Salome is an historical figure whose existence is recorded by the gospel writers and by the Jewish historian Josephus, and who has for two thousand years stirred the imaginations of artists, writers and composers. The 'Salome' of this story is the central character in an opera by Richard Strauss, based on a play by Oscar Wilde. This 'Salome' performs an erotic dance for King Herod of Jerusalem, in return for which she asks for the head of John the Baptist.
In the last twenty years or so there have been a handful of sopranos who possess not only the vocal ability to acquit this difficult role, but also the physical grace and freedom from inhibition necessary to perform a credible 'Dance of the Seven Veils' to Strauss' erotically charged score. There's no explicit sex in this story, but I've classified it as 'Exhibitionist and Voyeur' because 'Salome' is, when all is said and done, an opera about a strip-tease.
It was his favourite restaurant, a comfortable walk from his apartment through the public gardens in the mild autumn twilight, with the bats squeaking in the darkness of the giant fig trees. Sufficient to get the stiffness out of his joints without tiring him. A Victorian-era building, sandstone, and inside, a Victorian atmosphere, white table cloths, fine china, silver service and uniformed waiters, chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, faded oils of rustic scenes on the walls, and thick carpets and hangings to muffle the din of conversation.
He fidgeted with his sherry glass, glanced at his watch, mumbled to himself. But she had never been punctual, he thought resignedly, and after all, she was a diva.
Then the door opened and she swept in. She scanned the faces and beamed when she picked him out. A murmur of recognition and heads turning as she made her way across the room to his table. A small figure but with curves and wearing an off-the-shoulder evening gown that showed them off to perfection. That rare combination of raven-black hair and eyes and milky-white skin. Salome herself must have looked like this, he thought.
He struggled to his feet and bent to kiss her cheek. The waiter pulled out the chair for her but she kept them both standing while she leant on the table with one hand and bent down, revealing her deep cleavage, and pulled off first one shoe and then the other, sighing in relief and throwing the exquisitely styled, but obviously painful, items under the table.
'What did you think?' she asked, when they were finally seated. He was chuffed that she was eager for his opinion. After all, she didn't need it, the reviews had been ecstatic. But he disguised his pleasure with a show of gruffness, and instead of immediately answering, called for the menu and wine list.
She left it to him to order the wine while she studied the menu intently, as she might a score, questioning him about particular dishes and, when she found his descriptions lacking, calling on the waiter to elaborate. Finally, after many hesitations and false starts, she gave her order and handed the menu back to the waiter, at the same time throwing a casual glance of appraisal over him. He was a strongly built Italian lad, muscles bulging under his starched white shirt. Then she turned back and looked sternly across the table. 'Well?' she demanded.
'An ideal production, perfectly executed. None of those ridiculous anachronisms or Freudian interpretations. The blood-red moon, Jochanaan bellowing prophesies from the cistern, the set and costumes spare but tasteful, the whole setting redolent of decadence, superstition and lust. The cast, perfect, the orchestra in fine fettle, the singing magnificent and you, my dear, in superb voice. And the dance, done as the composer intended. Herod panting with excitement and pumping his fist up and down under those regal robes as the veils come off and Herodias looks on, her face like thunder.'
They both laughed. 'You don't have to be a battleship in a caftan in order to be a diva,' she joked. He picked up his glass, raised it to her, and savoured a mouthful of the fine shiraz. But she wasn't going to let him off that easily. 'The veils, did they fall as they should?'
He set his glass back down, and gulped, and she smirked in triumph. He was rarely discomfited. She leant forward, elbows on the table and cheeks in palms, as though about to witness her own performance.
'They knew what to expect, of course, they'd read the previews.'
He paused to gather his thoughts.
'The music starts, swirling, oriental, seductive, and she appears from the wings, covered from head to ankles by the veils, only her little feet showing as she glides across the stage to Herod's throne. She pirouettes and whips off the first veil, uncovering her head. A collective intake of breath from the audience. It's true. It is the singer herself who will perform the dance.'
He was getting into his stride now, carried away by the memory of it.
'She leers at Herod, insolently, disdainfully, pulls off the second veil and drapes it over his head. He gathers it in his hands and sniffs it ecstatically. He lunges for her, but she slaps away his hand and dances across the stage to the five Jewish scholars. They were earnestly debating scripture until the music started, but since then they have been ogling her every bit as lecherously as Herod. She tears off the third veil and flings it down at their feet. Back and forth across the stage she dances, back and forth. The audience, men and women alike, are on the edges of their seats, literally, craning forward, following every movement. The fourth veil comes off.
'Then her eyes fall on the cistern. She runs up the steps onto the grate and looks down through it, parting her thighs and thrusting her pelvis lewdly back and forth, allowing the fifth veil to slide off as she does so. "Look up, Jochanaan," her movements say, "and see what it is you have spurned." The rouged nipples, the dark shadow between her thighs, we can glimpse them now through the remaining veils.
'Her skin glistens with sweat, her face is distorted with lust, lust for Jochanaan. The music has become strident and atonal. All grace is gone from her movements now, her limbs jerk up and down in time to the music like those of a puppet. She is possessed.
