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  • And the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of Ginger Rogers . . .
  • Scott D. Paulin (bio)

Early in the 1952 mystery novel Black Widow, a detail of musical taste offers the reader a clue about one of the main characters: “There was a phonograph in the living-room. She made coffee and put on Welitch’s [sic] records of the end of Salomé. She listened with all her body as if the music had been written especially for her.”1 The young woman in question, Nancy Ordway (known as Nanny), will soon be dead, her fate ultimately ascribed to a combination of general amorality keen sexual desire for an inappropriate object choice, and a misjudged sense of her own ability to control the course of events. Who better as a figure of operatic identification for Nanny than Richard Strauss’s (anti-) heroine? And given the date of publication, who better than Ljuba Welitsch as the diva of choice? Salome’s importance to the story persists beyond this initial reference and pertains to Oscar Wilde as well as Strauss. It extends across media, too, into the 1954 film of the same title released by 20th Century Fox, which prominently features music from the opera and invites us to hear through Nanny’s ears.

Meanwhile, in East Berlin, another young woman is seen to attend a performance of Salome at the Staatsoper. Here too, Welitsch is singing the title role. At this turning point in the Cold War spy film The Man Between (1953), our listener, Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom), appears unmoved, certainly untransported; in this, she could hardly be more different from Nanny. Susanne has other things on her mind: if all goes according to plan, the final curtain of Salome will afford her a chance to escape from kidnappers. As film spectators, however, we may relish the rare spectacle of Welitsch in her prime, performing her most celebrated role, as a sequence during which The Man Between reaches a peak in emotional pitch. Unlike Nanny, Susanne will survive her story, and this contrast merits examination: in two near-contemporary films, the same operatic reference point indexes both the undoing of one woman and the resolve with which another makes her break for freedom. In the pages below, I want to ask how it is that Salome—and Welitsch’s performance of it—appears to transfer a kind of genuine agency to one of these women, while offering only an empty promise to the other.

So much has been published in recent years about the meeting of opera and cinema that the near-total absence of Strauss’s name from this literature is [End Page 242] conspicuous. But music from Strauss’s operas has seldom appeared in film; his works were not in the public domain during the mid-twentieth century, and Strauss (and his estate) often refused to license the music for use in other media.2 To my knowledge, the films introduced above are the only ones of the era in which music from Strauss’s Salome appears—not just as passing allusion (as a listener in the know may discover in Franz Waxman’s Sunset Boulevard score [1950]), but foregrounded as music in the narrative world. There is much to unpack in contemplating the significance of Salome for these films: the broader cultural presence of Salome (and other Salomes) during the “long 1950s”; Welitsch as a transformative figure in the history of Salome performance; live operatic performance vs. opera as recorded object; the cinematic representation of women as listeners, and how this might inflect the much-discussed gender politics of Salome; the films’ strategic alterations to both the opera’s text and the operatic intertexts of their literary sources; and what the presence of opera within fiction and film can tell us about not only reception history but also the range of signification that Salome itself permits. In each case, the treatment of Salome allows us to consider how a film’s citation and rewriting of a canonical operatic text may complicate received understandings of the works meaning while also relying upon and to some extent reaffirming those understandings. Reiterating, contesting, and revising the image and story...


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pp. 242-272
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