I have known and been mesmerized by Salome, the music of Richard Strauss and the wit of Oscar Wilde for more than a quarter of a century and I'm thrilled to finally try my hand at this mighty work! As my old teacher Norman Del Mar puts it, the opera is "an electrifying portrayal in perversion." From the opening, delicately fluttering clarinet theme to the destructive, brutal thuds as the entire orchestra crushes the life from Salome, Strauss holds the audience in a vice-like grip.
From the moment this work premiered in Dresden, Germany, on December 9, 1905, its power to shock has gone virtually unchallenged in Opera literature (with the exceptions, perhaps, of Wozzeck and Lulu).
The source material is a remarkable stage play by Oscar Wilde. The celebrated, yet controversial, author was born in 1854 and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, in addition to Oxford. He married Constance May Lloyd in 1884, with whom he had two sons. In 1890, Wilde published his most famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey. Two years later, Wilde fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensbury. Soon thereafter, Wilde wrote the play, Salome, in French; a work later banned by the Lord Chamberlain in London, under a rule which forbade the portrayal of Biblical figures on stage.
In 1895, Wilde had two hit plays running on the London stage: An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. He sued the Marquess of Queensbury for libel (in connection with his love affair), lost the case and was ultimately arrested. Wilde's first trial for the crime of homosexuality ended without a verdict, a retrial found him guilty and the author was sentenced to two years, hard labor‹taking away his freedom and ending his career. Wilde was released from prison, a broken man, and died in Paris in 1900: divorced, abandoned by his peers, and bankrupt. Yet, even while suffering from cerebral meningitis on his deathbed, his wit remained, as evidenced by such comments as "It's the wallpaper or me‹one of us has to go."
So, what exactly has Wilde's sad fate and tragic end to do with Salome? Wilde became obsessed with the young Salome in Paris in the early 1890's. The "City of Lights" had exhibited the works of Gustave Moreau, who painted a famous 1876 portrait of Salome dancing before Herod. Meanwhile, in the French publishing world, two works appeared that also sparked Wilde's imagination: Joris Karl Huysman's A Rebours and the Herodiade of Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarm_. These works elaborated on the Gospel accounts of Saints Matthew and Mark, in much more decadent detail.
Two other source poems need to be noted: Heinrich Heine's "Atta Troll" (a rather verbose poem written in 1843) and American J.C. Heywood's 1862 poem "Salome."
Due to the risky subject matter, he wrote his play in French and permitted his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, to then translate the play into English. Word got back to the Marquess of Queensbury (same fellow who invented the rules of boxing) who was not going to stand for his son consorting with homosexuals. The enraged aristocrat dropped Wilde a note accusing him of being a 'somdomite' (sic) and the legal battles commenced.
Try to imagine Oscar Wilde walking the streets of Paris obsessing about Salome:
"The women in the (French) streets seemed possible princesses of Israel to him. If he passed the Rue de la Paix, he would examine the jewelry shops for proper adornment for her. One afternoon he asked, 'Don't you think she would be better naked?' Yes, totally naked, but draped with heavy and ringing necklaces made of jewels of every color, warm with the fervor of her amber flesh. I don't conceive of her as unconscious, serving as a mute instrument. No, her lips in Leonardo's painting disclose the cruelty of her soul. Her lust must needs be infinite, and her perversity without limits. Her pearls must expire on her flesh." (Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 1988)
Now, imagine the scene at the dress rehearsal of Salome at Covent Garden in the early 1990's during the extremely ugly divorce proceedings of Sir Peter Hall and soprano Maria Ewing. Having danced a tremendous "Dance of the Seven Veils," Maria stripped down to nothing and headed to the footlights‹defying her former husband's stage direction, as the poor tenor singing Herod attempted to "go on with the show." I don't think we will be treated to anything that provocative in Dallas, but, the piece has always inspired a strong audience response.
The orchestration is vast: we will squeeze 85 players into the pit at Music Hall, including six horns, a vast battery of percussion and the heckelphone (bass oboe). The scoring is full of exotic effects; Strauss was trying to create true Oriental color and a sense of scorching sun. Most disturbing of all is the moment when the executioner enters the cistern to sever the head of John the Baptist. There is just a bass drum roll, tremolando Double Basses on a low E-flat and then the Principal Bass player has to play short high B-flats marked "piano sforzato."
On stage, time stands still as the adolescent princess is granted her wish: She danced for Herod after he swore an oath and now she obtains her payment‹the head on a serving platter. Having been rejected by John whilst he was living, she is still filled with desire for the Baptist. In the closing pages, as we look on in horror, she kisses the dead man's lips, blood pouring from his severed neck.
Ghastly, but riveting, theater.
A final note: In order for the audience to be able to hear the singers, Strauss advised future conductors to conduct Elektra and Salome as if they were written by Mendelssohn. I will give it my best shot!
When the German Kaiser heard what Strauss was up to he reportedly said:
"I am sorry Strauss composed this Salome. It will do him a great deal of harm."
In truth, it brought the composer immense wealth and allowed him to build his magnificent house in Garmisch in Southern Bavaria. It was the musical establishment who decided that after writing Elektra, (to quote NDM): "he was gradually to retreat towards the comfortable estate of respectability."
And regarding the late Mr. Wilde: Sometime after his death, the offending wallpaper was, in fact, permanently removed.
Graeme Jenkins is Music Director of the Dallas Opera