Banned in the USA

January 20, 2007

The opera is to music what a bawdy house is to a cathedral.
H.L. Mencken

Although it has a popular reputation as the non plus ultra of “high culture,” opera can be just as vulgar and profane as other art forms. It can also fall victim to panicked censors. Today’s posting gives an example of one such instance that occurred in the United States a century ago, and how it has informed my views of censorship.

Monday commemorates the 100th anniversary of the U.S. premier of the opera Salome by Richard Strauss, which caused a great deal of controversy in its day. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, Strauss’ opera premiered in Dresden on 9 December 1905. Before coming to the United States, Salome stirred controversy in Europe, and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II worried that it would ruin the composer’s reputation. However, with his characteristic dry humor, Strauss observed that the “damage” done to his reputation by Salome allowed him to build his villa. As in the case of many controversies, audiences wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Despite the “popular” reception of Salome, members of “The Establishment” worried about it. With a plot that would probably scare away Jerry Springer, Salome focuses on two of the perennial big issues that create controversy: religion and sex. The titular sixteen-year-old princess sees practically no difference between the two, embodied for her in the figure of the prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist). Salome’s mounting desire for Jochanaan culminates in the horrific and disconcertingly beautiful “final scene,” which she shares with his severed head. Before that, however, she does the “Dance of the Seven Veils” for her drunk and lecherous stepfather Herod… a set of circumstances that helps her get what she desires. On top of the opera’s plot and Strauss’ masterful orchestration, relatively recent memories of Wilde’s “gross indecency” trials likely heightened the opera’s shock value.

In the United States, it only took the sensitivities of one person to banish Salome from the Metropolitan Opera after its U.S. premier on 22 January 1907. Having attended a final rehearsal for the opera on Sunday, 20 January, a woman went to her father to complain about the spectacle she had witnessed. The appalled woman’s father called for a meeting with Heinrich Conried (the opera company’s general manager) as soon as possible. The day following the actual premier, the man unilaterally demanded that Conried cancel the three subsequent performances (all sold-out), and he further stipulated that the Met not engage in any performances elsewhere. The man who made this request was J.P. Morgan, the powerful financier who also happened to belong to the Metropolitan Opera Board.

Upset by the Met’s ban on Salome, Strauss gave the U.S. premier of his next one-act shocker Elektra (1909) to the Manhattan Opera House, which was run by impresario Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the lyricist of the same name). The Met ban remained in effect until 1934, by which time the opera had lost much of its initial shock value. Furthermore, Elektra already had its Met debut in 1932.

(For more on the Salome ban, read John Yohalem’s Opera News story The Salome scandals of 1907.)

Although Salome may seem tame by contemporary standards, approaches to the opera can still cause controversy and raise some eyebrows. A 2002 production in Canada precipitated a heated exchange in the press between critic Tamara Bernstein and Atom Egoyan, whose staging made her feel “violated.” Paul Mitchinson wrote an opinion piece derived from that controversy, examining other operas that have offended certain sensibilities. (More recently, a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo in Berlin led some to fear riots by those offended by the appearance of the severed head of Mohammed. The BBC reported on this in September and December.)

On a lighter note, there’s also the question of what’s beneath that seventh veil. Most performers opt for body stockings to match flesh tone if all the veils come off, but a few have decided to give much braver renditions. Karita Mattila did so in Paris and at the Met itself a few years ago. One can only imagine what “a certain Mr. Morgan” and his daughter would have thought…

Okay, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about Salome to demonstrate that opera can be controversial. Now you’re probably wondering, how does all this relate to my feelings on censorship? For one thing, it helps me suppress a sinister urge that can be just as strong as those found in Salome: to ban something because one doesn’t like it.

Although I consider myself fairly open-minded, I will admit that there are certain things that bother my sensibilities. The recent popularity of films depicting torture, dismemberment, disembowelment, and so forth, is a primary example, mainly due to my squeamishness and an already-overactive imagination. On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable saying that others shouldn’t watch such movies. After all, look what happened to Salome when Mr. Morgan’s daughter complained. If I start saying that slasher flicks should be banned because I’m too squeamish, then I forfeit my right to say that other things I like should not be banned. I would also need to develop some kind of sliding scale of standards, which would be difficult since some of my favorite movies happen to contain violence and bloodshed (see my list of favorites). Such standards would make me look stupid if I tried applying them universally.

In addition, some gruesome films might seem valuable as “cultural artifacts.” As Fort Worth Star-Telegram critic Christopher Kelly points out in a column he wrote last year, they may reflect contemporary insecurities related to the post-9/11 world and the war in Iraq. Similarly, as Sander Gilman and others have suggested, Salome reflects a number of concerns from around the fin de siecle. (Perhaps the character of Salome remains relevant today, as a kind of hybrid between Paris Hilton and Leatherface.)

One hopes that people will use good judgment when exercising the freedoms encompassed by the First Amendment. Unfortunately, we have all seen instances where this is not always the case. However, under the First Amendment, people can engage in dialogue to reach some kind of consensus, or to express differences in opinion without fear of punishment from those who hold power. It also gives us opportunities to experience many perspectives in various media, and we have the choice to avoid things we may find offensive, whether they be slasher movies from a year ago, or operas composed over a century ago.

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