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The Salome Scandals of 1907

JOHN YOHALEM offers the inside story of why the Met's first Salome production was shut down after just a single performance.

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Salome's implacable foe;
Fremstad, who sang
Salome at the Met
premiere

© Metropolitan Opera Archives
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The Met's first Salome Production
© Metropolitan Opera Archives
We don't know exactly what it was that horrified Mrs. Herbert Satterlee at the final rehearsal of Richard Strauss's Salome at the Metropolitan Opera House, after church on Sunday afternoon, January 20, 1907. She never explained it in any form that has come down to us. She probably did not attend the premiere the following Tuesday night, after which the Met announced three further non-subscription performances, all of them quickly sold out. We do know, however, that after attending the Sunday dress rehearsal, she went in fury to her father. Her father was J. P. Morgan.

Morgan was a member of the board of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company, and he summoned a special meeting for the earliest possible date, Wednesday, January 23. The minutes are regrettably discreet; they do not detail the arguments brought forward for or against the final resolution - only what that resolution was. Heinrich Conried, general manager of the opera company that managed the Real Estate Company's flagship property, was requested to cancel the three remaining performances of Salome. He was further enjoined from staging the opera anywhere else under the Met name. Morgan offered to reimburse Conried for the sets and costumes, a sop Conried coldly refused. He could ill afford to do so - he had lost nineteen full productions the previous April in the earthquake that greeted the Metropolitan Opera visit to San Francisco and had had to rebuild them from scratch.

We do possess some of the correspondence that passed between Conried and the board. He pointed out that Kaiser Wilhelm II, head of the German Protestant Church, had permitted Salome in Berlin. He noted that John the Baptist, the only sacred figure in the drama, was treated there with great respect. Music-loving members of the board begged Morgan to relent. And the prohibition, however justified, long survived him. Morgan died in 1913. Eight years later, when Maria Jeritza, Vienna's first Salome, joined the Metropolitan, board member Otto Kahn hoped to revive the Strauss opus for her. No dice. The Met did not hear Salome again until 1934.

The lingering ban is all the odder considering that New York saw plenty of Salome. In 1909, Mary Garden danced and sang the opera - in French - at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House, and she returned to New York with it twice in the ensuing decade, with her own Chicago Opera Company. (Curiously enough, all the critics who had thundered a mere two years earlier about the "immorality" of presenting the piece by this time confined themselves to discussing the music.) At other theaters, Salomes danced, Salomes sang, Salomes made movies, but no Salome of any description played the Met. Even the loss of Elektra in 1909 (outraged by the Met's behavior, Strauss gave that opera's American premiere to Hammerstein) did not change the minds of the Met's guardians.

Back in 1903, when Conried, the ambitious impresario of several theater companies, had taken over the Metropolitan, the Real Estate Company had had many requirements: to produce the best possible opera with the best possible singers, of course (but not too much Wagner, especially on Mondays, society nights - they set a quota), and to introduce "novelties." The last demand may surprise us, but in those days new works were still joining the repertory. The board members often went to Europe, and they knew what was getting attention there. They wanted Puccini and his verismo ilk, and the new French school, Debussy and Gustave Charpentier. They wanted music unknown in New York.

Conried's first coup - a triumph of salesmanship and theater management justifying a reconstruction of the theater's stage and equipment according to the most modern principles - was the company premiere of Wagner's Parsifal, on December 24, 1903. Parsifal was twenty years old, its music known from concert performances and pilgrimages to Bayreuth, but Cosima Wagner had forbidden its staging in any theater other than the Master's own. Cosima's appeals to public sentiment, to the law courts, to the Kaiser, and to several Wagnerian groups who begged the mayor of New York to intervene were unavailing. The show went on, splendidly, though Conried's choice of Christmas Eve for it struck some observers as insensitive.

So many of Conried's undertakings after Parsifal went awry that one might almost suspect Cosima of invoking supernatural malice. Madama Butterfly, though a success, could not claim to be the U.S. premiere - an English-language company down the street scooped the Met by some months. Conried's ambition to start a national repertory theater fizzled. The tour to San Francisco had barely begun when the city fell down. Back in New York, vaudeville impresario Hammerstein had built a rival opera house on Thirty-fourth Street and signed a brilliant roster, including Nellie Melba, Alessandro Bonci and Maurice Renaud - with Luisa Tetrazzini and Mary Garden to follow in subsequent seasons. Furthermore, Conried's health had begun to suffer from something his doctor called "sciatic neuritis." Once a tireless micromanager, he now walked with a crutch, heard vocal rehearsals at home and ceased to be on top of day-to-day decisions.

