Some people think that if you want excitement and culture, your best bet is to live in a place like Paris, France or New York City – but I had all the excitement I could handle today just in little ol’ Kenosha, Wisconsin, or K-Town as it is often called. It’s a place that’s easy to dismiss as a city of brats and beer and blue collar mentality – but if you know where to look, there is glorious stuff to experience. I know because I got a big taste of it today and tonight. . . with opening night of the Kenosha Symphony for which I narrated Lincoln Portrait and sang in The Promise of Living (more on that tomorrow) . . . plus festivities involved with Carthage College’s homecoming, which included some extra special guests and a houseful of beloved company. (more on that on Monday.)
In between Carthage reunions and Kenosha Symphony dress rehearsal and last minute housecleaning, there was also the overwhelming thrill of experiencing Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome” in a high definition simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera. This may be the third season of such simulcasts, but it still blows me away that someone can walk into a theater like Tinseltown in Kenosha, WI and either turn right to see that obnoxious new movie “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” – or turn left to see and hear one of the most amazing masterworks in the history of music as it is performed live on the stage of the world’s greatest opera house. Amazing.
In case you have never seen “Salome” or know nothing about it, this is not an opera for the faint-hearted; it is dripping with decadence and evil and some truly repulsive characters. But the opera itself casts an incredibly potent spell, and I am powerless to resist it. My friend Marshall feels the same way- so you’re talking about two church-going former cub scouts from a small town in Iowa who succumbed a long time ago to this amazing R-rated opera.
Just to briefly summarize… King Herod has imprisoned John the Baptist- and his stepdaughter Salome falls in love with the prophet, but is summarily rejected by him. (He wants absolutely nothing to do with her and declares her ‘cursed.’) Bound and determined one way or another to kiss him, Salome’s primary means towards that end is to agree (with apparent reluctance) to perform her famously provocative Dance of the Seven Veils for Herod – succumbing to his fervent pleas only when he agrees to grant her anything she wishes. She proceeds to dance for Herod, stripping off each of seven veils in turn until at the end (at least in this production) she is left standing there completely naked, much to her stepfather’s lustful delight. Herod is expecting that her wish will be for something like emeralds or silk or maybe one of his prize peacocks – but no, Salome’s wish is that the prophet’s head be brought to her on a silver platter. And after Herod’s pleadings are for naught, with Salome refusing to change her mind and holding Herod to his promise, he finally relents and orders the awful deed to be carried out. And when finally the executioner emerges from the prophet’s prison, carrying his head – she takes it and proceeds to sing ecstatically to it in one of opera’s most amazing and challenging scenes before finally kissing it in what is surely the single most sickening moment in all of opera. That’s when Herod orders Salome to be killed right then and there, so repulsed and frightened is he by what he has just witnessed, and that’s how it ends.
Whenever I teach Exploring Music, I always take a few moments to talk about “Salome” and to show them a few minutes from the opera . . . and almost always at least one student will ask in all sincerity, “why would anyone pay money to watch something as sick as this ?!?!“ (Interestingly enough, it’s usually a guy – and often a football player or other athlete – who will pose this question.) And my main answer always is: Why Do People Go To Horror Movies? The answer is- for the thrill, for the intensity of the experience. And I always add, “if you find this opera shocking in 2008, imagine the effect it had on the people who heard its first performance in 1905 !” In fact, the most famous story about this opera is that its first performance at the Met in 1907 was so controversial and traumatic that the Board of Directors held an emergency meeting and voted to cancel all the remaining performances of the opera there . . . and it was another thirty years before Salome was seen again on the stage of the Met.
I’ve seen “Salome” five times in live performances – and would have seen it six times if not for my mom’s death in 1988. (My season tickets for the Lyric included “Salome” on what turned out to be the night before her funeral.) My first was several years later with Catherine Malfitano at the Lyric- my second was Alessandra Marc in concert with the Milwaukee Symphony – my third was Karita Mattila at the Metropolitan Opera – my fourth was Deborah Voigt at the Lyric – and my fifth and most recent was Erika Sonnegardh with the Milwaukee Florentine. All were fantastic performances, but the one that was the most extraordinary of all was that third one, which also happened to be the very first time I attended a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. It was opening night of a new production of Salome, and it was also going to be the first time in Met history that a soprano would be literally naked by the end of the dance of the seven veils. At least that was the rumor, and it proved to be true. And quite apart from the whole matter of nakedness, Karita Mattila gave the performance of a lifetime and brought the house down. Indeed, when she walked out for her solo bow, it was like the sound of a thousand freight trains thundering. There was similar delirium at the end of the Milwaukee Symphony performance, which was a concert performance. That is to say, the singers stood there and sang in tuxes and evening gowns – no costumes, no set . . . and no actual dance of the seven veils. (Which was just as well in this case, since Alessandra Marc probably outweighed the biggest NFL lineman; it would have taken seven veils the size of parachutes to cover her.) But the performance – especially hers – was incredible and when it was all over that MSO crowd was on its feet cheering as though the Beatles – complete with John Lennon – had just sung a reunion concert. And before I had even exited the parking ramp, I was on my cell phone to Marshall, imploring him to get tickets for the second performance the next night – which he did. This is one of those operas which compels you to see it like no other opera does.
And if there was ever an opera that’s perfect for the big screen, it’s this one. And the Met outdid itself in bringing this production to life, with amazing camerawork that seemed to put us right there on stage with the cast – and in particular showing us every nuance of Mattila’s mesmerizing performance. True, the camera also made it all the more evident that Mattila is no teenager (which is what the character is supposed to be) but who the heck cares when the soprano in question sings this thrillingly and acts the role so convincingly ? ! ?
What was really cool is that when we exited the theater, we found that everyone we talked to was as blown away as we were . . . and I don’t just mean young folks like Sarah Gorke and Nick Sluss-Rodionov who are in their mid 20’s and probably not as easily shocked as we are. But every “little old lady” we spoke to seemed to find it just as exciting and impressive and irresistible as we did, which says something both about their open-mindedness and about the power of this opera to draw young and old alike into its web.
By the way, I almost labeled this blog entry “Strip Tease” because one bit of controversy over the simulcast was a decision by Met general manager Peter Gelb that Mattila’s total nakedness at the end of her dance would not be shown to simulcast audiences. And indeed, when that moment arrived, the camera cut from Mattila to Kim Begley (playing Herod) and did not swerve back to the soprano until she was safely wrapped in a robe. And at the risk of sounding like some kind of pervert, I felt genuinely gypped. Not that I had to see Mattila in all of her splendor, but I thought that they could have done something different with the camera- maybe focus just on Mattila’s face at that moment – or go to her feet and show the last veil falling down to the floor – or show her just from the back – or something. But the blatant cutting away smacked of anxious censorship, as though the Daughters of the American Revolution were in the control booth today. But I actually don’t have a problem with Gelb’s decision to be discreet – after all, such a moment would likely have ended up on YouTube with 300,000 hits in the first fifteen minutes of its posting. And in the end, this performance was not at all about a strip tease. It was about amazing acting and singing, which reminded all of us lucky enough to be sitting there that when it comes to delivering a thrilling kick to the solar plexus, nothing beats opera. Not in my book, anyway. And especially not when the opera in question is Salome.
note: Salome is repeated in movie theaters on Wednesday night, October 22nd.
pictured above: Mattila in the midst of the final scene, in which Salome sings ecstatically to the severed head of John the Baptist.