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SF Opera’s Salome Productions Over a Century

June 19, 2020

“I will study Salome for the rest of my life,” said an emotional Nicola Luisotti, in an interview a decade ago, about the Richard Strauss opera he conducted then; the video of that production is being streamed by San Francisco Opera this weekend. In that interview, Luisotti spoke enthusiastically about the production:

The moral, dramatic, and musicological complexity of the opera (with its then-new chromaticism and — for some — still not fully comfortable bitonality) so challenges and fascinates Luisotti that he says, simply and with conviction: “I will study Salome for the rest of my life.”

During his first discussions of repertory in San Francisco with General Director David Gockley, rather than assigning Salome to another conductor, Luisotti claimed it for himself; working with Gockley and the company’s music staff, Luisotti also did the casting.

For the title role — “someone who is both a girl and a woman, who needs to be a dramatic soprano, a lyric soprano, a coloratura, a mezzo-soprano, all in one” — the choice is German soprano Nadja Michael, whose London performance was reviewed as “blazing with dramatic intensity.”

Irina Mishura sings Herodias, Kim Begley is Herod, Greer Grimsley is Jochanaan, and the early-expiring Narraboth (chronologically the first victim of noncommunication) is Garrett Sorenson.

The 105-minute, intermissionless, coproduction with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and L’Opéra de Montréal arrives here in Bruno Schwengl’s design, with Seán Curran as stage director, and James Robinson as consulting director and dramaturg.

As you are watching the streaming of this 2009 production of the “scandalous” Salome, consider Gaetano Merola’s great coup with the opera here in 1930.

Still in the Civic Center, two years before the War Memorial opened, SF Opera’s founding general director cast Metropolitan Opera prima donna Maria Jeritza in the title role, taking advantage of the fact that she couldn’t sing it in New York, as the Met banned Salome from its stage in 1907 because of its immorality; the house and didn’t permit a performance until 1934.

J. P. Morgan’s daughter was offended by the opera and the banker who dominated corporate finance those days ordered Met General Manager Heinrich Conried to get rid of the production. Morgan offered to reimburse the Met for the sets and costumes, something Conried refused, even though the company lost the sets and costumes of 19 full productions the previous April in the great earthquake that greeted Caruso and the Metropolitan Opera on their visit to San Francisco.

In 1921, when Jeritza joined the Met, board members hoped to revive the opera for her, but the “curse of J.P. Morgan” held steady. And it was thanks to Merola that the diva’s debut as Salome in the U.S. took place in San Francisco. As Paul Thomason writes for the SF Opera website blog:

“It was as Tosca that Jeritza made her San Francisco Opera debut on September 19, 1928. Her fee, $3,000 a performance, was the highest paid to any artist at that time. She went on to regale San Francisco audiences that season in Turandot, Fedora, Carmen, and Cavalleria Rusticana.” In 1930, Salome was added to her starring roles. (Adjusted for inflation, $3,000 in 1928 is equal to $44,561.97 in 2020.)

Thomason quotes a 1928 review by the SF Examiner’s Redfern Mason of Jeritza as Salome:

“Her first appearance was rather a shock. Instead of being a lithe and orchidaceous oriental she was a buxom Viennese, about as remote from what one imagines the daughter of a Judean king to have been as it is possible to picture...

But as the evening progressed, Jeritza “developed a poetry of her own, a poetry of glorified and transcendent fleshiness.” He noted her Dance of the Seven Veils was “beautiful with sinister hints,” but felt it “lost a little in beauty because it left too little to be imagined.” When Salome demanded the head of Jochanaan from Herod “the king seemed a poor human worm in the grip of a tiger.” In the final scene, “the head of John the Baptist was swathed in a glorified cheese cloth,” but even so “the mood became a form of erotic rhapsody.”

Mason mused that he was not at all sure that was what Oscar Wilde had in mind in his play, but nonetheless “Jeritza carried the scene to a white heat of horror, a horror that bordered on the revolting. People might be shocked; but they could not be indifferent.”

Jeritza was born Marie Jedličková in 1887 in Brno in what is today the Czech Republic but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. San Francisco expatriate Charlie Cockey, now a Brno resident, writes:

Jedličková is a lovely name, it means Fir tree (jedle), close to and could almost equally mean edible (jedlý).

She was terrified to sing in front of people, and in Brno her teacher pulled a fast one. One day when she came in for her lesson, he said something like “Let’s start by just warming up singing a few arias, ok?” They did, and then the teacher revealed that hidden behind a divider, the head of nearby Olomouc opera company had been sitting, invited by the teacher. The director immediately hired her, she overcame her reticence to sing in public, and went on to Vienna.

And to New York, and San Francisco...

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].

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