Salome: Perfect stage to debate sex and religion
The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris forced the question of religious sensitivity and artistic representation centre-stage - issues which resonate throughout Richard Strauss's controversial opera Salome, writes director Oliver Mears ahead of its Northern Ireland premiere
A cosy family drama that features murder, suicide, a beheading, incest and necrophilia - it's not surprising that Richard Strauss's Salome, which NI Opera performs at the Grand Opera House next month, has always been a controversial opera.
And yet few operas had the success that Salome had when it was premiered in 1905. A sensational hit, it initiated worldwide "Salomania" and made Strauss a very rich man.
Puccini, Mahler and (of all people) a young down-and-out called Adolf Hitler attended and admired the same Austrian performance in 1906. But with this huge success came a backlash.
The Lord Chancellor in Britain banned the work until suitable changes could be made. When the scandalised daughter of banker JP Morgan saw a performance in New York, she persuaded her father to bully the Met Opera into banning the production for two decades.
Even the Kaiser got involved, insisting on changes to the staging and remarking that: "This Salome will do Strauss a lot of damage."
So, what is it about this extraordinary opera that makes our new staging of the piece next month the first-ever in Northern Ireland?
Sex and violence were, of course, nothing new in opera when Strauss wrote Salome. Opera has always dealt in subjects which are at the very limits of what is acceptable to see on stage, and an art form that deals with extremes will be always be at risk of censorship.
Perhaps this is because, in nearly all cases, an opera's core relates to sexuality - sex in all its forms and varieties. Don Giovanni is famously an opera about sexual promiscuity. Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle glorifies incest.
Verdi's Rigoletto was eviscerated by the censors for its sexual suggestiveness. Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk featured post-coital trombones so obscene that Stalin banned the opera. And Britten's fascination with adolescent boys continues to generate controversy nearly 40 years after his death.
But Salome hit a nerve in a different way. The reason for this was simple, and remains contentious, as we have seen so recently and calamitously in Paris and elsewhere - the violent collision of art and religion.
In the same way that images of the Prophet Mohammed are taboo in Islam, until the late 19th century any operatic or theatrical interpretation of a Bible story was simply forbidden in the Western world.
Long gone were the days of religious miracle plays, which had morphed into the first secular plays of the 16th century, just before Shakespeare took flight.
By the Victorian era, staging the Bible was felt to be quite simply trivialising and debasing Christianity. At bottom, this was probably the fear of satirical, subversive or insufficiently reverential treatments and, especially, a feeling that sex and the Bible simply did not and should not mix.
This was in spite of the fact that the Bible is full of illicit or romantic sex, from the incestuous Lot to the frankly erotic Song Of Songs. So when Saint-Saens wrote his steamy Samson And Dalila in 1877 he was marking out new territory - and was promptly banned by the British censor.
The fact that Strauss based his opera on a play by Oscar Wilde already increased the risk of controversy. Wilde's apparently conventional domestic life hid an increasingly incautious (and at the time illegal) predilection for male sexual partners.
His Irish Protestant background thus conflicted violently with a compulsive taste for the forbidden, a conflict dramatised in Salome itself, where John the Baptist (called 'Jokanaan' - the ancient Hebrew version of the name) is pitched against Salome, the 16-year-old girl who desires him, and who finally kisses his severed head.
This deliberate and radical recasting of the original Bible story (where Salome is a mere cipher of her mother and has no sexual intent) itself suggests autobiography at work.
When the Lord Chancellor immediately banned the work, Wilde threatened to move abroad. In fact, he never got to see his play performed. By the time it was premiered in France, Wilde was in prison for acts of gross indecency.
So Strauss could hardly have been surprised when Salome's own acts of gross indecency should move his opera from being merely famous into actual notoriety. Perhaps, indeed, this had been his intention all along.
In spite of his Catholic background, Strauss was a non-believer by conviction and struggled to write the music for John the Baptist, calling the character "an imbecile... I have no sympathy for that kind of man".
And he must have been aware of the controversy his opera would provoke - and controversy has traditionally made for good box office.
Strauss's Dance Of The Seven Veils alone helped start a whole craze for "interpretive dancing" and has even been credited with founding the genre of the striptease. No wonder that Strauss's first Salome told him: "I won't do it, Herr Strauss. I'm a decent woman."
Strauss's heady cocktail of religion, sex and music was to prove so successful that it enticed many other composers of the 20th century. Nunneries have been of particular interest - and to Catholic composers not least.
Puccini's Suor Angelica, whose story is reminiscent of more recent "laundry" scandals, set the tone, followed by Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites.
Finally, The Devils Of Loudon by Penderecki featured a whole nunnery going insane with lust - a scenario Ken Russell took up with relish in his filmic version of the story shortly afterwards, a film that was banned in Ireland, Britain and many other countries for its infamous "rape of Christ" sequence and graphic scenes involving nuns.
But the question remains: is depiction necessarily endorsement? How far does the portrayal of blasphemy, or of sexuality in a religious setting, necessarily promote what it is describing? Can't true religion survive satirical treatment?
And what is it about sex and the body that incites such visceral hostility in a way that portrayals of even the most horrific violence in opera or on film never do?
For a country like Northern Ireland, where religious sentiment is stronger than in many other parts of northern Europe, these questions have added relevance. In fact, this is one of the main reasons we want to do the piece, especially with the whole question of religious sensitivities and artistic representation so current.
If Salome does nothing else, it challenges us, in every sense, to have a view, to confront our own received opinions, as people did over a century ago.
As all the operas mentioned suggest, great art - like authentic spirituality - has a habit of rising above contemporary controversies and prudishness.
Strauss's voluptuously romantic score is a glory of its time, as seductive and, at times, as brutally violent as its heroine. Its greatness justifies itself - this is a score as thrilling as any opera ever written.
And, perhaps, it is precisely because it deals with difficult subjects, with people on the very edge of reason, with the ultimate in society's taboos, that this opera retains its force; its capacity to shock and enthral.
Oliver Mears is artistic director of NI Opera. Performances of Salome will take place on Friday, February 6 (8pm) and Sunday, February 8 (2pm). Tickets can be booked through the Grand Opera House's box office on 028 9024 1919, or online at www.goh.co.uk