Northern Ireland Opera bring Strauss's controversial psychosexual opera featuring Biblical characters to Belfast

As the arts have the power to inspire and uplift, so too they have the capacity to scandalize and cause outrage, as was the case with Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, debuted in 1905 and denounced by organized religion across Europe.

Religion and the arts have often clashed, of course. In County Leitrim in 1934, for example, Father Conefrey led a thousands-strong street protest to denounce the evils of jazz, declaring that this 'foreign music' had been brought to Ireland by 'the anti-God society with the object of destroying morals and religion'.

Half a century later, Monty Python’s religious satire The Life of Brian had horrified nuns out on the streets of New York bearing placards against the film's morals, and was banned in numerous countries for years.

On occasion, art provokes much more extreme forms of protest that seem scarcely credible to rational minds. Recall the molotov cocktails and tear-gas bombs thrown at theatres showing The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s film that attempted to humanize Christ, and the violent riots and the murder of a translator that greeted Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses on publication in 1988, a book that earned the British author a nomination for the Booker Prize as well as a fatwa, or death penalty, from the Ayatollah Khomeni, which forced Rushdie into hiding for a decade.

And on January 15, 2015, the appalling massacre of 12 people at the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo once more raised issues of religious fundamentalism and freedom of speech.

The forthcoming production of Salome by Northern Ireland Opera may yet have the most fervently religious up in arms in Northern Ireland. Set in Biblical times, the themes of lust, desire and necrophilia at the heart of the opera put sex centre stage, with John the Baptist the target of the 16-year-old Salome’s carnal desire.

Then there’s Herod: having murdered his brother, taken his deceased brother’s wife and usurped the throne, he casts lustful eyes on his teenage step-daughter, Salome. Throw in a suicide, murder, a howling prophet and a decapitation and there is a prevailing atmosphere in this heady opera that teeters on the edge of insanity. 'Madness,' was Gustav Mahler’s appraisal.

No wonder the Catholic Church was scandalised when Strauss’s work, based on Oscar Wilde’s one-act play, was unleashed on early 20th century audiences. The opera was banned in numerous capitals across Europe, and was the subject of parliamentary debate in England. Thousands of angry letters reached the Lord Chamberlain protesting the representation of a biblical character on stage – one can only imagine what the same people would have made of the opera’s more graphic elements.

'The contentious elements are still quite shocking, particularly if you’re of a religious bent,' acknowledges Northern Ireland Opera director, Oliver Mears. 'Salome kissing the severed head of John the Baptist remains controversial to this day. Her lust for John the Baptist, even if it is unrequited, is difficult and troubling for a lot of people.'

As socially relevant now as it was a century ago, the production of Salome nevertheless poses a number of challenges. Firstly, how do you make a highly stylized libretto from the Victorian era intelligible to a modern audience?

'We strive to ensure that what people are watching on stage isn’t alienating,' says Mears, 'which is what we’re all about at Northern Ireland Opera. Our interpretation will be quite bold and unexpected.'

Technically too, Salome is a fiendishly tough opera, with the role of Salome regarded as one of the most difficult operatic roles for a soprano. 'The demands that Strauss places on the soprano voice are immense,' explains Mears. 'Not least because he envisaged the role for someone like a 16-year-old but nevertheless with the voice of Brünnhilde from the Ring Cycle. Fortunately we have the incredible local singer, Giselle Allen, in the title role.'

Allen, a highly experienced operatic soprano, faces a daunting task: 'I would say it is the most vocally demanding role because it’s very difficult music to learn. Just the range of the voice is very demanding. Psychologically, the character is very demanding as well. When you are putting in that much emotion it can take its toll on the voice.'

The role of Salome is not the only technically challenging role. Herod, interpreted by tenor Michael Colvin and the role of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), interpreted by Robert Hayward, are also difficult. Traditionally, for a chunk of the opera, Jokanaan’s voice belts out from the depths of a cistern where he is imprisoned. Getting the sound right so that the prophet’s voice projects to the audience has proved taxing both on stage and in the studio over the years.

