Strauss, Wilde and Courting Controversy

Tuesday, 27 February, 2024
Sinead and Oscar Wilde

Nowadays, seeing sex, blood and gore in various streams of media is pretty common. The onslaught of reality television, social media and 24-hour news coverage over the past few decades has shown people at home the darker side of humanity, and we unfortunately have become quite inured to it. However, it was a pretty different story to audiences at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1891 Oscar Wilde had established himself as a writer and critic but not yet a playwright. His famous staged works such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest were yet to come. He had long been interested in writing a play about Salome and John the Baptist since reading Flaubert’s Herodias whilst attending university. He gave the play to the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, with the intent to have her include it in her season at the Royal Opera House in London.

During rehearsals, Salome faced a ban from the Lord Chamberlain's play licensor. This occurred due to an old law prohibiting the portrayal of biblical characters on stage. Oscar Wilde altered the perspective of the conventional biblical tale of Salome, yet the fundamental plot remains unchanged. In this narrative, Salome, the stepdaughter of tetrarch Herod Antipas and daughter of Herodias, requests the head of Jochanaan (also known as John the Baptist) on a silver platter as a reward for her dance of the seven veils performed for her stepfather. Frustrated, Wilde contemplated leaving England for French citizenship, anticipating a more accepting European audience. Unfortunately, he never witnessed his play's production; by its 1896 premiere, he was serving time in Reading Gaol for illegal homosexual activity.

Fast forward to the turn of the century, where Richard Strauss, no stranger to controversy, boldly decided to adapt Wilde's forbidden play into an opera. This courageous move challenged the cultural and traditional norms of the time, mirroring Wilde's earlier struggle. Upon entering rehearsals for the opera in Dresden, the opera encountered inherent problems. Notably, one singer after another declared their role unsingable and expressed a desire to withdraw. Frau Wittich, who portrayed Salome, was so taken aback by the role that she exclaimed, "That I won't do; I am a respectable woman!" 

As Biblical criticism gained traction among modernist thinkers, the Church vehemently resisted, making any negative portrayal of religious figures perilous. The opera faced protests and denunciations, not only for its themes but also for its unprecedented music. Strauss's composition featured a complex arrangement with 49 instruments and unconventional sounds, reflecting the emotional turmoil on stage. The use of rare instruments like the heckelphone showcased Strauss's departure from traditional orchestral norms. The inclusion of oriental influences in the Dance of the Seven Veils signaled a dramatic shift from accepted musical conventions.

Wilde and Strauss, through their boundary-pushing interpretations of Salome, invited controversy, ridicule, and condemnation. However, in doing so, they played instrumental roles in transforming art from a stagnant and traditional state to a platform that inspired modern and progressive thoughts. Their contributions paved the way for significant changes in the 20th century, challenging the status quo and redefining the possibilities of artistic expression