© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Response: 'Salome's' revelations far exceed veiled sexuality and severed head

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2009 - The Gospel writers Matthew and Mark give precious little space to the grisly and horrifying account of the conclusion of the life of St. John the Baptist. Although on first reading it appears they treat the story as a meander in the road leading to the feeding of the 5,000, they nevertheless present with surgical precision and economy word pictures of one of the most willful and unjustified murders in all of human history, and also one of the most fascinating.

Richard Strauss, whose lifetime (1864-1949) spanned an era of humiliations and exhausting bloodshed on a scale hitherto unknown to mankind, saw the enormous potential for an excoriating narrative in the events reaching their climax in the bloody execution of the Forerunner. The result is Strauss' profoundly disturbing and confrontational opera, “Salome,” brought exactingly to the Loretto-Hilton stage on Saturday evening (May 30) by Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

There are minor variations in the telling of the story of John the Baptist’s death in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, and in the account of the first-century historian Flavius Josephus, but the three generally agree upon what happened in the Judean fortress-palace of Macherus around the year 30.

John, called the Forerunner because he came to prepare the way of the Lord, had attracted a large following, and was imprisoned by the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea. Herod Antipas was fearful of the growing influence of the prophet. John’s popularity, and Herod’s fear of enraging his followers, for a time may have preserved his life.

John was in trouble with Herod not only because of his appeal to the people but also as a result of a more personal affront. John had condemned Herod for marrying his brother Philip’s wife. According to Matthew, John told the tetrarch, “It is not lawful for thee to have her.”

Presently in this narrative, Herod’s birthday was celebrated, and his wife Herodias’s daughter, unnamed in the Gospels, danced for the ruler, and he was so taken with her performance (and to put it more bluntly, so sexually aroused by it) he promised to give her anything she wanted.

Prompted by her mother, who was furious at the Baptist’s condemnation of her marriage to her brother-in-law, the girl made a sickening demand: “Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.”

Although there was some reluctance on the part of the tetrarch to decapitate the man he both feared and admired, “nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it be given her.”

The prophet summarily was beheaded, and the head was presented to the girl on the silver charger. In the biblical account, the “damsel” presented it to her mother. John’s followers claimed the body and buried it. Jesus, informed of the tragedy,” “departed thence by ship into a desert place apart.” And in the Gospels’ account, that was that.

The Anglo-Irish writer Oscar Wilde saw enormous dramatic potential in this story. He wrote a play about it called “Salomé,” initially in French, that expanded considerably on the story as presented by Matthew and Mark. It is not unimaginable that Wilde found persecution an appropriate theme for his consideration: It was a fact of his life. He was in prison when his play was first presented in Paris. Strauss, too, saw the raw energy bursting the literal boundaries of the story of John and Salome, and understood its magnetic possibilities, were it to be shaped into the form of an opera.

Of course, given the sensibilities of the time, the whole business was controversial, and although the premiere at Dresden was a huge success, other opera houses refused to put it on. Eventually it made its way into the repertory where it remains a fixture, although it continues to have the capacity to cause controversy. 

One can be forgiven for thinking its controversial nature issues from the dance of the seven veils and the astonishing fornication with the head of the prophet by Salome in the concluding moments of the opera. It was, is, controversial for those reasons, and certainly nudity and raw sexuality continue to provide both discomfort and titillation to audiences.

But "Salome" is well beyond squirming and the generation of fantasy.

What elevates this drama into the realm of consequence and Art is not a damsel’s pornographic performance for a concupiscent old tetrarch or even her connniving to have a good man  beheaded for the sake of vengeance or the real squirm producer, her sex-charged necrophilia.

No. What generates genuine meaning here is “Salome” confrontational power. It forces you to consider, on deeply serious, deeply moral levels, the components of human psychological pathology and the consequences of manifestations of such pathology in human behavior, both on personal and public terms. Unless you sleep through “Salome,” there is no avoiding the realization of our frailties and humankind's capacity for wreaking havoc and generating evil.

Strauss, using the combined resources of opera -- batters us with understandings of it, from which we should turn in shame. Once we slip in the blood on the floor and fall into it, we are all in trouble, personally and societally and culturally. One mistake, one feckless moment, one act of expediency or complicity, a single equivocation, any and all morph into situations of genuine tragedy from which there is no recovering.

While a prophet’s head on a charger may affect us deeply on a conscious level, examined under the magnifying glass of history and put through the centrifuge of psychology, the stain is revealed to be more extensive and pervasive. It may be called by many names; we may attempt to explain the stain away for reasons of self-preservation. But carried to extremes, its names range from simple prejudice and on to war, and from there to the horrors of genocide.

“Salome,” for all these reasons, has inherent greatness. And as conducted by Stephen Lord and directed by Seán Curran at Opera Theatre on opening night, it shown forth in terrifying grandeur as one of the most brilliant and affecting productions ever to be presented by this company. Soprano Kelly Kaduce and Gregory Dahl are given special attention and respect here for their beyond-extraordinary realizations of the roles of Salome and Jokanaan (John the Baptist). But everyone on stage (even those dressed up in some of the most bizarre garments ever to emerge from a sewing machine)  turned in commendable performances, and all concerned should be proud of such accomplishments.

Before the opera began, a dinner partner asked what I thought of the 2007 production of “The Mikado.” I said, "Sorry, don't remember." Ask me about "Salome" in a couple of years or even a decade, and the answer will be different indeed.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.