Oscar Wilde
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Salome's Second Act

In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny imagines a longer version of the Richard Strauss opera, based on Oscar Wilde's original thoughts about his play.

published Sunday, October 5, 2014


Dallas — Richard Strauss’s Salome, starring acclaimed soprano Deborah Voigt in her Dallas Opera debut, is one of opera’s most celebrated works. As readers will know, Salome is the name given by the Jewish historian Josephus to the daughter of Herodias, an ambitious woman who divorced and then married her husband’s brother, thus incurring the wrath of God—in the form of a very vocal John the Baptist.

While the desert prophet languished in a cistern, out of reach of the fascinated Salome (who like every teenager hangs on the words of anybody who dares to challenge her parents’ behavior) either Salome or her mother seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: if Salome would agree to perform the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” her step-father, Herod Antipas, promised to give her anything she requested, up to half his kingdom. After her lascivious dance, and to Herod’s utter dismay, Salome demanded the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), literally, on a plate. Not wishing to appear weak in front of his guests, the king reluctantly complies; however, Herod is so disgusted and dismayed by the young woman’s behavior, and so fearful of the evil omens that he perceives, that he orders his own soldiers to execute his step-daughter in the final moments of the opera.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons
A drawing of Salome with the head of John the Baptist, by Carel de Nerée tot Babberich (1880-1909)

And you were wondering why so many people are counting the days until Salome opens at the Winspear Opera House on Oct. 30.

Artists, musicians, writers and poets have been fascinated for centuries with the story of Salome. In 1877, Gustave Flaubert published his version of the Salome story, entitled Hérodias. Drawing on brief biblical sources, Flaubert created a masterful nearly 60-page version of the story. In this telling, “The dancer was Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who for many months her mother had caused to be instructed in dancing, and other arts of pleasing (don’t let your imaginations run too wild here), with the sole idea of bringing her to Machaerus and presenting her to the tetrarch (Herod), so that he should fall in love her fresh young beauty and feminine wiles.” (This translation of Flaubert’s original was produced by John Bickers and David Widger.) At the end of this story, three guests take the severed head on the road to Galilee. One of the men says “Be comforted! He has descended among the dead in order to announce the coming of the Christ!”

Oscar Wilde read Flaubert’s story, and was inspired to write his own version of the historical drama as a play. Since he was prohibited from writing the play in English, Wilde wrote, instead, in French. (Would that we were all so talented!). In his version, Wilde creates his own distinctive vocabulary throughout the story, with rich visual images and a distinct Biblical feel. In Wilde’s mind, as opposed to Flaubert’s, Salome was clearly the aggressor. Obsessed with Jokanaan, and unable to attract his interest, Salome eventually consents to Herod’s repeated requests to dance for him—over the objections of her mother, Herodias. But, first things first: Salome secures the fateful vow that she can have anything she wishes, up to half of Herod’s kingdom. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Richard Strauss, in his turn, wrote his one-act opera, which premiered in 1905, closely based on a German translation of Wilde’s play. The opera is notable for its intensity, its compact structure, its comparatively dissonant style, and its regular use of leitmotifs and musical keys connected with the characters. Although the opera is among the very shortest of regularly performed operas, its visceral theatricality ensures that audiences enjoy a “full evening” of opera. However, in a parallel universe, somewhere, there may be a version where Salome is a two-act opera. Allow me to explain.

When Oscar Wilde was writing his play, he originally thought that the drama would take a different turn—in which Salome became a saint! He described this alternative plan to Maeterlinck and Georgette Leblanc. (For this material, I am indebted to Richard Ellmann’s excellent biography of Oscar Wilde). In this alternative version, Herodias pleads with Herod to save Salome. Rather than ordering her killed, Herod banishes her. Salome makes tracks to the desert, where she lives a solitary life. When Jesus passes by, she recognizes Him, but chooses to remain in the wilderness. After a period of time, the now-penitent Salome leaves the desert for the mountains, and while crossing the frozen river Rhône, the thin ice breaks beneath her feet. As she plunges into the water, she cries out the names of both Jesus and John. But that’s not all. As she plunges through the surface of the ice into the frigid waters below, she is accidentally, mysteriously decapitated—an event mirroring the end of Act I—and her severed head remains visible on the ice as the curtain falls for the final time.

While we can never know what Strauss might have done with the longer version contemplated by Wilde, it is interesting to compare the dramatic effect of the two treatments. In its current form, Richard Strauss’s Salome ends with three startling events: the murder of Jokanaan, a great black cloud covering the moon which hints at divine dissatisfaction with the assassination of the Prophet, and Herod’s decision to order his guards to crush the life out of her. The audience is pulled abruptly through these tragic events, with very little time to assimilate them.

Wilde’s extended version of the story is, in a word, more conventionally “operatic.”  In my imagined two act version, Act I would end with the Salome’s banishment. The audience would be given time over intermission to reflect on Salome’s obsession, Herod’s lust and credulousness, and the tragic end of Jokanaan, rather than trying to assimilate the events of the last five minutes of the opera on the drive home. And, during the intermission following Act I, the stage crew could reset the setting from Herod’s palace to the desert.

In my mental image, Act II would have two scenes. Scene i would take place in the desert, perhaps beginning with a solo aria by Salome lamenting her sins and describing her self-imposed penance. From a costume point of view, Salome would have changed from the garb of an elegant young princess to a wanderer clad in animal skins. This scene could incorporate Salome’s vision of Jesus—perhaps real and perhaps imagined in her delirium—and conclude with her decision to persevere carrying the Word of God to anyone who will listen. After a quick pause to change the set (not a full intermission), Scene ii would shift to the mountains, with a lake set in the middle of the stage. Salome, perhaps overcome by madness, would sing of her desire to remain faithful to the Word of God through every hardship. As she crosses the lake, the ice breaks; she utters the names of Jesus and John; and falls through the ice—quite literally losing her head. Finally, at the very end of the opera, there would be some signal of redemption involving the moon, to parallel the ending of Act I.

What strikes me about Wilde’s vision for a longer theatrical work is how naturally it would have fit with the operatic conventions of the day. In fact, this two-act version, which would be more true to 19th century traditions than early 20th ones, could have been written by any number of composers—especially Italian ones.

One of the challenges of this expanded version would be the staging of the final scene in the lake and mountains. Readers of my previous Off the Cuff “Life and Death in the Mountains” have read that one suspected reason that Catalani’s La Wally is not performed more often is because of the great difficulties of staging Hagenbach’s death by avalanche, as well as Wally’s suicide by throwing herself into a ravine. (You will have the opportunity to see TDO’s interpretation of these operatic moments, designed by Robert Brill and directed by Candace Evans, with projections by Elaine J. McCarthy, in late January and early February 2015). However, given the creativity of modern directors, and the technical resources available, I think an opera could be constructed that would fulfill Oscar Wilde’s original vision.

Would Wilde have been able to write a second act as brilliant as the first?  Who knows? Would Strauss, having seen the longer version, decide to write a full three-hour opera? Probably not. But these are important questions to consider.

One of the challenges facing opera General Directors in the 21st century is that audience expectations around the length of operas have declined significantly; operas that run four or more hours are more difficult to sell than shorter operas, even when the composer is a beloved master like Mozart. On the other hand, Richard Strauss’s Salome is at the other extreme: an opera of just under 90 minutes packed with extraordinary musical innovation. My “thought experiment” of a second act for this work reflects an imagined world in which the audience is given more time to assimilate this potent story, while also providing a more cathartic ending, in which Salome has had time to repent her actions in Act I, assuring her soul’s redemption. This theme of sin and forgiveness is richly operatic, having been explored in Gounod’s Faust, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and countless other operas.

Postscript: Opera by its nature includes challenging and provocative themes, and Richard Strauss’ Salome, along with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, has one of the most searing and vivid images in the entire repertoire. (In the case of Lucia, the image is of a husband stabbed to death by his wife on their wedding night). In an opera house, an audience can consider very challenging events, safely removed from the real world; tragedy in the theater is by design a somewhat objectified and antiseptic experience. Given the continuing turmoil in the Middle East, I recognize that the actions raised in Salome have acquired a particularly painful expression in today’s society, and I offer my deepest sympathies to all who have lost loved ones in the current conflicts.

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Salome's Second Act
In his latest Off the Cuff, The Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny imagines a longer version of the Richard Strauss opera, based on Oscar Wilde's original thoughts about his play.
by Keith Cerny

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