Bring me the head of John the Baptist! NI Opera’s Salome: a collision of religion and sex … in Belfast

Oliver Mears rejects the notion that opera has to seen as elitist, incomprehensible and alienating. NI Opera’s artistic director explained to me that the four-year old company choose “the most dramatic” works to perform to challenge people’s preconceptions and prejudices, and always sing in English.

Their next performance opens in the Grand Opera House on Friday 6 February. [Updatereview posted.]

Salome is incredibly theatrical. There’s not a dull moment in it. Full of action, some of it quite famous action … Giselle Allen who’s playing the role of Salome was born in Belfast and we’re very, very lucky to work with someone who is local and who is of that international calibre. And it’s a role that’s almost written for her.

The company looks for “resonances with things here” in Northern Ireland.

When we did the Flying Dutchman a couple of years ago – it’s about the sea and ships – and in light of Belfast’s incredible maritime history, we wanted to do a piece that would have that kind of echo.

With Salome one is dealing with lots of contentious subjects, one of which is this collision of religion and sex, and given that Northern Ireland is more religious than many countries in northern Europe, we thought this was an opera that people should see … because it’s never been staged in Northern Ireland before.

Giselle Allen as SalomeThe New Testament biblical account that inspired Salome is a mere 12 verses in the Gospel of Matthew and 16 verses in Mark.

Herod imprisoned John the Baptist for pointing out that the king had unlawfully married his brother’s wife, Herodias. Yet Herod was also in awe of John and spared his life; while Herodias nursed an enormous grudge. At Herod’s birthday banquet, Herodias’ daughter Salome came in and danced. Herod was so pleased he promised her whatever she asked for, up to half his kingdom. In a superb piece of positive parenting, her mother seized the opportunity to inculcate revenge and suggested that she request “the head of John the Baptist”. The distressed king’s executioner was dispatched to the prison and soon he returned with a platter bearing the severed head of John which Salome gave to her mother.

After forty years of regular attendance, I can’t remember ever hearing a sermon preached on this text in church. Somehow the Bible’s more gruesome and horrific accounts are apparently better suited to artistic endeavour.

Many new characters and twists and turns have been added. Gustave Flaubert turned it into a short story; Oscar Wilde elaborated and wrote a play (in French), adding The Dance of the Seven Veils; and Richard Strauss created an opera that was first performed in December 1905.

The opera narrative includes attraction, lust, prophecy, suicide, spilt blood, the preaching of salvation, rejection, an alluring and captivating dance, and finally a spot of (oddly unnoticed) necrophilia.

A few weeks ago there were reports on Radio Ulster’s The Arts Show that Belfast City Council had received a complaint about the upcoming performance of Salome.

Oliver recounts that when the Dance of the Seven Veils was originally performed it initiated the craze of Salomania when female dancers “interpreted it with less and less states of undress”, including Marie Ewing who famously performed it at Covent Garden in 1980s and was completely nude by the end of the dance.

She was one of the first singers to do that. Maybe it’s that mix of religion with a Bible story and sex which people find troublesome.

While Oliver insists his performance won’t be “gratuitous”, he is clear that complaints should not influence artistic direction.

Our responsibility is to ensure what goes on stage is truthful to the opera that we’re producing and isn’t dictated by other considerations. I said recently in an article in the Belfast Telegraph that I remain surprised that people are so much more offended by sexual content or nudity than they are by the most horrific kinds of violence that one sees on television bang on nine o’clock. To me it doesn’t make any sense. Nevertheless, our priority is to make sure that whatever is produced has integrity and has truth in terms of the opera.

If the company was to change its plans for the production due to the complaint being made, Oliver said they’d “be on a slippery slope in terms of depiction”

… we’ve seen it very recently in France where some people get offended by a word of artistic depiction. Should people be cowed by that? Should people stop depicting that? I don’t believe so. I think it’s important that people are given the opportunity to have an opinion and they can only have that by seeing it.

I think it’s very, very important that at these turbulent times, what’s on stage, or what’s in a book, or what’s in a cartoon is not dictated by people’s religions sensibilities.

NI Opera are following the traditional route of splitting the role of Salome. Its talented soprano will step aside to allow a professional dancer to perform the intense ten minute choreographed dance.

