Today we think of opera as staid, civilized, and old-fashioned. That wasn’t the reaction of Chicago 105 years ago, the day “Salome” hit town.
In the Christian Bible, Salome is the teenage step-daughter King Herod Antipas. The king has imprisoned John the Baptist. Then Herod has a birthday party. Salome dances for the guests, and Herod offers her anything she wants. Salome asks for John’s head on a platter. Against his better judgment, Herod has the prophet executed, and gives Salome her trophy.
A play based on the Salome story was written by Oscar Wilde in 1891. Richard Strauss, the “bold, bad man” of German music, took Wilde’s play and transformed it into an opera. Strauss’s work premiered in 1905.
From the start, “Salome” the opera was controversial. Strauss’s music was said to be too modern, the title character’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” too sensual. The biggest shocker was the final scene—not in the Bible—in which Salome kisses John’s severed head.
Still, the opera had played to critical acclaim and sold-out houses in Europe and America. The new Chicago production starred soprano Mary Garden. She had already played the title role in Paris, New York, and Philadelphia without incident.
Opening night drew the usual Social Register crowd. The next day, the papers were full of “Salome.” A few people thought Strauss’s work was a masterpiece. Many more considered it obscene. The Tribune called the opera “the most artistic piece of indecency” performed on any stage. Another critic said it was “a great degenerator of public morals.”
Police chief Roy Steward attended the performance. Though he did not order “Salome” shut down, Chief Steward was still shocked. He said Mary Garden’s dancing was disgusting—that she “wallowed around like a cat on a bed of catnip.”
To this, Garden replied with a non-reply: “I always bow down to the ignorant and try to make them understand. But I ignore the illiterate.”
The debate flashed back and forth for days. Then “Salome” finished its Chicago run, and the uproar died down.
Mary Garden later became the first lady of Chicago opera. Richard Strauss made enough money from his notorious opera to build a vacation villa. Today, “Salome” is part of the standard repertoire.