So I just saw the weirdest opera ever. Richard Strauss' Salome, at the Met. I don't know about you, but personally, I just don't associate "The Metropolitan Opera" and "Weird". Avant-garde? Sometimes. Abstract? Sure. Gaudy, over-the-top, and spectacular? That's more like it. But this one was weird. And disgusting.
There's not a whole lot of story here. Salome is a spoiled brat, and she's lingering outside at a big party at her stepfather's palace when she hears John the Baptist ranting and railing from inside his oubliette. The soldiers guarding the oubliette have been ordered not to let anyone speak to John the Baptist, let alone pull him out of his little prison, but with a bit of bump-and-grind Salome convinces the guy in charge that he can bend the rules just this once.
Here's the weirdest thing about Salome. It's that Salome herself, history's ultimate femme fatale, isn't the least seductive. And I don't mean this as a slam against the opera singer, either; the choreography is so awkward it has to be intentional. She doesn't dance; she jerks around, she squats, she humps the props. She doesn't seduce the solider; she flashes some flesh in a cheap, vulgar way and he just can't resist. If that weren't bad enough, there's something childish about her mannerisms which makes the choreography that much more repulsive.
So out pops John the Baptist. He's not in a good mood. The one really fun part of the opera comes next: Salome tells John that he has beautiful white skin and asks if she can touch it. John says no, you skanky ho, you can't touch my white skin. And then Salome declares that actually, his skin is digusting and ugly and she doesn't want to touch it. She starts again on his beautiful red lips, but John's still having none of it, so Salome declares that actually, she never wanted to touch his ugly red lips anyhow. Etc. That was cute.
Eventually spoiled little Salome gets tired of John and sends him back to his oubliette. Then her stepfather, the tetrarch, shows up. He's got a crush on Salome; his wife, in tow, keeps telling him how inappropriate this is. She's wasting her breath. The tetrarch asks Salome to dance for him, and after several refusals he resorts to bribery: if she dances for him, he'll give her anything she asks for, absolutely anything. Salome agrees.
Salome has already established her credentials as a provocatrice at this point. She did a little octopus dance with the soldier to convince him to unearth John the Baptist, wearing a slinky silver cocktail dress, but this time we expect more. We expect her to pull out all the stops for the Dance of the Seven Veils. How's that possible? With a strip tease of course!
And yeah, she takes off the bloomers too.
Interesting, huh? And while Salome gets nakeder, she's still jerking around on stage in this deeply unappealing, awkward way that makes her look like she's having convulsions. Or doing aerobics. Convulsive aerobics. It's bad. And weird.
So she finishes her dance and the tetrarch is delighted. He immediately starts offering her all the riches of his kingdom. Clearly, he is insane, because these days most guys working minimum wage can afford a classier routine. But fine, Salome's horrid striptease is worth diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and other such magnificence.
But Salome refuses it all. She just wants John the Baptist's head on a silver platter.
Now, you might be thinking the worst is over. You might be thinking that surely an opera at the Met can't get more risque than an opera singer just past her prime stripping down to the buff on stage. You might be thinking it can't get much grosser than those aerobic convulsions. I sure did.
You would be wrong.
Because once Salome gets John the Baptist's head, she kisses it. And not just a little peck on the lips, either. She drops to the floor and rolls around with the head, locked in a passionate embrace with it. She's singing this thoroughly psychotic song about how she finally gets to touch his white skin and kiss his red lips, as though she can't tell the difference between a live person and a severed head. Truly, all the previous uncomfortable moments in the opera combined are less uncomfortable than this one.