Giselle has got so much on her plate already with these thousands and thousands of notes that she learns. She has to concentrate on that. The Dance of the Seven Veils and our interpretation is very, very psychological and requires the skills of a professional dancer to manifest that. It’s still fairly rare that a soprano will do the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Update – Monday 2 February – NI Opera have informed ticket holders:

Over recent weeks the dancer and Movement Director have been rehearsing in London and as a result, the content of the Dance of the Seven Veils has been enhanced.  The dancer playing Salome will now appear nude for the last ten seconds of the Dance.  This change represents Salome in an image of stark vulnerability.  We believe it adds significantly to the artistic value of the performance.

Other than snippets of opera at the Out to Lunch Festival, the only opera I’ve ever been to was the Jerry Springer Opera in London, a few months before the controversy around the BBC’s decision to screen it on BBC Two.

So what should first time opera goers be looking for if they come along to the Grand Opera House next weekend?

Wagner called opera “the total art form” … It offers spectacular sets and scenery. It offers fantastic music: some of the greatest music that’s ever been written. It offers drama, theatre. It offers poetry.

It offers a 75 piece orchestra, and nearly 15 singers all in one condensed, compact, inspiring evening. And it’s all live of course.

Immediately prior to the interview, Oliver had been at a read through with the Ulster Orchestra. He said that Salome’s score “bring shivers down your spine”.

Our mission is to do things in English so there are no barriers … so that people can immediately understand what is being said. Of course when things are sung not every word gets across, but in this case we’re printing the libretto in our programme so that people can follow it if they need to. Performing opera in its original language is preferable for reasons of musicality but in terms of immediacy I always think its good to perform things in English.

On the subject of budget cuts, Oliver Mears said that what was most worrying was “what it demonstrated about political will”. He argues:

… the arts aren’t just important for themselves but they’re also important in terms of the economy, tourism, in terms of well-being [and people’s health] and it is alarming that whenever there are cuts – in whatever country – it’s always the arts which suffer and which are at the absolute bottom of the priority list. I think that’s a shame … but then I would say that!

And his elevator pitch for why anyone should go out and buy a ticket for Salome?

It’s fantastic music performed by outstanding soloists, with the Ulster Orchestra, and a story that will knock you for six.

NI Opera’s Salome runs in the Grand Opera House on Friday 6 at 8pm and Sunday 8 at 2pm.

Update – Director Oliver Mears and Father Eugene O’Hagan – one third of The Priests – discussed Salome on Sunday Sequence last weekend (starts 1hr22m30s into the programme). Father Eugene has his ticket and is heading along to make his own judgement on Friday night.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • Karen O’Rawe

    Lovely article! Looking forward to seeing you there on Friday 🙂 #2015AYearOfNewExperiences

  • Korhomme

    “I remain surprised that people are so much more offended by sexual
    content or nudity than they are by the most horrific kinds of violence
    that one sees on television… To me it doesn’t make
    any sense.”

    The sense seems to come from the four early “doctors” of the Christian church, and their theological successors. Woman, being made “from Man” was therefore a sort of afterthought, a second rate being. Thus,

    “Every woman ought to be filled with shame at the thought that she is a woman”

    Building on the story of the “apple” in the Garden of Eden,

    “[Women should wear perpetual mourning to atone for] the ignominy and odium of having being the cause of the fall of the human race”

    “sex in marriage [is] just about permissible for the purposes of procreation; sex for pleasure, and especially extramarital sex, [are] anathema.

    Even Martin Luther didn’t have a great opinion of women; he advised Henry VIII that he (Henry) could marry bigamously, and also said,

    “And if a woman grows weary and at last dies from child-bearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.”

  • David Crookes

    A collision of fact and myth…..
    On the day when John the Baptist was murdered, Herod’s stepdaughter Salome was
    only a child. Matthew and Mark call her κορασιον, using the Greek word which they both apply to the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus. Salome may have been fifteen or sixteen when she danced at her stepfather’s birthday party. Neither Evangelist attaches any blame to Salome.

    We must lay to rest the vulgar notion that Salome was a mature young woman who
    pleased her stepfather and his guests by dancing lewdly. If that notion owes a good deal to Oscar Wilde, Gustave Moreau, and Richard Strauss, it owes nothing at all to the New Testament writers. Salome herself was as innocent as the dancing daughter of Jephthah. Some authors, adducing a mere handful of literary references, are happy to assert that all dancing girls in the ancient world danced lewdly. Ignore these foolish authors. And ignore any dark-souled puritan who equates a perfectly chaste ballet like Nutcracker with the sort of dancing that goes on in an unsalubrious nightclub. The κορασιον Salome PLEASED Herod and his guests (Matthew 14. 6: ηρεσεν; Mark 6. 22: ηρεσεν). What made it possible for her to do so? The fact that those who watched her performance were connoisseurs of dance.

