Five Most Notorious Performances of Strauss's 'Dance of the Seven Veils'

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Rita Hayworth, Fanny Brice and Daisy Duck all have sashayed through their own versions of Salome’s "Dance of the Seven Veils." Still, some of the most notorious performances of this biblical scene have come on the opera stage. In celebration of Strauss's 150th birth anniversary, we've collected the top five infamous renditions of this lurid routine.

1. Mary Garden

The Scottish-born American-raised soprano Mary Garden was one of the first Salomes to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils." Most singers, including the first one, Marie Wittich, were relieved by a trained dancer. Garden sang the role at the Manhattan Opera House in 1908, one year after the Metropolitan Opera staged the infamous American premiere and subsequently canceled remaining performances.

Garden’s performances provided an alternative venue for New York audiences to hear Strauss’s music and see her strip down to a body stocking. Previewing Garden’s arrival in New York that year, the New York Times wrote, “Mary appears in a small piece of nearly transparent flesh-colored silk. Her feet are bare, her arms are bare, and—really it is impossible to describe this costume." Two years later, Garden’s Salome would shock Chicago audiences, as well.


2. Maria Ewing

In 1986, Maria Ewing, a renowned Salome, caused a stir when she went for the full Monty in a stylishly Art Nouveau production at the Los Angeles Opera. Directed by her husband at the time, Sir Peter Hall, Ewing was praised for her on-stage daring as well as her rich voice. The production traveled to Chicago and London—the DVD of the Royal Opera House production is still a classic, though Ewing may be less than thrilled that the video clip is available online.


3. Ljuba Welitsch

When Ljuba Welitsch (nicknamed the Bulgarian Bombshell) rose to fame in the late 1940s as the Salome of her generation, sopranos still demanded ballet-trained doubles to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils" for them. Not Welitsch, though, whom Olin Downes circumspectly called “extremely effective on the stage” in a review of her lauded 1949 debut at the Met. The same year, she sang and danced the role in an infamous Covent Garden production directed by a young Peter Brook, with designs by Salvador Dali. Between the surrealist sets and a severed head that secreted green ooze, audiences were aghast at the production, and Brook was fired shortly thereafter.


4. Karita Mattila (2004 & 2008)

The Finnish soprano Karita Mattila caused a stir at the Met in 2004, with one of the sexiest versions of Salome’s striptease in memory. Dressed in a tuxedo, reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, she disrobed in a sultry dance, choreographed by Doug Varone that notably ended with full frontal nudity. Alex Ross reported that by the end of the opera, the New York audience was “gobsmacked.” Mattila reprised the role in a 2008 run at the Met which included a Live in HD broadcast (though intent on avoiding an R rating, the broadcast avoided the nudity).


5. Nadja Michael (David McVicar staging)

David McVicar’s 2008 production at London’s Royal Opera House sets Salome in Third Reich-era Germany, and the "Dance of the Seven Veils" becomes a bleak black-and-white pantomime in seven scenes. Each new setting seems to unveil all of Herod’s fetishized fantasies of his teenage step-daughter. He infantilizes her with a rag doll; he dresses and undresses her; leads her in a menacing waltz; and watches her splash herself with water. Critics were torn on McVicar’s staging, which was strongly influenced by Pier Paolo Paolini’s film Salò, which is in turn inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom.