James Conlon Talks Salome

Patricia Racette as the title character in Salome (2015) at Opera San Antonio; Photo: Karen Almond

Patricia Racette as the title character in Salome (2015) at Opera San Antonio; Photo: Karen Almond

“Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both.”

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Arriving on the heels of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio in our season, it is difficult to compare these totally different works without reflecting on how the world had changed. European civilization was sitting on a fault line when Richard Strauss wrote Salome. Strauss, who placed “the miracle Mozart, immediately after Bach,” could not turn to the latter for operatic prototypes, but found immeasurable inspiration in Mozart’s operas.

Whereas the Mozartian operatic model was paramount in Strauss’s mind, his music could not be more dissimilar. Both of these works, flanking the 19th century, show Europe’s ongoing taste for the exotic and pivot to the Near East for material. The search in Mozart for a partner in love—spiritual, emotional, physical—will, in Salome, be reduced to a corruption of each of these foundations. Turning away from forgiveness and compassion, it punishes by the sword and exacts revenge. Where true and benevolent love are sought and sometimes displayed by Mozart’s characters, Strauss’s will exhibit only morbid desire. The characters are all caught in the same futile spiral. That dynamic rules both Oscar Wilde’s play and Richard Strauss’s opera.

Maria Ewing and Michael Devlin in Salome (1986); Photo: Frederic Ohringer

Maria Ewing and Michael Devlin in Salome (1986); Photo: Frederic Ohringer

The opera’s first words, uttered by the young Syrian captain Narraboth, set the opera’s tone: the obsessional desire for the unattainable.

A youthful page of Herodias (wife of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judea), desires Narraboth, who desires Salome (daughter of Herodias), who desires Jochanaan (John the Baptist). The prophet, possessor and possessed of an ascetic disembodied spirit, has renounced the flesh for his desire of The Beyond. Herodias has renounced love for the desire of power. Herod, imprisoned within the solitude of the throne, desperately desires his stepdaughter Salome.

The Irish author Oscar Wilde was a leading figure in the late 19th century. Associated with the so-called Decadent literary movement, his works were banned for alleged obscenity. His trial on dubious charges of indecency and subsequent imprisonment loom large in British history and the story of literature. His works crack open the door to the 20th century, inviting artists to describe ugliness and moral corruption with the same intensity as beauty and the admirable. In 1891, he wrote his play Salomé in French, in which he had been fluent since childhood. Translated back into English, the actress Sarah Bernhardt agreed to present it as a part of her dramatic season. The rehearsals were interrupted when the authorities banned its presentation on the basis that biblical stories were forbidden on the stage. Salomé was first published in French in 1893, but premiered in Paris only in 1896, at which point Wilde was already imprisoned in Reading Gaol.

While the Anglo-Saxon world turned its back on one of its greatest writers of that era, the continent of Europe took to him in the first decade of the 20th century.

Strauss attended a performance of the play in German in 1901 and determined to write an opera. The text was a near-literal translation of the original Wilde. Wagner disdained professional librettists and wrote his own, an almost unthinkable act at the time. Operas using word for word translations of existing theater pieces were never the norm. But there was at least one contemporary model, and that was Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy, which premiered in Paris in 1902, shortly before Strauss began work on Salome. Debussy saw in Maurice Maeterlinck’s play the vehicle for his opera and, aside from editing out certain passages, took the text as it was. Strauss did the much same with Salome. These two operas, totally different, would lead the way into the 20th century in their respective cultures.

The premiere of Strauss’s opera took place in Dresden in 1905. Its success was instantaneous. Within two years it was premiered in 20 other cities (including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York). In 1910, the first performance at the Vienna Volksoper was conducted by composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. The experience marked the younger composer. With Strauss as a model, he wrote two one-act operas based on Wilde: A Florentine Tragedy  (a word for word German translation of Wilde’s posthumously published play) and The Dwarf (freely based on a Wilde short story entitled The Birthday of the Infanta). These three works taken together comprise an operatic trilogy written in the first two decades after Wilde’s untimely death in 1900.

