Salome - that shocking opera   by Len Mullenger

Beecham, that great British champion of music, had poured money into a the first Covent Garden performance of Elektra in 1910; £ 21,000 before the first performance and £ 1500 per performance. However, he was rewarded; the performances were a great success and the House could have been filled many times over. Tickets were selling at fancy prices outside and the Grenadier Guards played a medley from the opera ( CAN YOU IMAGINE IT!). Naturally Beecham wanted to repeat this success and chose Salome with the beautiful (and slim) Finnish soprano Aino Akte to play the title role. Beecham declared her voice to be only adequate but that she could actually dance the seven veils. Worth of Paris had been commissioned to design the veils, each one of which represented a different mood or passion. The problems Beecham encountered before he could stage the opera are amusingly detailed in A Mingled Chime.

Oscar Wilde's play had already been banned by the Lord Chamberlain so the opera could not go ahead without his permission. The objections were to the appearance on stage of a biblical character, namely John the Baptist, and to the decadent scene where his head is brought on a platter and then kissed by the lusting Salome in a fit of wild, abandoned passion. In only 90 minutes this sado-erotic opera encompasses lechery, suicide, attempted incest, nakedness, necrophily and murder! Richard Strauss had let it be known that he would be ready to make any changes that the Lord Chamberlain's Office required. Beecham got himself invited to a house party so that he was able to buttonhole the Prime Minister, Asquith, and attempted to persuade him that the Lord Chamberlain was being inconsistent. Only recently licences had been granted for Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, Massenet's Herodiade and Goldmark's Die Konigin von Saba, all of which were biblical subjects. Furthermore, the performance was to be in German so a very few people would be in any real danger of having their moral foundation undermined. The response was that there was a very great difference between the impersonation of biblical personages from the Old Testament and the New.

Beecham and Strauss agreed to changes to render the opera more suitable. John the Baptist became Mattaniah the Prophet and he relationship between him and Salome was totally changed with Salome now seeking spiritual guidance from him. The climax of the final scene was changed from If thou hadst looked at me thou wouldst have loved me to thou wouldst have blessed me. The opera was resituated in Greece, the Jews and Nazarenes became Cappadocians and Learned Men and, to quote Sir Thomas, a lurid tale of love and revenge became a comforting sermon that could have been safely preached from any country pulpit, which leaves one wondering what an audience would then make of the music that accompanied it! The Baptist's head was to be replaced by a bloody sword but Aino Akte would not accept that as it dirtied her hands and might ruin her beautiful gown. The Lord Chamberlain's Office finally agreed that Salome could be presented with a salver provided that it was completely covered with a cloth with not the merest hint of an object underneath it.

All of this stimulated the country's interest and once again tickets were exchanging hands for high prices. At the premiere the Lord Chamberlain's party were seated in a box. All began well but after half an hour Aino Akte forgot some of her bowdlerized lines and reverted to the original text. Gradually other members of the cast did the same and so the opera was almost entirely sung in the original. Sir Thomas realized that the orchestra would drown out much of the singing except in the final scene. He claims to have had visions of Traitor's Gate and Tower Hill and Covent Garden being stripped of its Royal Charter. The end of the work was greeted with tumultuous applause and many curtain calls. After the last curtain call, Beecham was summonsed to meet the Lord Chamberlain's party. Steeling himself, he found that he was being lauded with compliments for the way in which he had completely gratified their wishes and the total success of the performance. Presumably they either had not been able to hear a word over the orchestra or had an imperfect grasp of German. What had seemingly convinced them was the empty salver. It did not stay empty for long and in subsequent performances things were obviously present under the towel or the salver was replaced by a silver dish of blood or, in one report, a mound of pink blancmange.

The opera had earlier received an equally stormy reception over the pond. When Heinrich Conried presented its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1907 it was the first opera by Richard Strauss to have been played in America. Unfortunately Conried decided to hold a dress rehearsal on a Sunday and to open it to the public, most of whom came straight to the theatre from church. It created a major sensation with one newspaper report opening: Many voices were hushed as the crowd passed out into the night, many faces were white... many women were silent and men spoke as if a bad dream were upon them. The opera was given terrible reviews in the New York tribune, New York Times and the Sun:

The presentation of such a story is a crime. Richard Strauss' music is aesthetically criminal or at least extremely coarse and ill-mannered. His music often suggests a man who has come to a social reception unkempt, with hands unwashed, cigar in mouth, hat on, and who sits down and puts his feet on the table.

One physician wrote to the New York of the most horrible, disgusting, revolting and unmentionable exhibitions of degeneracy he had ever heard, read or imagined.

The Metropolitan was funded by voluntary contributions from the Astors, Vanderbilts etc. and Wall Street financiers, all of whom were represented on the board which demanded that the opera be taken off. The opera enjoyed greater success the following year at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House where Mary Garden sang the title role and insisted that she also danced the seven veils. She danced in the nude covered by pink veils of thin muslin. The dance was tasteful and raised no objections. The critics lauded her characterization but still hated the opera. A sewer is a necessity of our everyday life, but the fact of its existence does not also create the necessity for us to bend over its reeking filth and inhale its mephitic vapours.

Oscar Hammerstein then took the opera to Philadelphia where over a thousand people had to be turned away and the curtain rose twenty minutes late because of the crush. The opera then transfered successfully to Boston and Chicago. It was sixteen years before the Metropolitan dared to stage Salome again in 1933. So as not to cause offence, Ljungberg was fully clothed under the veils and only fondled John the Baptist's head (a grapefruit wearing a wig) in the shadow of the prompters box.

The opera is now considered as one of the great masterpieces. The general recomendation is for the Decca set with Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Sir Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic: 414414-2 (2 CDs)

Beecham, Sir Thomas: A mingled Chime
Reid, Charles: Thomas Beecham: an independent biography
Gattey, Charles: The elephant that swallowed a nightingale
Jefferson, Alan: Sir Thomas Beecham

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This article first appeared in ORMS NEWS, The newsletter of the Olton Recorded Music Society

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