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Richard Strauss’s masterpiece Salome, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, still shocks 118 years later.

On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.


Salome’s story first appears in the Bible, in a passage of fewer than ten verses in the Gospel of Mark. Her role is so minor, the story does not even mention her name. In this context, it is her mother Herodias who wants John the Baptist beheaded, because he preached against her incestuous marriage to her late husband’s brother.  

Salome was identified by name around the year 100 A.D., in a book of antiquities by Flavius Josephus. Though her story is not particularly sensual or suggestive in the Bible, Salome’s dance for her stepfather struck an inappropriate chord with early Christians, and she became a symbol for the dangers of a woman’s sexuality. The lore of her dance, and its conclusion in the death of a Christian prophet, became a warning: women’s sexuality and seduction of men put them in grave peril. Dozens of medieval and Renaissance paintings caution men against the danger. 

By the 19th century, however, the view of Salome shifted from warning to exploration: she evolved from the Renaissance’s fully-clothed harbinger of death to the fin de siècle’s alluring—and nude—confrontation of traditional morality. Poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote his symbolist exploration of the story, Hérodiade, in 1864, while French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau depicted her more than one hundred times throughout the 19th century. Both Hérodiade and one of Moreau’s paintings, The Apparition, inspired Oscar Wilde’s 1891 French play, Salomé, which in turn served as the basis for Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, first performed in 1905.  


“I won’t do it; I’m a decent woman.”  

Those words are attributed to Marie Wittich, the first soprano to sing the title role in Strauss’s gripping Salome, about her willingness to perform the opera. She sang it anyway, but her initial opinion aptly sums up the early 20th-century reaction to Salome: that of decency versus decadence.  

Though we now associate “decadence” with luxuriously indulgent chocolate ice cream, the term shares its etymology with the verb “to decay”: as an artistic style, it was so labeled by its critics for the decaying of society’s morality. Literary decadence was associated with transgressive and dissident sexual desires, an interest in the perverse, and an artificial air of ennui toward any perceived moral code.  

Aesthetic decadence was meant to disturb and astound us, and Wilde was one of the finest playwrights in the style. The degeneration of society and culture was its crime: a book titled Degeneration, written by Max Nordau in 1892, devoted a major section to Wilde, saying he “loves immorality, sin, and crime.” 

Wilde’s Salome, while influenced by his contemporaries, was also inspired by the Renaissance depictions. Referencing a Bernardino Luini painting of her that, at the time, was inaccurately attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Wilde said, “Her lips in Leonardo’s painting disclose the cruelty of her soul. Her lust must need be infinite, and her perversity without limits.” 

Wilde, not a fan of the apparent docility of the biblical Salome, sought to hypersexualize the story, employing the decadent aesthetic of overemphasizing the perverse to interrogate traditional morality. It should almost be seen as an inevitable conclusion, then, that his Salome would take her lust to the necrophilic act of kissing the beheaded John the Baptist. With that, the shocking history of the Wilde play—and the Strauss opera—began. 

The play was banned from performance in London, officially because London theaters could not portray biblical scenes on the stage. But the real cause was certainly its scandalous plot: the London examiner of plays at the time said, “It is a miracle of impudence. Salome’s love turns to fury because John will not let her kiss him in the mouth.” One of the play’s rare complimentary reactions came from Mallarmé himself, who said to Wilde, “I marvel that, while everything in your Salome is expressed in constant, dazzling strokes, there also arises, on each page, the unutterable and the Dream.”  

Wilde, of course, was persona non grata to critics of decadence. The moralistic reaction to the style, and to Wilde himself, set the stage for the highly publicized 1895 trials that convicted Wilde of “gross indecency” under recently passed legislation in England that made homosexual acts punishable under the law. Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor. While his conviction was directly related to 19th-century views on homosexuality, there is no doubt it was also indirectly related to his 1891 portrayal of Salome, in that she was a symbol for a dissident interrogation of moral codes in a rapidly changing society.  

Five years after its publication—when Wilde was in prison—the play finally was produced in France, where it was widely criticized as a mask for Wilde’s homosexuality, erotic alter ego, and artistic nonconformity, which had less to do with the content of the play than with Wilde’s reputation. While the playwright’s intent is open to interpretation, his work scandalized a society resistant to decadence. The opera had a similar reception. 


After attending Wilde’s play in a German translation by Hedwig Lachmann, Strauss decided to adapt the libretto himself nearly word for word from that version. When the opera premiered in Dresden in 1905, the public loved it and demanded 38 curtain calls—but the social intelligentsia and the music critics were appalled. The opera was variously referred to as “sheer noise,” “intentional cacophony,” and “choice ugliness.” The censorship board in Vienna prevented Gustav Mahler from programming the opera there, saying, “I cannot overcome the objectionable nature of the whole story, and can only repeat that the representation of events which belong to the realm of sexual pathology is not suitable for our Court stage.”  

Salome received its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907, but the daughter of banker J.P. Morgan was gravely offended at the Met’s final dress rehearsal of the piece. Morgan himself, a member of the Met Board, summoned a special meeting of the other Board members—the day after opening night—to force the opera house to cancel the rest of the performances. Salome was subsequently prohibited from the Met stage for nearly 30 years. Nevertheless, in its first two years, Strauss’s Salome played to over 50 theaters in Germany—a society that, after the turn of the century, had embraced the modernist aesthetic ushered in by artistic decadence. 

Houston, Texas, in the year 1956, might not seem, at first blush, to be a city that also would embrace artistic decadence. And yet, on January 19, 1956, Houston Grand Opera presented its very first opera—Strauss’s Salome. Only 50 years after the opera’s scandalous premiere, soprano Brenda Lewis portrayed the iconic role in a city that had never had a professional opera company. Since then, we have performed Salome in 1968 with Felicia Weathers; in 1977 with Grace Bumbry; in 1987 with Josephine Barstow; and in 1997 with Hildegard Behrens.  

In a post-pandemic society, changing as rapidly if not more so than fin de siècle Europe, we return to Salome for the first time in 26 years, and the opera is still shocking, scandalous, explicit—and remarkably daring. The company launching with Salome in 1956 set bold expectations for HGO’s future that continue to define its path.  

Nina Vance, former director of the Alley Theatre and a founding board member of HGO, commented on this choice in 1956, saying, “A touring company cannot risk mounting a production such as Salome. Herein, I think, lies our greatest expectation. A locally governed, non-profit, civic enterprise, as is the Houston Grand Opera Association, can give us the opportunity to enjoy these masterworks of musical literature that we might otherwise never know.” 

It is in our DNA at Houston Grand Opera to present works that are new, that are rare, that question norms like Oscar Wilde did, that challenge us and excite us. Salome reminds us of where we came from, and where we can go in this grandest of art forms. And if you’re less interested in interrogating society with Salome and more interested in simply being entertained, you’ll be in good company: after the 1905 dress rehearsal ended, Richard Strauss stood up, turned around to the audience who sat in stunned silence, smiled, and said, “Well, I rather enjoyed that.”

Jeremy Johnson

About the author

Jeremy Johnson

Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg & Associate Director of New Works Houston Grand Opera.

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