Belfast Telegraph

Nude scene in Bible-based opera Salome whips up storm in Belfast

The case for and against decision to include nudity

By Chris Kilpatrick

It's just a 10-second change to a 95-minute show. But the late decision to feature a nude performer in this weekend's productions of Salome at Belfast's Grand Opera House has sparked controversy and possible protests outside the venue.

Richard Strauss's contentious opera premiered in 1905 and has been a global sensation since, sparking fierce debate with its mix of religion, sex and violence.

Its much-anticipated local debut will be no different after producers opted to tweak a key part of the show.

Theatre-goers who had already bought tickets were emailed by NI Opera regarding the nudity and invited to contact it if they wanted more information.

And now the decision to make the small but significant change to the opera has been strongly criticised by some.

"The attempt by the production team to sensualise the story through the inclusion of a nudity scene is in my view designed to deflect the minds of the audience away from a most solemn truth," said Rev David McIlveen, a Free Presbyterian minister

"That by silencing the voice of God's messenger we are in danger of silencing the voice of God."

But commentator Malachi O'Doherty, who has already bought tickets for one of the shows, was amused at being forewarned about the nude scene.

"Salome performs an erotic dance for Herod and, as far as I am concerned, the more erotic the better," he said.

"Whether the erotic charge is enhanced by nudity or not is for the director to judge. I'll only know afterwards if he was right."

Changes to the opera were made after recent rehearsals in London.

In the email from NI Opera, customers were advised "the dancer playing Salome will now appear nude for the last 10 seconds of the Dance". It added: "This change represents Salome in an image of stark vulnerability.

"We believe it adds significantly to the artistic value of the performance."

Director Oliver Mears told the Belfast Telegraph he was surprised by the controversy over the on-stage nudity.

"I think we're all a little bemused that nudity is still an issue in this day and age, especially given the well-known context, and the fact that it is 10 seconds in an opera of one hour and 35 minutes. However, we felt it was a courtesy to let our audience know about it."

Mr Mears said ticket sales had been extremely strong, with the first night close to selling out.

He added: "First of all, some of the most sensational, romantic music ever written, combined with a thrilling story, performed by an outstanding cast - many of whom are from Northern Ireland.

"It's also wonderful that the Ulster Orchestra are bringing their amazing talents to the production, as the score is a real showpiece for any orchestra. This is especially the case after the Ulster Orchestra's recent financial challenges."

Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, the opera stars Belfast-born Giselle Allen as the Princess who dances for Herod in return for the most shocking of rewards - the head of John the Baptist.

Salome runs at the Grand Opera House from Friday until Sunday.

The case for and against decision to include nudity

Rev David McIlveen says no:

The adaptation of any biblical story for either a theatrical performance or a television presentation will inevitably provoke a reaction.

While in certain productions great care has been taken to preserve the story line with accuracy and sensitivity, this is clearly not the case for Salome. To introduce a short scene for nudity is not only to compromise the story, it is a deliberate attempt to corrupt it.

Anyone who has read about the beheading of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ, will know that the main issue was John’s denunciation of an adulterous relationship between Herod and his sister-in-law. Although Herod incarcerated the Lord’s servant in the Palaces’ prison, he clearly had respect for the man, if not his message.

However, when his niece (Salome) danced before him in a most seductive and sensual manner he offered her a reward to the value to half his kingdom. It was her adulterous mother who then directed her to request the head of John the Baptist. This Herod executed on the basis of his vow.

The attempt to sensualise the story through nudity is designed to deflect the minds of the audience away from a most solemn truth. That by silencing the voice of God’s messenger we are in danger of silencing the voice of God.

Malachi O’Doherty says yes:

I was at first simply amused when Maureen, my wife, showed me the  NI Opera email informing us that the dancer playing Salome would appear naked in a closing scene.

The director had decided this would enhance the artistic quality of the piece. That’s his call.

So why are we being invited to phone up and discuss the matter?

They are surely not looking for our advice on how Salome might disport herself, whether she should stand still under a dim light the way strippers used to. No, what this is really about is suggesting that I ask for a refund if nudity offends me. Well, it doesn’t.

Salome performs an erotic dance for Herod and, as far as I am concerned, the more erotic the better. Herod would have been short-changed if he had given the head of John the Baptist and not got an eyeful for his trouble.

I doubt if we’ll see blood on the stage but I’ll be surprised and disappointed if I don’t see a gory plausible semblance of a head held aloft and exulted over.

That’s the sort of thing I was hoping for when we made the booking — harrowing drama, heart-wrenching music, beautiful erotic dancing and passion.

So, no, you don’t need to ask if I mind the dancer showing me all of her skin. But if the show isn’t as good as I expect, it will be small consolation.

Salome: Backlash over nude scene fails to materialise as biblical epic rapturously received in Belfast

Salome Grand Opera House, Belfast: A century on, Oscar Wilde's play still retains an overwhelming power

Salome: Perfect stage to debate sex and religion 

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