Richard Strauss’s sensational opera Salome, which had its world premiere in 1906, first came to Chicago in 1910, with soprano Mary Garden in the title role. The legendary singer would have a number of close ties with Chicago, but her Salome created a scandal seldom associated with the world of opera.
The Oscar Wilde play upon which the opera was based had originally been banned in England under a law that forbade stage depictions of Biblical subjects, but in actuality it was most likely because of the specific events depicted. To see a teenage princess dance with and ultimately kiss the mouth of the severed head of John the Baptist shocked many at the beginning of the 20th century, and the opera similarly met opposition—disapproval by the Catholic Church, for instance, kept Mahler from conducting it during his tenure as music director of the Vienna State Opera.
After Garden sang the Chicago premiere, the president of the Chicago Law and Order League sent a letter to the chief of police, protesting, “Miss Garden wallowed around like a cat in a bed of catnip . . . Black art, if art at all! I would not call it immoral. I would say it is disgusting.” As a result of such publicity, the second Chicago performance was sold out, but the company caved to public outrage, and the third performance was moved—to Milwaukee!
The scandal followed the production north to Wisconsin. The archbishop of Milwaukee urged Catholics to boycott the performance; the Milwaukee Journal wrote, “Today in Milwaukee we are invited to a musical feast, fathers and mothers are asked to bring their young daughters to . . . look upon things with pure eyes which hell ought to shudder to gaze upon.” Needless to say, tickets went at a premium. And for all the anticipated moral outrage, the Milwaukee Journal’s review the next day bore the headline: “Milwaukee sees Salome and finds little ground for storm of criticism showered upon it. Police gaze on head scene and have no protest.”
It is expected that those who attend Ravinia’s concert performance of Salome on August 2, with Metropolitan Opera star Patricia Racette undertaking the title role for the first time, will not have any protest, either, especially with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under James Conlon performing Strauss’s exotic and disturbing score.