Salome the Opera

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and

playwright who was born in Dublin and educated at Oxford, England, notably a

language prodigy, was conversant with German, French, Greek and Latin at an

early age. The liberal hedonistic life that he led in his youth, whilst being frowned

at by the society he lived in, might well have sharpened his senses to give him

the needed zest to appreciate the beauty in art that may be hidden from the

untrained eye. His most acclaimed works are his only novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the play

The Importance of Being Earnest”.

Lesser known is the play “Salome” which was

based on the well-known biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist,

and which Wilde wrote originally in French.

The story goes like this. At a birthday party

thrown by Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea, Salome, his step-daughter, demanded to

see John the Baptist who was being kept in an underground cistern for criticizing

Salome’s mother Herodias on her incestuous marriage to Herod, brother of her

husband. On seeing the saintly man, Salome fell in love with him and declared

her passionate desire for his white skin, his black hair and his red lips. When

she was rebuffed, she perversely asked Herod, who was hankering after her, to

reward her with John’s head after dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils, with

Herodias gleefully prodding her on. Herod tried to dissuade her from her demand

by offering her emerald, then white peacocks, then the sacred veil of the temple,

which she all refused. When she finally got what she wanted, she kissed the

lips of the severed head that was handed to her on a silver platter. Terrified

by the sight of this lunacy, the superstitious Herod ordered his soldiers to

kill her.

There is an interesting story behind why

Wilde wrote “Salome

in French, apart from the artistic reason that effects could be more grippingly

sensual in French than in English.

It was said that he had been inspired by

French artist Gustave Moreau’s famous painting of Salome captioned “L’Apparition”, which showed with rattling

sensual power Salome’s hallucinated vision of the decapitated saint after she

was handed her terrible reward. Another source of Wilde’s inspiration came from

Gustave Flaubert’s short story “Herodias

(one of three short stories entitled “Three

Tales”), which stuck to the original narrative that made Salome an innocent

tool of her mother Herodias, and which provided details of Salome’s dance as

Flaubert recalled an Arabian dance that he had watched during a visit to Egypt.

Wilde artfully changed the focal point from Herodias to Salome and put Salome

right in the foreground. He also made her out to be the sadistic lover of John

the Baptist, picking up the hint of sadism and perversity from French novelist Joris-Karl

Huysmans’ interpretation of Moreau’s painting in his novel “A Rebours” (“Against Nature” or “Against

the Grain”).

Thus influenced by these important

French creators of art, it was only natural that Wilde would want to re-create “Salome” in the French language so as to

pay homage to them, if nothing else.

Then Richard Strauss, the masterly

German composer, came along and turned Wilde’s French play into an electrifying

operatic piece in German, writing the libretto himself. Debuting in 1905,

Strauss’ production garnered an enthusiastic accolade and some of his peers

described the opera as “stupendous” and “a live volcano, a subterranean fire”.

Having previously read Wilde’s play (an

English translation), I am familiar with the story details. I don’t pretend to

know anything about classical music, but when I watched a video of the Strauss

opera (conducted by Bohm) on Youtube and listened to the music, it did give me

a strange pulsating, eruptive sensation. The story of murderous sexual desire is

expressed in a perfect orchestration of musical instruments and soprano singing

to fluster the deepest recesses of the human heart. Teresa Stratas, a Greek

artist from Ontario, Canada who played the leading role of Salome, indeed impressed

me deeply with her haunting performance.

Luckily, one doesn’t have to speak

German to be able to appreciate Strauss’ music. In fact one doesn’t have to be

of any particular nationality to be able to appreciate good music by musicians

of any nationality. As Strauss once said in a letter to a Jewish friend and


“Do you believe I am ever, in any of my

actions, guided by the thought that I am German? Do you suppose that Mozart was

ever consciously Aryan when he composed? I only recognize two types of people:

those who have talent and those who have none.”

Here’s a link to this sublime piece of

art (with English subtitles):-