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9.12.1905: “Salome” Scandal in Dresden
It was an achievement which says alot about the composer’s talent, and about how music can spruce up a tawdry story. Audiences were enthralled by its horrors and overcome by the beauty of its score.

The play is set in an oriental royal palace in the early years of the Christian calendar. John the Baptist is being held captive in a dungeon. Salome, King Herod’s step-daughter, falls in love with John. She practically throws herself at him, but he brusquely rejects her.

It all starts to go horribly wrong in the middle of the play, which is only 90-minutes long, when King Herod indecently proposes his step-daughter to dance for him, promising to fulfil her every wish if she does so. Salome performs the dance of the Seven Veils. Salome drops the last veil. The King is ecstatic. “What do you desire, Salome?” the king asks. “I want John’s head!” Salome replies.

He is afraid of having the prophet killed and implores Salome to choose something else. But again and again she insists: “I demand you give me John’s head!”

One of the most gruesome scenes in the history of opera unfolds. Salome holds a wild and despairing dialogue with the bloody head of her beloved. She mocks him, beseeches him to look at her and finally kisses his lips. The King, disgusted, orders her execution: “Put this woman to death!”

The audience raved. At the premiere in Dresden the curtain rose and fell 36 times. “Salome” was totally in tune with the avant-garde taste of the time. Topics involving scandal, decadence and perversion topped the best seller lists at the ‘fin de siècle’ and authors such as Arthur Schnitzler and Oscar Wilde – upon whose play “Salome” was based – were infamous for their liberal ways.

The critics were horrified and even the artistes at Dresden’s State Opera initially rejected the opera. The soprano Marie Wittich refused to sing the role of Salome, afraid of ruining her reputation. But it wasn’t just the play’s open sexuality that divided public opinion, Strauss also relaxed the rules of harmony and had the singers sing in different keys simultaneously.

But in the end, enthusiasts outnumbered the critics. “A really great, very strong piece of work, which is definitely among the most significant of our time”, enthused Gustav Mahler, who was working at the Court Opera in Vienna at the time.
   
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Richard Strauss play “Salome” premiered in Dresden on 9 December 1905. Why did it cause a scandal?
  The play’s open sexuality.
  The cast went on strike after two weeks.
  The king was played by an actor of mixed race.
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