From the Archives: Salome at the Met
By Peter Clark
No opera premiere in Met history has created a scandal to equal the one that greeted Richard Strauss’s Salome on January 22, 1907. Heinrich Conried, the Met’s general manager from 1903 to 1908, was a man of the theater who had a taste for sensation. In his initial Met season, he produced the first performances of Wagner’s Parsifal outside of Bayreuth, in open defiance of the composer’s family and copyright holders. Hoping that Strauss’s new opera mixing biblical figures with sexually infused stage action would create another box office hit, Conried selected the Salome premiere (pictured at the top of this page, with Olive Fremstad in the title role) as his annual benefit performance at elevated prices.
But the reaction went beyond anything that Conried could have foreseen. Terms such as “moral stench,” “degeneracy,” and “operatic offal” filled news accounts of the Salome premiere. Worst of all, the board of the opera house’s owners became involved when the daughter of one of its most powerful members, J.P. Morgan, found the opera offensive. Thus, five days after the premiere, a board resolution sent to Conried advised him that Salome was “objectionable, and detrimental to the best interests of the Metropolitan Opera House.” Some negotiations followed, but, in the end, performances of Salome were banned from the Met. From today’s viewpoint, there is considerable irony and even humor in contemplating the puritanical moral scruples of people now infamous as the legendary Gilded Age’s “robber barons.”
The outrage seemed to have been reinforced by an open dress rehearsal held on the Sunday before the premiere with an audience in attendance who had just left church services and found the opera somewhat less than edifying. And of course the libretto, based on a play by Oscar Wilde—the era’s notorious, openly gay writer—added fuel to the fire, as is evidenced by the eminent critic W.J. Henderson’s description some years later of “a strange story projecting principally the abnormal psychologies of a feminine pervert and a man tormented by perpetual and undefined terrors.”
For the next 27 years, Salome remained in exile from the Met, though it was performed at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House in 1909 with soprano Mary Garden, who specialized in playing seductresses. The second Met Salome, in 1934, was a tentative affair under the baton of Artur Bodanzky with Göta Ljungberg in the title role. While the opera’s return was greeted as an important event, the performance lacked a protagonist with sufficient vocal or dramatic gifts to establish the work firmly in the repertory.
After that cautious return, the formula for a successful Salome became clear: a strong personality in the title role with a voice that could slice through the huge orchestra and enough physical allure to avoid ridicule, supported by a dynamic, authoritative conductor. The powerful dramatic soprano Olive Fremstad (pictured above) had been a daring Salome in 1907—perhaps too daring in her fondling the severed head of John the Baptist. In 1938, Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence achieved success in the part as a relatively lithe, youthful interpreter with a strong, dramatic soprano. Her conductor, Ettore Panizza, surprised those who admired him only for Italian and French repertory with an impressive aptitude for the style. In 1942–43, famed conductor George Szell made his Met debut in Salome, with Belgian soprano Lily Djanel, a noted Carmen, proving an enchanting femme fatale as the Judean princess.
But it was the duel Met debuts of conductor Fritz Reiner and Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch (pictured above) in 1949 that created the most sensational Salome performances since the 1907 premiere. In this case, the reaction was ecstatic approval. “With Ljuba Welitsch, the new Bulgarian soprano, as one wing of the bellows and conductor Fritz Reiner, of long and esteemed honor, as the other, they pumped blazing life into a work which might almost be said to be making its debut here with them,” wrote noted critic Irving Kolodin. Welitsch’s flaming red hair, “silvery-sounding voice,” and charismatic persona, together with Reiner’s masterful orchestra, thrilled the audience, who were “still cheering both fifteen minutes after the final curtain.” Welitsch and Reiner repeated their Salome in two more seasons until the soprano’s Met career abruptly ended due to her lack of success in other roles.
Through the 1950s, various notable soprano-conductor duos partnered for Salome, such as Astrid Varnay and Reiner, and Christel Goltz and Inge Borkh with Dimitri Mitropoulos. Throughout all this period and all the way back to the 1930s, Salome was given on a double bill, usually with an Italian opera or with a ballet. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi most often served as a curtain raiser, but Cavalleria Rusticana, La Serva Padrona, and Menotti’s Amelia Goes to the Ball also shared the bill sometimes, as did several ballets. Strange as this programming seems today, it was not until the 1960s that Salome was considered sufficient in itself to make a full evening’s entertainment.
In 1965, the first new production of Salome since 1934 was directed by Günther Rennert, with sets by Rudolf Heinrich. The performing team was one for the history books. The Met’s reigning Brünnhilde and Isolde, Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (pictured above), joined the eminent Strauss conductor Karl Böhm for some of the most thrilling performances that Salome has ever received at the Met. Winthrop Sargeant in The New Yorker thought it a “total triumph. I have never heard the role so magnificently sung. What surprised me, though, was that I have seldom seen it so magnificently acted … Karl Böhm, in the orchestra pit, brought out and clarified every detail of the score.”
Böhm had been close to Richard Strauss in the 1930s and led the world premieres of two of his late operas. As a direct link to the composer’s style, Böhm became the Met’s conductor of choice for Strauss, also leading Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, and the Met premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten. In the 1970s, Böhm also partnered for Salome with another eminent soprano renowned for her portrayals of Strauss heroines, Leonie Rysanek.
One of conductor James Levine’s early assignments at the Met was Salome with Grace Bumbry (pictured above), who was transitioning from mezzo-soprano heroines into dramatic soprano parts. She was the first American since Olive Fremstad to have the opera mounted specifically for her, and she would be the last until 1996, when Catherine Malfitano sang a series of searing performances under conductor Donald Runnicles.
A new production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff in 1989 gave the opera a decadent atmosphere more akin to that of Wilde’s time than to biblical Judea. The costumes, especially a pink ruffled gown for Salome, excited much comment. Marek Janowski conducted big-voiced Hungarian soprano Eva Marton in the title role, and the musical performance offered some compensation for those who felt bewildered by the visual aspects.
More modernizing yet was Jürgen Flimm’s new production in 2004, designed by Santo Loquasto. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev whipped up the orchestra as the intense performance by Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role (pictured above) recalled memories of Rysanek and even Welitsch. Mattila’s costume, which evoked Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, was completely discarded in the final scene, producing a rare instance of total nudity on the Met stage. The word “sensation” once again became linked to Salome as it had been so often in the past.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives