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.

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