But he entered the 1906-07 season with several aces to play. Puccini was bringing Butterfly and Manon Lescaut; Caruso, in Giordano's Fedora, would revolutionize male headgear; and every eye on the board brightened when Conried announced an agreement with Europe's most admired hothead, Richard Strauss. Salome was the talk of Germany. With the story's sacrilegious overtones and the libretto's origins, at a time when Oscar Wilde's name was unmentionable in polite society and "Salome dancers," forerunners of striptease with oriental trappings, thronged the midways of America, Salome had built-in notoriety.

A superb cast, led by the American Wagnerian Olive Fremstad, was hired and rehearsed, with a principal ballerina, Bianca Froelich, prepared to slip in and perform the dance (following European practice). Great care was taken over sets, lighting, staging. As a fond gesture to his backers, Conried opened the final dress rehearsal to the board and their families.

The first clear misjudgment was the timing of that rehearsal. Sunday was not an opera day in New York, and managers of the Met used the empty stage to present singers, pianists, violinists in concert. New York's upper crust had barely emerged from church services and Sunday dinner when Strauss's cacophonous depiction of lust and bloodthirst run amok was hurled in their faces - at least that is how Mrs. Satterlee, and many others, seem to have taken it. Two days later, the work was placed before the audience and won musical praise from critics, and from enough of the public to assure a sellout run - though everyone who commented in print felt obliged to mention queasiness with the opera's theme.

Reading between the lines today - in a world inured to shock - can we deduce what the trouble was?

W. J. Henderson of the Evening Sun is our star witness - he attended both the infamous rehearsal and the subsequent premiere. His four articles on the rehearsal, the premiere, the ban and the aftermath are intriguing, as he struggles to balance his admiration for the composer's ability and the musicianship of Olive Fremstad and Carl Burrian (as Salome and Herod) with his disgust at the enterprise and at the management's appeals to high art to justify what was perceived to be arrant sensationalism.

Henderson alerts us to a fact little mentioned in accounts of the event: someone, or someones, were out of control on Sunday. By Tuesday, drastic changes were being made.

The points of special dispute were two: the dance of the seven veils, and Salome's kiss of the decapitated head. "At the rehearsal," Henderson tells us, "the dance was performed in a striking manner. It appears that someone feared that it might be too striking. Accordingly, at the first public performance of the opera it was greatly modified, though even when Miss Froelich toned down the wriggles, she spared the audience nothing in the matter of active and suggestive detail. The dance of the seven veils ought to embody Salome's fascination for Herod by the gradual disclosure of more and more of her personal charms, but the real purpose of the exhibition was the introduction of a dance which was long ago known from the Bowery to Coney Island and has since been forbidden by the police."

Even the dance did not shock him quite so much as did the opera's climactic moments: "Miss Fremstad as Salome coddled the severed head a good deal more [on Sunday] than she did on Tuesday night. She rolled around on the stage with it and slobbered over it and talked baby talk to it. But on Tuesday night she moderated her transports. The society women viewed the spectacle with perfect calmness. Some even kept their opera glasses glued on the action." (Perhaps Mrs. Satterlee would have been mollified had she returned.)

On Tuesday there was less to see and, especially, less light to see it by. "The stage direction is, 'It grows entirely dark.' After twelve bars in the score the voice of Salome enters with the words, 'Ah, I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan!' … The repulsive act of the abnormal girl was never intended to be thrust upon the sight of the audience. Mr. Strauss's music would not shock a sensitive mind if it were dissociated from … the sight of the woman fondling the hideous object. It must have been the intention that the whole episode, including the caress of the dead lips, be plainly seen.… The shuddering horror of the concealed act, leaving something to the imagination, would be far more powerful in its effect than the bare nastiness of the scene as performed at the Metropolitan."

A note in Henderson's final piece on the subject provides, perhaps, a clue to the disaster: "Mr. Conried's illness and enforced absence from the opera house may possibly have some bearing on the mistakes made there." The mighty impresario, confined to hearing singers rehearse in his home, evidently allowed trusted lieutenants to get out of hand. He may not have known what was up until that unusual Sunday afternoon. He commanded changes, and compliance was instant - but too late.

Nobody likes a head on the plate right after Sunday dinner.

JOHN YOHALEM is a New York-based writer on the arts and history.

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