It’s good to dive into the past with a classic silent film; however, to see a composer and group of musicians take a feminist spin on it is truly a great moment to experience. On the 12th of May, Opera North showed a screening of Salomé accompanied by live music written by Haley Fohr as part of Leeds International Festival. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, this film was directed by Charles Bryant in 1923 with Alla Nazimova as the starring role of Salomé. As the step-daughter of King Herod, Salomé is constantly objectified by him, only to be killed by his soldiers when she becomes lustful for her lover, John the Baptist. As a fan of Oscar Wilde, it was brilliant to see everyone, from the audience to the musicians, enjoy this as much as I did. This film is a classic example of the age-old sexist stereotypes of gender, with women only being recognised for their beauty and men freely spectating them for their own pleasure. Many may see Salomé being seductive just to get her way, however she is in fact a strong woman, using her intelligence to fight for what she cares about.
The event took place in a cinematic setting, with the musicians in one corner of the room, with the screen behind them, which only presented the footage of the actors performing. All of the dialogue was removed, with only the footage and the live music for the audience to observe. The instrumentation was minuscule yet unique, consisting of a violist, double bassist, percussionist and vocalist who doubled up on electronics. With only the sheet music to guide them, the quartet played brilliantly as a team. The tone created by the composer and musicians was tense and serious throughout, highlighting how Salomé is seen to King Herod, not as an individual, but as an object to be admired.
Presenting this film in this way not only highlights the fact these views of women still exist, but it shows the damaging consequences that they can have. This damaging view of women can become both physical and psychologically harmful which can lead to, particularly in Salomé’s case, death. In this day and age, women are still portrayed as innocent creatures to be admired; when they stray from this, they are shunned. The removal of the words was a wise move. With this, the compositional works by Fohr and the performance by the ensemble, the objectification of Salomé is presented even more clearly, highlighting the harsh truth that women had to and still are facing.
Image: Ben Bentley