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Who is Salome?: The Story Behind Strauss’s Opera

Of all the tragically terrifying women in opera, Strauss’s Salome is not far removed from Donizetti’s Lucia of Lucia di Lammermoor or Cherubini’s Medea. From the mysterious “Dance of the Seven Veils” to the serving of John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Salome stands out as a unique retelling of a Biblical account.


According to the Bible, the young daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of first-century Roman ruler Herod Antipas performed a dance on Herod’s birthday that deeply impressed him. In return, Herod promised to grant her one wish. By her mother's command, the princess requested the head of John the Baptist, who had denounced Herod’s marriage to Herodias. As promised, John the Baptist was decapitated, and his head was served on a platter, which the princess dutifully passed to her mother.


The story of John the Baptist’s death is told similarly in both the Books of Matthew and Mark. The princess, the decider of John the Baptist’s fate, is not named in either account. She is most often identified in popular culture through the name “Salome” due to the historical accounts of a first-century military leader named Flavius Josephus in his twenty-volumes worth of work called “The Antiquities of the Jews.”


The name “Salome” is a feminine word structure derived from the Hebrew word “shalom,” meaning “peace.” The New Testament tells of another woman by the same name who was a follower of Jesus and was present at his crucifixion. The stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, however, followed a far different path and is simply known for her role in the murder of John the Baptist.  


As an unfortunate villain of Biblical proportions with a name to write—and sing—of, Salome has become the inspiration behind a multitude of artistic works throughout the ages, from Renaissance paintings to plays, operas, films, and beyond.


Oscar Wilde’s one-act play was first published and performed in the late 1800s under the name Salomé and became the basis of Richard Strauss’s libretto for his opera, Salome. Wilde’s script was translated from French to German by Hedwig Lachmann, and the libretto was completed with some edits from the composer himself. Salome premiered in 1905 at the Dresden Court Opera and has since ridden through waves of distaste and intrigue among international audiences for many years.


The play-turned-opera portrays the young princess as a more sensual and self-expressive woman than the original Biblical accounts allow, with the “Dance of the Seven Veils” earning its infamy through a variety of vivid interpretations across global productions, and the unmistakable dramatic cacophony of sounds and musical range creating an uneasy yet intense atmosphere.


In brief, the shocking content paired with emotionally shattering musical lines forces an intimately passionate experience shared among the actors and the audience members. Love, lust, obsession, and loss bring the brief accounts of an unnamed yet critical character in the Bible’s narratives to provocative heights. 


Despite highs and lows among audience receptions during the work’s earliest openings, a new production of Strauss’s Salome is set to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera during its 2024-2025 season, starring Elza van den Heever as the dancing princess and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. With recent successes at Opéra Bastille, the Irish National Opera, and more, it is no surprise that the story will be carried on with fervent passion.


Whether Salome felt empowered by her chance at murdering John the Baptist or was simply a loyal daughter to her vengeful mother, readers and viewers of the many artistic works inspired by the young woman’s dark tale may never truly know. Across mediums are a common theme of tragedy and the ever-unique experiences of women in history.

 

Jane Fitzpatrick is an avid researcher of the intersections between religious traditions and international affairs with a passion for opera and art. She earned her master's degree in International Affairs from Penn State University and has a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from Gettysburg College. Jane has previously provided research assistance for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Strategic Religious Engagement Unit of the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army War College. In 2023, she became an AppreciateOpera.org contributing columnist.

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There is nothing more fascinating than understanding how artists across artistic genres find inspiration in myths or historical figures and infuse them with everlasting life and mystic. We often forget that operatic works fascinate not only for their musical prowess but because (the better ones) revive or invent historical or mythological creatures that contain the whole of human passion, pain or mischief. Thank you for sharing with us the travels of Salome through history and art.

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