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OPERA RIDES THE razor edge of absurdity, Peter Ustinov observed. I’ve already had fun here with operatic production goofs, such as costume malfunctions, tomb doors not closing properly and unexpected sounds from Victorian plumbing.
Today, let’s look at purposeful actions of opera performers, often hilarious to each other, yet sometimes passing unnoticed by the audience. Our three tales involve performances of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The Wilde work in turn is derived from Flavius Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, book 18, chapters 4 and 5 and also Mark 6:17-29 and Matthew 14:3-11, neither of which mention her name explicitly.
I’ll bet you already know the tale, but briefly, King Herod has the hots for his teenage stepdaughter Salome. He inveigles her to dance naked and, in return, she demands the head of John the Baptist. After a bit of necrophilia on her part, Salome is put to death.
My favorite Salome opera story might well be apocryphal, though it could be based indirectly on a real person, Lawrence Gilman, music critic for Harper’s Weekly and the New York Herald-Tribune..
Except when covering a performance, Gilman was known to protect his sensitive ears by plugging them with cotton. Not that his unplugged assessments were all that good: For example, according to Nick Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, Gilman described George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue using words such as trite, feeble, conventional, vapid, fussy, futile, lifeless, stale, derivative and inexpressive.
In the possibly apocryphal Salome performance, the baritone playing Jochanaan (aka JTB) was a health nut, notorious for offstage plugs of cotton in his ears and nostrils. One night, the prop man doctored up Jochanaan’s head to have appropriate cotton enhancements. Salome, who in real life had no great love for the baritone, collapsed in fits of laughter. The curtain came down hastily prior to her demise.
Another tale, this one documented in Opera Anecdotes, concerns a Salome tenor singing Narraboth, Captain of the Guards. He’s also enamored of Salome. However, early in the opera, he kills himself in remorse of her lusting after JTB.
Tenor Richard Tauber, in his twenties at the time, particularly liked playing Narraboth. The death was dramatic and, more important, its timing freed Tauber for a night out on the town. In fact, he used to tease the four men playing Herod’s soldiers who, after carrying him solemnly offstage, had to return and stand at attention for the rest of the opera.
Their revenge was sweet: In one performance, instead of carrying Narraboth into the wings as scheduled, they dumped him upstage in full view of the audience. He was stuck there for the rest of the opera.
A third tale, also from Opera Anecdotes, concerns diva Olive Fremstad: “She was utterly of the theatre, poised and intent, obsessed with the meaning of the words, and a handsome, statuesque woman to boot. The notorious single performance of Salome that the Met put on before bluenose paranoia cancelled it might have been considerably less shocking if the Met hadn’t cast Fremstad as Salome, for she was not one for ambiguous portrayals.
“She actually visited the city morgue to find out what a head feels like after death, discovered it to be quite heavy, and used this information on stage: When the head of the Baptist was handed her, she staggered under its weight, provoking gasps of very real horror in the house.”
Fortunately, his nostrils and ears were au naturel. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016