Giselle Allen

For the 1961 recording of Salome by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Georg Solti, for instance, the Decca engineers struggled to capture the right sound for the imprisoned Jokanaan, played by Eberhard Waechter. During a break, however, one of the cast discovered that the lavatory provided interesting acoustics for the singing voice. A microphone was duly installed as well as a television set so that Waechter could follow Solti’s conduction, and the recording was successfully made.

The lavatory shouldn’t be necessary for NI Opera’s performances of Salome, but a rest day certainly is. Ideally the two performances of Salome in the Grand Opera House would run on Friday and Saturday, traditionally big box-office nights. However, the demands of the music absolutely require a rest day in between the shows, particularly for Allen.

For the role of Salome, Allen has looked to the performances of sopranos Birgit Nilsson, Hilde Gauden and Susan Bullock. 'It’s nice to see how different people approach the very difficult vocal passages,' Allen observes. 'But I don’t like to listen too much because I like to find my own way around the role.'

Besides working with her vocal technician, Allen also traveled to Zurich to work with an additional voice coach for the role. 'There’s a lot goes into it. People might think that you just get up there and sing but especially for this piece there are long months of study and preparation. It is really the hardest thing I’ve done to date. It’s a bit crazy but it’s very exciting.'

The same could be said of Strauss’s stunning music. 'The great thing about the score,' relates Mears, 'is that Strauss was writing at a time when Romanticism was turning into modernism. So, on the one hand one has extraordinary voluptuous, decadent melody and very rich orchestral textures, which one might associate with Mahler or Tchaikovsky. On the other hand he’s pointing forwards to the beginning of modernism with Stravinsky and so on. There are also moments that are very violent, dissonant and noisy. It’s the combination of all these things that makes it such a compelling score.'

One of the opera's most compelling and infamous scenes is the young Salome’s 'Dance of the Seven Veils', when Salome dances seductively for Herod in return for her heart’s desire. Historically the dance scene has been derided as kitsch or lambasted for being too shocking, but, of course, it depends on the interpreter and the director’s eye.

Rita Hayworth’s interpretation of the dance in William Dieterle’s 1953 film version of Salome is fairly conservative, certainly compared with the steamy eroticism of the extraordinary Imogen Millais Scott in Ken Russell’s colorful film Salome’s Last Dance, from 1988.

Done well, the 'Dance of the Seven Veils' can ratchet up the tension significantly. 'It’s a big moment,' admits Mears, who is bringing a dancer over from London especially for the scene. 'I want to deliver something real and truthful. It is a very familiar and important aspect of the production and an orchestral showpiece.'

Wilde’s original one-act play is full of recurring motifs that lend themselves well to Strauss’s musical interpretation. Yet it is the strength of Wilde’s writing, the unfolding Shakespearean drama and the layers of meaning that make Salome such a striking opera. Wilde’s interweaving threads spin a tale of powerful contrasts: romantic love versus lust; superstition versus faith; innocence versus debauchery.

 'There’s a real psychological complexity and the more you read the play the more you realize it’s like a rerun of Hamlet,' says Mears. 'In terms of its standing, for me, I think it’s one of the greatest operas of the 20th century.'

Though keeping his cards close to his chest, Mears promises a visually surprising show. The set and costumes are designed by longstanding colleague Annemarie Woods. 'She realizes the three-dimensional aspect of the show,' explains the director. 'We are excited about it. It will be a bit different.'

No matter how many surprises Northern Ireland Opera springs on audiences with its production of Salome it may still be the sexual aspect of the opera, set against the backdrop of the so-called Holy Land, that stirs most debate. Mears is ready for the backlash.

'I’m always struck by people, particularly those from a religious background, who are much more disturbed or het up about sex than they are about extreme violence. Sex does seem to be more taboo, I think because traditionally sex has been viewed by religious people as a portal to sin and transgression. Of course, opera deals with these things and that’s why it’s so visceral. That’s why it packs the punch that it does.'

Salome runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast on February 6 and 8.