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Oscar Wilde based his French play on the biblical story of Salome, and Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde's play was used as the source for Richard Strauss’s libretto.
Dec. 9, 1905, in Dresden.
The premiere received 38 curtain calls, and was an enormous success. New productions were immediately mounted in several countries.
However, its themes of incest and necrophilia proved disturbing to many audiences. The first New York production, which premiered in 1907, found its remaining performances cancelled after some of its most wealthy and influential patrons objected to its content.
In 1903 Strauss had won some acclaim for his tone poems and his first opera, Feuersnot, had been a minor success. He was losing interest in purely orchestral writing and was in search of another major project to fully establish his reputation.
Wilde’s original play had not been successful in Paris (and it was banned in England), so when a young poet who had seen it wrote to Strauss proposing to adapt it into a libretto, Strauss was interested but cautious. Its single-act structure seemed to him to resemble his then-most-successful form, the tone poem. After the play was staged in Berlin in 1903 to great acclaim in a German translation by Lachmann, Strauss decided to move forward with the idea, taking Lachmann’s translation as his source and making his own cuts and alterations. He began work on the music in late 1904, completing it in the summer of 1905.
The singers engaged for the premiere were horrified at the demands placed on them by the score, and the leading soprano refused to appear in the Dance of the Seven Veils (necessitating a body double); but the opera was an immediate success and cemented Strauss’s reputation as a major young composer.
Richard Margison as Herod and Hanna Schwarz as Herodias in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Salome, 2013. Photo: Chris Hutcheson.