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Published on 5th March 2019

Salome is a heady brew that still continues to shock


Ahead of Opera Australia's revival of Strauss' infamous opera, Maxim Boon meets American soprano Lise Lindstrom, who's made title role her own.

Sex sells – apparently even when it involves teenage necrophilia, as composer Richard Strauss discovered following the 1905 premiere of his infamous opera, Salome.

On opening night, a whopping 38 curtain calls were demanded by an audience whipped into a frenzy by an unthinkable taboo: an adolescent girl filled with yearning for a severed head. The production was an overnight sensation.

This was a watershed moment for Strauss, cementing his place as a visionary artist who could define the style and substance of music in the new century (not to mention making him a rich man in the process).

But the barnstorming reception received by Salome was by no means a certainty. In fact, by most indications, it was just as likely to be met by riots as it was raptures.

Based on Oscar Wilde's risque reimagining of the Bible story, the original play was banned a fortnight before its intended London premiere in 1891, the intersection of the erotic and religious deemed too transgressive by British authorities.

Salome's myopic sexual ambition defied existing expectations of feminine chastity and virtue, but it was precisely these radical passions that made her operatic incarnation so exhilarating.

American soprano Lise Lindstrom is one of the role's most acclaimed exponents, and will be starring in Opera Australia's upcoming revival of Gale Edwards' multi-Helpmann Award-winning 2012 production.

More than a century has passed since Strauss' Salome first demanded the head of Jochanaan (Wilde uses John the Baptist's Hebrew name), but the opera's ability to shock is just as potent today, she believes.

"When you see this piece on stage, when you hear the music, you are going to be altered by it. There's no getting around it," Lindstrom says.

"It's deeply uncomfortable to watch a woman, particularly at the end of the opera, singing to a severed head for a good 20 minutes. That doesn't ever get comfortable and for good reason."

However, the opera's disturbing conclusion doesn't exist in isolation, Lindstrom explains.

"Just look at the sleazy quality of the household, the scheming and shenanigans of King Herod and Queen Herodias, the strange hyper-sexualisation of their daughter, Salome. The final scene becomes an inevitability."

Wilde's Salome is a creature of uncompromising need, whose desires must be expressed even though they lead to disaster.

Given the obvious allusions to Wilde's forbidden sexuality, subversion has become an essential objective for many directors of this opera, and this has often been explored in one particularly pivotal moment: the dance of the seven veils.

In the Edwards' production, the sexual politics of this scene are stark. Each veil becomes a totem of objectified womanhood, including a pole dancer, a Hollywood starlet, and most unsettlingly of all, a young girl in pigtails.

Choreographer Kelley Abbey says the power of suggestion is this scene's most incisive tool.

"You don't need to see much to understand the implications of what's going on. That's what's so shocking I think, because it's thought provoking and open to each audience member's interpretation."

Even though this production premiered seven years ago, there are obvious connections that could be made to the current political zeitgeist, particularly the #MeToo and Nasty Women movements. But Lindstrom says the viewer needs the freedom to make those associations independently.

"It's not my job, necessarily, to tell the audience what to think or feel. My job is to find a storyline and to portray that narrative in a way that an audience can project onto and have their own reaction to," she says.

"Because I don't think an audience can fail to walk away from this production in particular without an idea about it, without some meaningful response."

First published 5 March 2019, for Sydney Morning Herald.