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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - 02:00 PM

Karita Mattila as Salome at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 Karita Mattila as Salome at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

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.


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Comments [7]


Concetta, you should check out Excalibur, director John Boorman's extravagant 1981 film based on the Arthurian legends. While there is some original music, much of it is Wagner and Carl Orff. For example, the main theme is Siegfried' Funeral March, Lancelot and Guinevere's love music is from Tristan, Perceval's search for the Grail is accompanied by music from Parsifal, etc. It's quite effective.

Aug. 13 2014 02:15 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Whenever I watch the film with Rita Hayworth and she does the dance, I always wish Strauss' music was being used. There are some films that scream for music from opera. The film Thor could have used Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla. The film Tristan and Isolde, could have used some of, you guessed it Tristan and Isolde.

Jun. 14 2014 11:41 AM
Neil from Astoria

I have never seen a hotter, braver, or better danced performance than Malfitano's in Berlin. Brava!

Jun. 14 2014 10:37 AM
David from Flushing

I saw a televised interview years ago with a singer whose name I cannot recall. She mentioned that in the brief costume change prior to the dance, one of the layers was omitted. As she cast off the seventh veil, she suddenly found herself topless. The dance was completed by having alternate arms over her chest and muttering to other cast members to avert their eyes.

Jun. 12 2014 06:50 PM

My very favorite was Theresa Stratas, the right age and innocence.

Jun. 12 2014 05:58 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

She may not have done anything weird or outre but Leonie Rysanek brought her usual high voltage intensity to the dance. I was fortunate to see her do the role in New York and Vienna and both performances are firmly lodged in that part of memory reserved only for the very best.

Jun. 12 2014 05:05 PM
beachsiggy from NYC

I also recall a marvelous performance by Catherine Malfitano, at the Met. She did some REALLY interesting things with John's head. That production was odd, opening scene had quasi-Nazis dumping bodies thru a hole in the floor. Love Salome at any time, in any production. There's so much you can do with it, and it's hard to say anything is not appropriate.

Jun. 12 2014 01:26 PM

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