    Ignorance or puritanical disapproval of dance has led more than a few commentators to construe the Greek verb ηρεσεν in an unclean manner. These commentators, as Lady Bracknell would say, should be well punished for their morbidity. Here are four important words from Hamlet.

    Taint not thy mind….

    Here are ten important words from Isaiah 52. 11.

    … ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD.

    If you want to study the Bible properly, you must bring a healthy mind to the
    job. Does any reader remember how the saying of the twelve in Acts 6. 5 ‘PLEASED the whole multitude’? The verb once again is ηρεσεν, and it doesn’t suggest that every member of the multitude was leering in lubricious delight. Listen! In Belfast as in Istanbul, a lady dancer may be watched ‘with unleering eyes’ by an audience consisting of male and female connoisseurs. I shouldn’t have to state that fact, but those who didn’t know it should LEARN IT NOW.
    Here are four words. ‘ The young girl danced.’ Only a dirty-minded brute will want to interpret those four words as follows. ‘ The young girl danced in a lewd manner.’ Bizarre things go on in some terribly sober heads. One well-known Biblical commentator, whose work you can find on the web, talks about ‘the licentious dance of the half-naked princess’!

    John the Baptist was a victim of the scheming Herodias. So was young Salome.

  • the rich get richer

    What is it about religion and chopping peoples heads off ? ? ?

  • carl marks

    thank you David , most illuminating, in my Ignorance i always just sort of accepted the” half naked princess” version,
    the puritan trend inside various religions has always seemed strange to me, as Korhomme has pointed out a play or movie with a bit of nudity seems to be more offensive than a movie that has hundreds killed gruesomely.
    I sometimes get the impression there is a puritanical arms race within and between some churches the winner being the ones who are offended by the most

  • David Crookes

    Bless you, carl, let me repeat something that I said not long ago in a church pulpit. The true story of Salome is rejected at once by some very religious persons first because it isn’t nasty, and secondly because it isn’t boring.
    Salome became an important member of the early Christian church. While still a girl she was present with the two Maries at the crucifixion but not at the burial of the Lord Jesus Christ (Mark 15. 40, 47). In between she may have been taken home by her father’s soldiers. But on the resurrection morning she was back with the two Maries, prepared to anoint the Lord’s body (Mark 16. 1). St Mark names her very discreetly. It is notable that he gives no familial links.
    Later Salome appears as ‘she who is in Babylon’ (a code-name for Nicopolis, the capital of Lesser Armenia, of which she became queen) in I Peter 5. 13, and as the ‘elect lady’ who is the addressee of II John. A relation of Salome is likely to be the martyred ‘Antipas’ of Revelation 2. 13. The moral of such a familial link might be that the story of John the Baptist isn’t over until it’s over. ‘Antipas’ is to the Herodian family almost what ‘Windsor’ is to the British royal family.
    If you want to get some idea of what Salome looked like, type COIN and SALOME into Google images. She appears to have had a straight nose (although that facial feature was often idealized by artists of the period), a capacious brain-pan, and large ears. Her second husband Aristobulus thought so well of her that he put her portrait on the back of one of his coins.
    St Peter’s mention of ‘She who is in Babylon’ (Salome herself may have written the first part of the verse) may encode a short form of Salome’s name. Let me give one word its Greek spelling. ‘She who is in Babu-LO-ni.’ Was Sa-LO-me known affectionately as LO?
    Whatever the case, her first appearance in the Bible parallels the tale of Jephthah to some extent.
    Jephthath: foolish oath: dancing daughter: murder.
    Herod: foolish oath: dancing stepdaughter: murder.
    The superstition is often repeated that the book of Esther is nowhere alluded to in the New Testament, but the literate Herod quotes Ahasuerus when he offers his stepdaughter whatever she wants, up to half of his kingdom. The equally literate Herodias seems to have based the subject of her daughter’s pantomime-dance on Song of Solomon 6. 11-13. It is possible that the Hebrew for ‘SHULAMITE’, which is very close to the Greek for SALOME, caught the eye of Herodias in the first place.
    By the way, the notion that ‘She who is in Babylon’ means ‘the Babylonian church’ is a pietistic absurdity, like the ludicrous ‘Amen’ which some over-religious person has added to the end of II John.
    Have a good night, carl.

  • carl marks

    Thank you David, you have no idea how refreshing it is to hear a christian explaining something with both reasoning and logic as compared to the many who start with a dogma and look for evidence to support it.

