Is Richard Strauss’ controversial opera Salome just about sensationalism?
Gruesome scenes are abound in opera, but none can be more blood curdling than when Salome, having cast off her veils while dancing before thelustful Herod, kisses the severed head of John the Baptist in a fit of orgiastic passion. It is where sex and death meet in the most provocative of ways in opera, and where taboos of incest and underage sex are revealed. Little wonder that Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, based on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name, was banned in Vienna and London following its Dresden premiere in 1905, and withdrawn in New York soon after showing there. There is no doubt that Strauss deliberately set out to create a sensationalist opera in Salome, just as Wilde, as a leading writer in the decadent movement, attempted to forge beauty out of horror in his play. But is Salome just about sensationalism, and if so, how does an opera director today approach it in a world apparently inured to all things shocking? Setting the opera in an abattoir certainly seems a good fi rst step in driving home the point that Herod’s world is that of a despotic psychopath who holds no value for human life. Gale Edwards, whose acclaimed production of Salome is being staged by State Opera of South Australia in August, explains why she chose the scene of a slaughterhouse. “In the first five minutes there’s the suicide of Captain of the Guard, Narraboth. Herod slides on the bloody floor, and this sets up the kind of world you’re in. I find that extraordinary. As a director, you have to solve that.” However, most talk about Edwards’ production – which has played in Sydney and Melbourne – has centred on her radically bold reinterpretation of the Dance of the Seven Veils. This is where Salome agrees to dance beforeHerod on condition that he will grant her anything she wants, even half his kingdom. Typically, her nine-minute solo dance routine to one of Strauss’s most luridly sensual scores serves as the opera’s erotic highpoint. Edwards says that as a female director she had to totally reconceive this dance: “It did not interest me to have this scene basically being a striptease. Salome is supposed to have been 14 or 15, a fresh pubescent, yet her exceptionally demanding vocal role calls for singers who are in their 40s or 50s. When they have taken off all their clothes it is hard to see what Herod is lusting after. Plus this is totally distasteful to me as a woman. “I found a more metaphorical way of doing it, where instead of the seven veils coming off until she is naked, I looked at stereotypical roles that men find titillating, like the whore, the Madonna and so on, which she discards one by one.” Edwards agrees that Salome is a deliberately sensationalist opera but maintains there is more to the opera than just this. “I see it as multi-layered. Yes it’s sensationalist, it is grotesque. However, it is a biblical story, so perhaps one could say the Bible is sensationalist. I spent a great deal of time examining the piece. Its darkness, its dealing with taboos, are the very reasons Strauss was drawn to Wilde’s retelling of the story. But what you do is dig deeper. Salome is actually about the transference of power. What Herod doesn’t realise is that Salome is a smart cookie. She’s inherited acumen and cunning from her parents, so when he promises her the world, she hoists him on his own petard. He’s agreed to give her anything she wants by dancing for him, so she demands John the Baptist’s head on a platter. He has no choice but to agree. “Then she sings alone for 25 minutes with this bleeding head in her hands, which to me is one of the most daring moments in all opera. Salome is saying, ‘I can have you, I can kiss this man who is foretelling the Messiah, you are utterly in my power’. From that moment Herod is stripped of his power and his only recourse is to kill her. I find this all very interesting. In all my theatre work, I’ve enjoyed stories that inhabit dark places and explore the hideousness of the human soul.” Edwards insists she is no apologist for Salome. “What she does is shocking, and it is pretty well impossible to whitewash Salome. But what you can understand where she comes from and the sins of her past. Her mother is a notorious whore, her father a tyrannical lunatic. There is no sign of a moral centre in her life.” Salome remains the 20th century’s most controversial opera, she says. “This opera is unique even for Strauss. He played his hands right into the fire for it and created something staggeringly new. It is as shocking now just as it was in 1905, and it feels incredibly modern, both in its story and in its music.” Salome State Opera of South Australia Saturday, August 24 to Saturday, 31 Festival Theatre saopera.sa.gov.au