Scandal isn't a word typically associated with opera in the modern lexicon, but Salome has challenged that preconception since the early 20th century. In a beautifully paced tale of jealous murder, incest-adjacent lust, and maybe the most high-brow strip-tease committed to the stage, Richard Strauss wrote an opera that is loved today for the same reasons it was controversial a century ago.
"It's almost like, these days in opera, this would have been the Pulp Fiction of opera because the story is so vulgar and shocking that it's amazing that someone would write an opera about this subject," says actor Paul Groves, who plays Herod in Salome. "It's not the usual 'I hate you, I love you, you killed my brother' kind of plot."
Strauss expanded on Oscar Wilde's stage play of the same name, which vastly expanded on the scant story of John the Baptist's beheading by King Herod in the New Testament. In the operatic incarnation, Salome is a lovesick young woman who pines for the affection of prophet Jochanaan, who is imprisoned by her stepfather Herod for speaking out against his marriage to his dead brother's wife Herodias — and that's just the setup.
Salome paints pictures of its characters' minds, using their actions as the brush and the music as the canvas. In less capable hands than Strauss or Wilde, the story could have gone off the rails in the wrong way, but there are plenty of brains lying in the pool of gore by the end.
"[Herod is] one of the greatest characters in opera," Groves says. "In the first four or five lines he has, you get a real sense of what kind of person he is — and he's a horrible person. But, he's also scared, he also has a huge ego. He's kind of Donald Trump-ish. He has a huge ego, thinks he knows everything, but actually knows very little."
Strauss composed Herod to rant and change meter often to give him the appearance of dishevelment, according to Groves. In the middle of the play, in between slipping in blood and envying Jochanaan for the reaction he incites in Salome, Herod suddenly feels anger at a cool draft that no other character feels.
"He goes off on these tangents, just screaming and yelling about nothing," the actor adds. "It could be the torment of leading a people or he's just completely nuts."
Starring alongside Groves is Melanie Henley Heyn, who plays the title character. Though her co-star sees his character as an ambiguous madman, Heyn is quick to defend her character's mental state.
"Everybody likes Salome to be crazy and I don't think she's crazy," she explains. "I think that she follows her need to the final conclusion. What Salome wants is not crazy. The final result makes it seem crazy, but it's only because she went all the way."
Heyn is not condoning beheading, but she is quick to point out that Jochanaan's death does derive from the same feelings of desire almost all people feel. "She needs to possess Jochanaan. She needs to get closer to him somehow. She has to keep getting closer to him, which I think is a very normal human need: 'I like this thing and I want to be closer to it.'"
Jochanaan's revulsion to Salome's proposition only backfires on him. "He is rejecting her and I think that he's the first man she's ever met that hasn't been coming after her. So, she's drawn to him," Heyn says.
Heyn's preparation to play Salome was more physically demanding because of the infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils," where the character slowly removes layers of clothing only to lay at Herod's feet and ask for Jochanaan's head. "The first thing I did was I signed up for dance classes," Heyn laughs. "I'm decently fit for what I usually have to do in life, however dancing for 10 minutes is something I never have to do and certainly not dancing and then singing right after."
And, while the opera has so much more to offer than its climactic moments, Heyn couldn't stop from ruminating on what brings Salome to its bloody conclusion, finding a beacon in her character's psychology.
"The fact that she ends up with his [Jochanaan's] head on a platter is actually second best for her," she says. "She wants him, but if she's not going to have him, she'll get what she's going to get. For me, it's pretty direct. I do think that she has spent most of her life being leered at by the men around her, especially Herod."