During my conservatory years, a professor stated that one could see the 20th century erupt from three works—The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Strauss’s Elektra—to which I remember tactlessly blurting “and Salome!” (which preceded Elektra by a year). Without questioning the status of the latter, I think of Salome as the older sister of Elektra. I see the first-born of these as the seminal work, perhaps because it was the first Strauss opera I loved (having seen it at 15 at the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Karl Böhm with Birgit Nilsson in the title role). To this day it remains my favorite.

Salome is a lightning blast that ignited opera in the 20th century.

With his prodigious invention, seemingly without effort or warning, Strauss produced a work of stupefying originality. In one stroke, polyphony, polyrhythms, bitonality and insistent counterpoint take charge. All of this is used not for an occasional effect, but as the dominant fabric.

Mozart gave the operatic orchestra its first wings. Wagner liberated and glorified it. Strauss inherited, crowned and transformed it into the protagonist. It no longer resonated magically from the depths of the pit in Bayreuth, but brutally imposed itself on the audience.

Salome (1986); Photo: Frederick Ohringer

Salome (1986); Photo: Frederick Ohringer

Salome is the logical extension of Strauss’s tone poems, themselves children of Franz Liszt’s theories of the “transformation of ideas.” If viewed as a theatrical tone poem, Salome is the younger sibling of Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben. At the same time, like the Head of Janus, it also looks forward and brings life to Elektra, A Florentine Tragedy, The Dwarf, Wozzeck and Lulu. It irrevocably influenced German opera for the entire century to come. With its success, one-act opera came into fashion.

The revolutionary aspects of Strauss’s music manifest themselves at the same time as 20th century esthetics and philosophy. Strauss was the first major German opera composer after Wagner. Through him we observe the world of Schiller, Goethe and Schopenhauer transform into that of Freud and Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche’s God, Wagnerian “redemption through love” is dead, replaced by sexual obsession. Grand tragedy and melodrama becomes pathology and psychosis. The all-consuming romantic love of the 19th century lay in wreckage. Goethe’s dichotomy of the body and the soul, of flesh and spirit, has lost its appeal.

Consciously or not, many composers in the post-Wagnerian era wanted to write their own version of Isolde’s Liebestod. They sought to tell the story of a fatal love of which the lover dies. Isolde’s and Salome’s final soliloquies become emblematic of their respective centuries. The latter shows humanity reduced to the sum of its primitive and libidinous instincts: a violent death after a violent desire. Salome wreaks revenge on her mother and stepfather, first by desiring Jochanaan, their worst critic and enemy, and then by publicly preferring his severed head as an object of her desire to Herod’s attentions. The tetrarch has humiliated his wife by desiring her daughter, and his wife triumphs by seeing her daughter turn against her stepfather.

Salome by Jean Benner (c 1899)

Salome by Jean Benner (c 1899)

The final scene of Salome is virtually a monologue sung as she hovers over, and finally kisses, the severed head of Jochanaan. There is no dramatic model for this scene, but there is a musical one, although the textual particulars are clearly different: Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, the finale of Götterdämmerung, which concludes Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Wagner’s orchestra provides a massive, apocalyptic, symphonic finale which, among other things, recapitulates and recalls many of the musical motives from the entire Ring. Strauss does much the same; Salome sings, desires and succumbs to her passion, the orchestra screams, breaching all hitherto known limits and reaches a dissonant bitonal climax. That chord did as much to advance 20th-century music as the famous “Tristan Chord” had in the 19th.

For what reason Strauss changed directions, after Salome and Elektra, is still a persistent subject of debate and conjecture. Having inexorably dismantled the artistic conventions of the 19th century and severing its head, did he not envision a revolution? Were Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and later Capriccio, meant as repudiation of his past? Or were they simply meant to be works enunciated in a musical language appropriate for that specific subject matter? Were Salome and Elektra just anomalies, an experiment, different garb to be sported for a brief excursion? Were they, like the obsessive desires they portrayed, “malady, or madness, or both”?

There are no clear answers to these questions. Whatever the case, the genie was out of the bottle and had served its master, who then moved on to pursue something different. But Salome, set in glittering stone, had already left her indelible impression on the new century.

To learn more about and purchase tickets to Salome, click here.

James Conlon is celebrating his tenth year as the Richard Seaver Music Director at LA Opera.

Want to meet Maestro Conlon? Now’s your chance! The maestro and Patricia Racette will be signing CDs following a performance of Salome on March 16. To learn more and purchase tickets, click here.

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