Why Strauss's Salome Matters

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Richard Strauss turns 148 this week. He is one of those composers who, like Mozart, has many landmark compositions to his name. And Salome is perhaps his most famous one-act opera, thanks to a world premiere in 1906 that counted among its attendees Schoenberg, Berg, Mahler, Puccini and possibly Hitler.

The story tells of Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who seduces her stepfather/uncle Herod, governor of Judea, with a salacious dance. In return, he promises her the head of the prophet John the Baptist. While much has already been made about the heady, seductive and controversial dance (a few productions have included nudity), the buzz is aptly warranted.

In Salome, Strauss created one of the world’s most perfect operas. It may not have been the first opera (not by a long shot) to be based on a play—a tradition that continues today, with light recently cast on a new opera based on John Patrick Shanley’s drama Doubt. But it’s an opera that takes its inherent dramatic impulses and elevates them from a merely theatrical to a vividly operatic form. One of the best ways of examining this is through the entrances of each character.

In writing opera, one of the biggest challenges composers and librettists face is crafting an overarching scenario and individual situations that give their characters the impulse to sing: There have to be some pretty big stakes at hand to leave personages with no other means of satisfactory expression than song. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be fraught with pathos or angst—the presentation of the rose in Der Rosenkavalier is brought on by ceremony, pomp and the sparks of new, true love on the part of Sophie and Octavian. Likewise, in that same opera the Italian tenor sings because that’s his preferred means of expression and you get the sense that he would rather convey all meaning that way, so in love is he with the sound of his own voice.

But Salome takes whatever festering impulses lie in Oscar Wilde’s source text, adapted faithfully by Hedwig Lachmann, and makes them go to 11. The first line: “How lovely is the Princess Salome tonight!” comes from a lust so omnipotent on the part of Narraboth, a side character in the drama, that the burst comes forth in an almost orgasmic way. Likewise, the Page’s reply, noting how strange the moon looks—“like a woman risen from the grave”—complements the soldier’s erotic reverie with a sense of foreboding and fear. It hints almost immediately at the looming spectre of the Princess’s demise.

The arguing offstage of Strauss’s Jews is expressed by two soldiers, one who is irritated and confused by the noise, the other irritated by the constant quarrels over religion. These four separate lines move together and are then broken by the first time we hear Jochanaan—offstage—singing out of his own religious convictions, delivering a booming, subterranean prophecy. Is there any more exciting first line to sing, to set the tone of your character, than “After me will come one who is stronger than me”? Is there any larger-than-life mode of conveying that sentiment than by singing? When we first encounter Jochanaan in the flesh, as it were, that prophesizing doesn’t stop.

Or perhaps rebellion in another sense, coming from Salome herself, is more your speed as she spits out  “I will not stay. I cannot stay” as her first lines. She may as well be singing “We’re not gonna take it” at the top of her lungs in her bedroom while her parents sit uncomfortably downstairs hoping that the teenage angst phase will blow over sooner rather than later. With her music, her entrance changes the tempo and tenor of the scene. It’s another first line that indicates another force has come into the rampant and wanton collision of wants between each of Strauss’s (and Wilde’s) characters.

The slave sings out of duty, and perhaps a fear on his own part that if he fails in the task of bringing Salome back to Herod’s party he will be the one to pay for her petulance. And, of course, there is Salome’s mother and uncle-slash-stepfather to contend with in the fourth scene. As we expect with the slave’s motivation, Herod comes onstage in search of Salome, confused and angered at the fact that he—a king—does not get what he commands. His full want for his stepdaughter-niece comes through in his skittish swell of music, while his wife asserts her own dominance in the marriage by forbidding her new husband to look at her daughter. Assertive declarations all around.

Theirs is a domestic argument, one that helps to bring about the entire finale of the opera. As I mentioned before, conflict is apparent when you have a collision of wants. So many of these impulses to sing are brought on by each individual character’s wants (a trend anyone, opera fan or not, can easily spot in music with the omnipresent “I want” songs in Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Hercules). Top-shelf emotions set the flames of music in motion for Strauss, but the original spark comes from the varied, violent desires.

It’s enough to make you lose your head.