January 25, 2015

Salome and "niceness": carnal force meets spiritual object

Have you seen the film version of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods yet? I loved it. Of course, that's a topic for another time and another blog, but still there's a tenuous connection between that show and Strauss's Salome.
Titian's "St. John the Baptist" (1540)

At one point, the Witch sings this line: “You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, You're just nice." That's a really loaded thought she' warbling there! I also Googled the phrase "good but not nice" and got a mountain of sources, including, among many others,

  • an article in Psychology Today: "Are you nice but not good?"
  • a Huffington Post piece: "Nice but not good: the art of spotting narcissists" 
  • a novel by Iris Murdoch entitled The Nice and the Good" and
  • an article from Quartz advising "How to hire good people instead of nice people.
The last item included this pithy observation: "The opposite of good is bad. The opposite of nice is unlikeable".

Tell me about it, Quartz! I'm currently spending my days trying to motivate groups of highly conservative, generally religious, mostly senior-aged residents of the Bible Belt to attend upcoming performances of an opera populated by a depraved, neurotic king who lusts after his step-daughter, climaxing in a scene in which the step-daughter makes love to a severed head.

I had lined up a speaking gig for a large group at a local Baptist church in Norfolk. They'd contacted me, asking for a talk about opera. Cool! We're doing a story about the death of John the Baptist! Several days later, a minister on the staff contacted Virginia Opera to cancel; she'd obviously looked up the opera and read the synopsis. "We were hoping for a pleasant, entertaining program", she said, "this material is not appropriate for our group."

Oy.

I'm familiar with this attitude - I grew up with it.

My mother, who I lost to Alzheimer's six years ago, would have said "AMEN!" to this minister's objections. Mom liked her opera pleasant; edifying; nice. About more serious fare she was wont to say "I have enough troubles of my own in my life; why should I pay money to go see other people's troubles?" Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I heard her say that....................

But I really, REALLY wish the church group had let me come. Far one thing, the demographics of our audience base puts a cap on how graphic the staging will be in this version - we're not in Berlin, we're in Southeastern Virginia. Our Salome, the fine soprano Kelly Cae Hogan, is not going to pull a Maria Ewing and finish her dance with total, full-frontal nudity. You kidding me? The last time we had anything objectionably racy on our stage, dozens of subscribers called the next day to cancel their subscriptions.

But my real frustration is that Salome is, ironically, the most moral opera I can think of. In one sensational act, it neatly defines one of the largest issues facing mankind:

The pursuit of carnality versus the pursuit of spirituality.

Are human beings ruled by their physical appetites, or can they achieve a higher plane of existance? Herod is driving himself mad with neuroses made manifest in his semi-incestuous, pedophilic obsession with his wife's child. Herodias is an adultress, having defied cultural norms by dumping her husband to become the wife of the Tetrarch of Judea. It's little wonder that Salome herself, having been raised in this hot-house of twisted carnal desires, is vulnerable; little wonder that her curiosity about Jochanaan leads to a frenzy of sexually-charged desire. The sexuality engulfing the House of Herod is the irresistable force.

In contrast stands John/Jochanaan, an immoveable object in his total denial of carnal pursuits. This man, dressed in rags, with no matereial possessions, living the most spartan and austere lifestyle imaginable (we're told in the New Testament that he subsisted on grasshoppers and wild honey), is impervious to secular temptations of any kind.

Both in Oscar Wilde's play and the opera's adaptation of that play, this battle between carnality and spirituality is expressed and symbolized in a single word:

Look.

In Salome, the act of looking at someone represents desire. Flip through the pages of the libretto, and you'll find this word appearing on every page, uttered by every principal character.
  • Narraboth looks at Salome; the Page warns him not to look at her;
  • Other guards remark about Herod's "dark look" and wonder who he's looking at;
  • Salome complains about Herod looking at her "with his mole's eyes";
  • Salome tells Narraboth "I would have a look" at Jochanaan
  • When Narraboth replies he's under orders to keep the prisoner below, Salome promises to look at him the next day;
  • Herodias chides her husband: "You're always looking at her (Salome)";
  • When Herod sees Narraboth's corpse, he says "I will not look at him"
  • Herod tells Salome: "I would love to (look at) your shining teeth"
  • Herod to Salome: "The head of a dead man that has been cut off from his body is too vile to look at"
...and so on, with many such examples studded throughout the text.

In contrast, here are some of Jochanaan's lines:
  • (referring to Herodias) "Who is she who indulged in the lust of her eyes", etc.
  • (referring to Salome) "Who is this woman who is looking at me? I'll not have her eyes on me."
  • (to Salome) "I do not want to see you. You are cursed."
Once this confrontation between Man's dual nature is grasped; once we view the opera through the prism of carnality vs. spirituality, we understand that this is a cautionary tale. The Page is speaking to you and me in his many warnings to Narraboth, his several prophecies that "bad things will happen". This is the bottom line:

There are consequences for choosing to pursue carnal pleaures. Be like Jochanaan. DON'T LOOK. Bad things can happen if that path is followed.

Does the notorious final scene, Salome's perverted apotheosis, glorify depravity? No; in this case, Herod's horrified reaction is a proxy for our own. The sensuality and gorgeousness of Salome's ecstatic outpourings are an exercise in point of view. The disconnect between the grotesque tableau of the severed head and the sound of the music tells us that we are experiencing Salome's final moments from "inside her head", as it were. This is what opera can do, via musical craftsmanship: it allows us to adopt another person's point of view, temporarily shelving our own. Salome is in her own irrational world, driven mad by carnality, and - just for a moment or two - we experience what that world is like. 

Is it "nice"? DUH, it's not nice. I totally get it that this material is anathema for folks who want their trip to the opera house to be pure escapism; rollickiing comedy, sweet romance, the heroes and villains of fairy-tales, and (above alll) tuneful melodies.

Oh, opera audiences: let's set our sights higher than niceness. There's a lot of good going on in Strauss's Salome.

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