An Opera with Shock Factor

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It’s 1907 and the audience at the Metropolitan Opera awaits the American premiere of a new opera by Richard Strauss.  The audience is so disturbed by the production that it closes after one performance.  What was most shocking to them?  The atonal qualities in the music?  The erotic nature of the title character?  The disturbing ending of the opera as Salome sings to the severed head of John the Baptist, kisses it and is then killed by Herod’s soldiers?  Maybe all of it was too much.  Pittsburgh Opera continues its season with this 20th century masterpiece that has survived the test of time.  Even so, the shock factor still remains.

The opera is presented in one act with no intermission which enhances the emotional wallop we feel at the end.  We are swept up in the story of the impetuous teenager (Salome) who manipulates her step-father (Herod) to get what she wants.  Salome has already been rejected by John the Baptist who refuses to give in to her wishes to touch and kiss him.  Salome only gets what she desires by dancing for Herod, the famous Dance of the Seven Veils, which leads to the opera’s horrific end.

Explore more about Salome through the CD, DVD and book recommendations on this list.  If you go to see the show at Pittsburgh Opera, you will have the chance to see a current force on the opera scene, Patricia Racette, in the title role.  Consider the opera a late Halloween present.

Salome (1991)

This recording features the dynamic female duo of Cheryl Studer in the title role and Leonie Rysanek, a soprano who also sang the title role, as her mother, Herodias.

Salome (1985)

Birgit Nilsson reigned for years as the Salome of note.  This recording, powered by the colorful orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti, still makes an impact after over 50 years.

Salome (2011)

This DVD, part of the Metropolitan Opera HD Live series that airs in movie theaters across the U.S., showcases Karita Mattila in the title role.  Mattila is considered by many to be born to play Salome.

Salome (2001)

Maria Ewing’s fully-committed performance as Salome, including her quite sultry Dance of the Seven Veils, is the selling point for this production.

Salome/Elektra

The English National Opera guides are a great way to prepare to see any opera.  This guide includes several introductory essays about the work and a side-by-side German and English translation of the libretto.

Richard Strauss: A Musical Life

Holden explores Strauss as a composer, but also as a conductor, a role often overlooked in other biographies.  Strauss really saw composing and conducting as intrinsically connected.  Holden’s access to the Strauss family’s private archives allows a vivid portrait of an artist and a man to be revealed.

The Complete Operas of Richard Strauss

Osborne easily guides the reader through the operatic output of Strauss, just as he did in similar books about the operas of Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner.  His examination of Salome details the creation of the work and its premiere, provides information about the source material (the Bible and Wilde’s play) and gives a synopsis of the plot interspersed with discussion of the musical motifs.  Excerpts from Strauss’ letters pepper the text, adding wonderful background information.  An interesting fact: Salome’s American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1907 caused such a furor that the production was withdrawn after one performance.

Richard Strauss, Salome

This work is part of the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series, an invaluable set of works for the opera fan and scholar.  A synopsis of the opera and analyses of the musical themes are presented in two of the essays.  The other essays are quite intriguing, especially one about Strauss’ abilities as a librettist and another that debates if the opera is art or kitsch.

The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss

Morten Kristiansen’s essay, “Strauss’s Road to Operatic Success,” focuses on the early operatic works of Strauss, including Salome.  The author points out the myriad reactions to the work including moral outrage and the cold reception by most music critics.  Later essays take up Strauss’ place in the musical canon of the twentieth century and the composer’s own views about making a living as a musician.  An important scholarly work.