Sensuous, Shocking and Sensational: Richard Strauss's 'Salome'

Nina Stemme
If someone mentioned a single, dramatic episode that has inspired music ranging from heavy metal, to Australian didgeridoo music, to a groundbreaking opera, what would you guess it would be? At least one answer would be the Dance of the Seven Veils, the legendary incident that highlights this week's opera -- Salome, by Richard Strauss.

The tale has its roots in the bible, in the events surrounding the execution of John the Baptist. In the biblical version of the story, John has been imprisoned after denouncing the marriage of King Herod to Herodias, the wife of his dead brother. Herodias wanted John executed, but Herod refused. Then Salome, the daughter of Herodias by her first marriage, danced for Herod at his birthday celebration. He was so enthralled that he offered to give her anything she wanted. At her mother's urging, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. In the opera, as we'll hear, Salome needs no advice from mom -- or anyone else -- before making her fatal demand.

Strauss completed Salome in 1905, and its premiere took place in Dresden in December of that same year. Strauss based the libretto on the German translation of a notoriously provocative play by Oscar Wilde -- and it wasn't long before the opera had a similar reputation.

It was officially forbidden by censors in both Berlin and London. It was performed once at the Metropolitan in New York -- but J. Pierpoint Morgan's daughter found it offensive, so her father pressured the company and the opera was quickly withdrawn.

In Vienna, Gustav Mahler called Salome "one of the greatest masterpieces of our time," and wanted to perform it at the Court Opera, where he was the director. But court officials refused, saying the piece "belongs to the realm of sexual pathology." Even at the first production in Dresden, the lead soprano declared herself a "respectable woman," and refused to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Yet all that controversy simply drew more attention to the opera. It was a hit at the premiere, and within two years had been performed in 50 different cities. The Kaiser of Germany once said, "I like this fellow Strauss, but Salome will do him a lot of damage." Strauss retorted that the "damage" had paid for his new house.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Salome from one of the many cities where it was initially banned. It comes to us from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2014 Proms Concerts, in London. Soprano Nina Stemme sings the title role, in a performance led by conductor Donald Runnicles.