  • David Crookes

    God bless you, carl, you are much too
    generous. All theology and no general
    knowledge makes Jack both an extremely dull boy and a dangerous guide to the
    Bible. I beware of very religious
    persons who have an excessive interest in what we may call (since this is a
    family show) naughty business down south.
    It delights me to find that Rahab the ex-harlot of Jericho gets a
    tremendous press in the New Testament (Hebrews 11. 31). It also delights me to believe that ‘the
    woman taken in adultery’ of John chapter 8 is the Dorcas or Tabitha of the book
    of Acts, and maybe also the Phoebe of Romans chapter 16. (It was great fun to be a member of the early
    church, and also very dangerous, especially for a bearer or receiver of
    important communications, so variant codenames were necessary things. Salome is so important that in II John she
    can’t be named, her children can’t be named, and even the man who’s writing to
    her can’t be named.)

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you David, for a truly brilliant example of how a little willingness to examine canonic stories reveals under all those veils of sometimes wilful misinformation something much richer and far more rewarding.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, Seaan. If you’re interested, look at Esther
    5. 3, 6; 7. 2.

    Then said the king unto her, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom.

    And the king said unto Esther at the banquet of wine, What is thy petition? and it shall be granted thee: and what is thy
    request? even to the half of the kingdom it shall be performed.

    And the king said again unto Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine, What is thy petition, queen Esther? and it shall be granted thee: and what is thy request? and it shall be performed, even to the half of the kingdom (εως ημισους της βασιλειας μου in the Septuagint).

    Go on to look at Mark 6. 22-23.

    And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom (εως ημισους της βασιλειας μου – EXACTLY as in the Septuagint).

    Herod was a literate man. He knew the book of Esther intimately.

    [Like Ahasuerus, Herod Antipas had set aside one wife and taken another. If you look up Esther 2. 9 in the Septuagint,
    you’ll find that the queen-to-be is denoted by the noun κορασιον ( = girl), and that she ηρεσεν ( = pleased) Hegai. If
    you look up Matthew 14. 6, 11 and Mark 6. 22, 28 in Greek, you’ll find that Salome is denoted by the noun κορασιον ( = girl), and that she ηρεσεν ( = pleased) Herod.]

    The vengeful Herodias was a literate woman. She knew
    at least three verses from the Song of Solomon (Hebrew Bible, 6. 11, 6. 12, and 7. 1: AV, 6. 11-13).

    I went down into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley, and to see whether the vine flourished, and the pomegranates budded.

    Or ever I was aware, my soul made me like the chariots of Amminadib.

    Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will ye see in the Shulamite? As it were the company of two armies.

    Let us try to read those three verses as Herodias might have read them.

    I went to a party in the food-producing ‘garden of Israel ( = Galilee).

    Part of the entertainment was provided by a female dancer whose performance was riveting. Before I realized what was happening, I felt like a general whose troops were clamouring for battle.

    GUESTS Encore, encore, Salome! Encore, encore! We want to see you dance again.

    HOST What did you make of Salome’s pantomime-dance?

    ONE GUEST Well, it seemed to me that her dance
    represented a battle between two opposing armies.

    Here is SHULAMITE in Hebrew. (The second letter, wau, stands for the vowel U.)


    And here is SALOME inHebrew.


    The army staff officers who were guests at Herod’s party might have taken more pleasure than the civilian
    guests in a martial pantomime-dance. Did Herod want these officers to approve his plans for war against Aretas, and did
    he gain their approval after his stepdaughter danced? (If you care to find out how Herod lost the war, read Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18. 5. 1-2.)

    [Some commentators, following the Septuagint, take ‘the Shulamite’ to be Abishag the Shunnamite. In doing so, they ignore one intractable fact.

    L is not the same as N.

    Aldover in Spain has nothing to do with Andover in England. Likewise, Layland in West Virginia has nothing to do with Nayland in New Zealand. Furthermore, the Lod of Nehemiah 11. 35 is not the Nod of Genesis 4. 16, and the Lemuel of Proverbs 31. 1 is not the Nemuel of Numbers 26. 8.]

    While we don’t know who the Shulamite was, we can be sure that Herodias wove three verses from the Song of Solomon into the fabric of her evil scheme

  • Review now posted.

    David Crookes – the Wilde/Strauss version changes quite a lot of the already compressed Biblical original story and goes off at a fair tangent – including Herodias (Salome’s mother) discouraging her from dancing and not being consulted about what to claim from her father (who offers a prize for dancing before the dance).