Herod wants so badly to kiss the devoutly celibate John the Baptist that, after the king offers her a reward for a tantalizing dance, she demands John’s head.


First Performances  

Thirteen months after it opened, in Dresden, Salome had its New York premiere at the Met — one performance, in January 1907 (twenty days before the Met debut of Madama Butterfly). It wouldn’t be heard at the house again for almost thirty years, thanks to pressure from board-member J. P. Morgan, whose daughter caught the final rehearsal — on a Sunday! — and was scandalized, maybe by the suggestive dance and/or Salome’s erotic molestation of the Baptist’s severed head. The Evening Sun reported that soprano Olive Fremstad “rolled around on the stage with it and slobbered over it and talked baby talk to it.” The Swedish Wagnerian, whom PBS once called “The Maria Callas of her day,” was Method before there was a Method: to prepare, it was said she visited a morgue to gauge how much a disembodied head really weighed.
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Reactions

It wasn’t just the Morgans who were upset; the opera’s sexualized story of a saint made it quite a scandal wherever it was performed (and also sold tickets, making Strauss rich and stabilizing the troubled Oscar Wilde estate). As late as 1918, a production in Vienna was canceled after intervention by the Austrian prelate. The music also proved controversial. “[Salome] appeared either as a revolutionary new work of unheard-of boldness, opening up new perspectives and pointing toward a triumphant future,” an OPERA NEWS article explained in 1949, “or as a shocking, dissonant, cacophonous piece of musical writing, one of those newfangled modernisms in music against which perhaps there ought to be a law.”

 

SPOILER ALERT
Strauss’s greatest transgression is his subversion of Christian morality. His (and Wilde’s) John the Baptist is unlikable, a pious scold, going on about the sanctity of his body-temple and his support for traditional marriage. But Salome’s passion has real appeal, thanks to Strauss’s seductive music. The Baptist’s sanctimonious repression, however, curdles her desire into madness. Decapitation is where her sexuality and his spirituality overlap — the intersection of perversion and martyrdom.
 

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Hit Tune  

Strauss’s music for the dance of the seven veils has endured. The name, and thus the gist, came from Wilde, likely influenced by Eastern-inspired excitements then gaining traction in the West, such as belly dancing. Wilde’s stage-instructions were vague; so are Strauss’s, but the haunting, erotic orientalist music speaks clearly. The scene quickly became iconic, ushering in a period of “Salomania.” (You could catch twenty-four “Salome acts” in New York City in October 1908.) This despite Strauss’s disregarded wish that it should be danced chastely — “a pure oriental dance, as serious as possible and thoroughly decent, as if on a prayer mat.” Instead, he and Wilde fathered the modern striptease.

Time and Place

The story comes from the Bible — sort of. Matthew and Mark both mention a daughter of Herodias whose dance ca. 30 C.E. for her stepfather, King Herod, ended with the Baptist’s beheading. But the historical Salome and this unnamed stepchild may not have been the same person. In any event, roughly 700,000 days later, in 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote a play in French that expanded on the episode (and similar artistic and literary treatments); a German translation of the play, with some trimming, became Strauss’s libretto. Wilde’s work later preoccupied Al Pacino, who starred as Herod in two Broadway productions, directed a quasidocumentary about the play and has announced a new West End production for 2016

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Operapedia Nadja Michel Salome lg 615 

Surprise Showstopper 

The final scene — showcasing Salome’s pitiable and horrifying madness as she canoodles with the head — is riveting music-drama, wickedly evoking opera’s greatest romance, Tristan und Isolde, with Strauss crafting a new Liebestod (love-death) for the twentieth century. (Nadja Michael’s 2008 performance at Covent Garden, available on DVD, is particularly spectacular.) But of course this scene is great: the shocking conclusion is the core of Wilde’s play and the crux of the opera. More unexpectedly engrossing, perhaps, is the end of Scene 3, when Salome and the Baptist trade subtly sour Romantic arias — hers in praise of him, his odes to God, their parallelism suggesting that faith and physical desire spring from the same imperfect place.

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In Pop Culture
Mid-twentieth-century Hollywood Biblical epics often featured depictions of Salome more inspired by Strauss and Wilde than by the Gospels. In King of Kings (1961), Brigid Bazlen wiggles her butt with her arms in the air and turns around a lot, like someone who has only ever read about sexuality in books now trying it out for the first time. And she’s still more persuasive than Rita Hayworth in Salome (1953). Dressed in colorful clown handkerchiefs, the bombshell waves her arms, lifts her dress, spins around, rolls on the floor and smiles, over and over again, for three long minutes. Charles Laughton’s amazingly lecherous reaction shots make it seem a whole lot racier than it really is.

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The Performance We Wish We’d Seen  

Renowned experimental English theater director Peter Brook caused one of his earliest scandals in 1949 when he staged a macabre Salome at Covent Garden — with surreal sets by Salvador Dalí. Ljuba Welitsch sang the title role with her ideal-for-Salome soprano, as silvery as the platter for John’s head. (Welitsch was so famous for her interpretation that “Salome” appears on her tombstone larger than her own name.) It makes you yearn for a time machine, even though the production didn’t go over well at the time. “The decapitated head looked like a large steamed pudding,” critic Ernest Newman wrote. (It took two of his weekly columns to register his distaste.) Critic Arthur Notcutt called the production “bizarre and ugly,” but those two words are not necessarily pejorative. They aptly describe the astonishing and brutal opera itself!

 

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Something Completely Different

British dancer Lindsay Kemp, a favorite of David Bowie, staged and starred in a drag version of Wilde’s Salome in 1975, with “the Syrian soldier portrayed by a naked blond model in a gold lamé jockstrap … [and] ketchup packets bursting when Salome’s mouth meets that of the decapitated head,” Laurence Senelick wrote in The Changing Room. “All Salome productions thereafter, including those of Ken Russell and Steven Berkoff, have been pallid imitations.” Russell, a controversial British film director, had destroyed his relationship with the BBC in 1970 after making Dance of the Seven Veils, an outlandish, derisive and mocking portrait of Strauss that was shown once before being denounced by members of English parliament and scuttled by the composer’s estate.

 

Where It Is This Season  

In June, five productions will be seen in Vienna, Mexico City, Bonn, Detmold and Prague. A new belle-époque-inspired production arrives in Santa Fe in July, with soprano Alex Penda. spacer 

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