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Performing Salome and caricaturing opera

Performing Salome: Revealing Stories


With its first public live performance, in Paris on 11 February 1896, Oscar Wilde's Salome took on female embodied form which signalled the start of 'her' phenomenal journey through the history of the arts in the twentieth century. Edited by Dr Clair Rowden, this interdisciplainary volume explores Salome's appropriation and reincarnation across the arts - not just Wilde's heroine, nor Richard Strauss's - but Salome as a cultural icon in fin-de-siecle society, whose appeal for ever new interpretations of the biblical story still endures today. Using Salome as a common starting point, each chapter suggests new ways in which performing bodies reveal alternative stories, narratives and perspectives.

The volume offers a range and breadth of source material and theoretical approaches. The first chapter draws on the field of comparative literature to investigate the inter-artistic interpretations of Salome in a period that straddles the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the Modernist era. The chapter sets the tone for the rest of the volume which develops specific case stduies dealing with censorship, reception, authorial reputation, appropriation, embodiment and performance. As well as the Viennese premiere of Wilde's play, embodied performances of Salomes from the period before World War One are considered, offering insight into the role and agency of performers in the production and complex negotiation of meaning inherent in the role of Salome.

The volume also examines important productions of Strauss's Salome since 1945, and more recent film interpretations of Wilde's play, exploring performance as a cultural practice which reinscribes and continuously reinvents the ideas, icons, symbols and gestures that shape both the performance itself, its reception, its cultural meaning.

Due to be published by Ashgate in 2013, the volume is edited by Dr Clair Rowden. Clair is also contributing a chapter entitled : ‘Whose/Who’s Salome? Natalia Trouhanowa, a dancing diva’. The Russian ballerina Trouhanowa notably performed many different Salomes during the early-twentieth century.


Opera and Caricature in the French fin-de-siècle press

Dr Clair Rowden is contributing a chapter on ‘“Cariculture” in 1890s Paris’ to a forthcoming volume edited by Antonio Baldassare, Debra Pring and Pablo Sotuyo Blanco, Enhancing music iconography research : considering the current, setting new trends. The volume will be published by Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag later in 2012.

This chapter is a study of opera and its cultural mediation in the iconographic press at the end of the nineteenth century in France. Humorous drawings, which range from the classic charge with grotesquely big heads on small bodies, to sophisticated cartoon parody of both opera and its conventions for an initiated audience, reveal the cultural agency of the iconographic press and raise the issues of adaptation and intertextuality, reception and readership.

The traditional assumption with political caricature of the period is that it gave illiterate audiences access to political culture for the first time. This assumption, however, does not apply to the world of operatic caricature and the numerous parodies of opera in cartoon form. From the mid 1880s, these comic strips appeared regularly in Parisian satirical journals, to the extent that not to have one’s opera parodied was almost an admission of failure.

The opera caricaturists of the day used standard comic tropes such as grotesquely oversized heads and other body parts, or cross-dressed characters. The nature of the artwork meant that a general audience would probably find some of the images amusing but without knowledge of particular operas, literary sources, and society gossip, many were in no position to decipher the artists’s messages.

In this way, opera caricatures were actually something of an elitist genre. Far from translating high culture for the lower classes as theatrical parody is often seen to do, they actually legitimised caricature as an art form for the upper classes.