'She runs back down the steps, gathering the hems of those last flimsy coverings in her fingertips and flicking them up and down her thighs as she goes, briefly revealing herself each time. The fabric is sticking to her breasts now, soaked through with sweat. She halts in front of Herod's throne, panting. He is fearful now of what it is he has unleashed, but his hand is still moving underneath the robes. She casts off the sixth veil and flings it down in front of him then turns to us. The music rises to a crescendo. She slides her hands over her breasts then up to her shoulders, then releases the clasps that hold the final veil in place and strips it off in a single movement, displaying herself to us in her full, glorious nakedness.
'The music stops abruptly. She falls to her knees, spreading them apart as she does so, eyes and arms raised to the heavens. Her sex gapes like a ripe fruit split open. For one, two, three seconds she holds the pose, panting after the exertion of the dance, but otherwise motionless. Eight, nine, ten seconds, then the orchestra strikes up again, blurting out the last bars as her handmaidens rush forward with a cover and throw it over her.
'Silence. Complete silence under those soaring white sails. Then a single pair of hands begins hesitantly to clap. They are joined by others, then suddenly the whole audience is on its feet, in uproar. "Bravo! Bravo!" Feet stamping, whistles. It seems as though the applause will never end, but at last it subsides. Herod rises from his throne. "Wundervoll! Wundervoll!"
"Siehst du," he jibes at Herodias, "sie hat für mich getanzt. Your daughter has danced for me." "Komm her, Salome. Komm her. I will give you whatever it is you wish for." '
He sank back into his seat, exhausted himself by the effort of description. She smiled at him indulgently, reliving the moment, the applause again ringing in her ears.
'But Salome got more than she bargained for, crushed to death between those shields,' she said at last.
'The gospel writers couldn't let her licentiousness go unpunished, and Wilde had no time for women. But of course her story didn't really end like that.'
'Of course not, Salome was far too clever for that. She got her half-a-kingdom alright, and her man as well.'
'Had three children by him and lived to a ripe old age.'
'But with an ending like that, it wouldn't make an opera would it,' she laughed.
While they were talking, the food had arrived. After all the fuss about the menu, she had chosen a simple steak, grilled medium rare and smothered in their special sauce. It was an inch thick and almost covered the plate. She cut off a chunk and shoved it in her mouth, opening so wide that he could see deep down into her throat. You could almost throw an orange down there, he thought. Such a rare and wonderful instrument.
She chewed the mouthful noisily, then washed it down with a swig of wine. A trickle ran down her chin, and she wiped it carelessly away with the back of her hand. And so she continued, with no thought for anything but the food. She grew up with hunger, he thought, and she has never forgotten it. She dragged herself up out of the slum by sheer force of will. Blessed with that magnificent voice, of course, and an unshakable conviction. The thought would never have occurred to her that she might not, one day, be a great singer.
He just picked at his own meal, watching her enjoy her own. His appetite had left him years ago. I am old, he thought. I don't have many years left. But I have seen enough, and done enough. Und Salome hat für mich auch getanzt.
She finished taking what she could off the bone with her knife and fork, then picked it up in her fingers and began to tear off the remaining shreds with her small, white teeth. He could almost imagine that when she'd done with that, she'd grind the bone up in her jaws to get at the marrow. But when she'd picked it clean she set it down on her plate, licked the last of the gravy from her lips, wiped her mouth and fingers with the white linen serviette and settled back into her chair with a contented sigh.
Now it was his turn for a bit of sport. 'That Jochanaan, he cuts a striking figure.'
She didn't answer. He looked at her sharply. 'I'll make you bite,' the look said. 'Almost naked in that tiny loincloth, long hair matted, ribs sticking out. Those wild, deepset, fanatical eyes.'
She began to giggle.
'The vehemence of his condemnations fired by his fear of his own desires. And after all that self-mortification in the desert, imagine what he felt when he looked up through that grate and glimpsed the forbidden fruit.'
She was positively simpering now. 'I'd never had that one before. Those emaciated types, they really are the most voracious. You know what I'm like after a performance, so over-wrought that sometimes I can't sleep for days. There's only one thing that will calm me.'
He raised a quizzical eyebrow.
'He's so young, his skin so soft. It's covered in fine down. He trembled like a young animal when I touched him. I could almost believe I was the first.'
'And when the final veil fell?'
'What a revelation! Rampant, pulsating, magnificently proportioned. How he manages to keep that policeman's truncheon hidden behind that tiny loincloth, God only knows. And he put it to good use too, I can tell you. Such enthusiasm. Such stamina. Such endurance. When he finally let me sleep, I slept for twelve hours straight. D'you know, I do believe he's the best Jochanaan I've had, so far.'
He chuckled to himself. By the time the season had ended, Jochanaan would be sorely in need of forty nights' solitude in the desert to recuperate. And he knew she wasn't exaggerating her conquests. There were at least two other Jochanaans he could think of. Not to mention the Pinkertons, at least four of those, including a gay one who had succumbed to her charms. The list went on.
'A diva must never become complacent,' she said primly. 'She must be always seeking new peaks to scale.'
'And be ever ready to assist others to rise to new heights.'
'Quite so. And you, what did you do after the performance?'
'Walked back along the quayside to my apartment.'
'Put on that recording of your "Butterfly" at Covent Garden.'
'Ah, Butterfly. Quite a different sort of heroine. And then I suppose you flopped down into that battered old leather armchair of yours and lit up one of those malodorous cigars.'
'Closed my eyes.'