Everything you know about Salome, the biblical figure known for demanding John the Baptist’s head on a platter, is wrong. Unless, of course, you’re a spoken-word polymath with a gift for languages and a bent for research, in which case you’ve already figured that out.
In which case, also, your name is probably Adeena Karasick, one of several creative partners in Salomé: Woman of Valor, a new spoken-word opera that gets its world premiere at the Chutzpah Festival next week. In Karasick’s libretto—which she’ll perform as part of a multimedia spectacle that also includes dance, projected imagery, and trumpet virtuoso Frank London’s evocative music—there are not one but three historical Salomes, none of them a murderous sexpot.
“Frank always wanted to do something on the Dance of the Seven Veils, so we started researching the story of Salome, and in doing so we realized that the story has been mistold and misrepresented throughout history,” Karasick explains during a rehearsal break at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where she’s adjunct associate professor of humanities and media studies. “And after a huge amount of research on my part, we’re retelling the story from a Jewish, feminist perspective.”
What Karasick found was that the Salome of legend, whose supposedly serpentine charms have been hyped by playwright Oscar Wilde and filmmaker Charles Bryant, was part of a lineage of powerful women. Queens, power brokers, and advocates for legal and educational reform, their real achievements have been largely written out of history, until now.
Karasick’s Salome, then, is a composite figure, much as her text is a fast-paced yet erudite commingling of history, philosophy, and at least three languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, and English.
“I’m totally obsessed with ancient mystical texts,” the poet explains. “The text is imbued with all these cabalistic references from the Sefer Yetzirah, about how the world was created through language. There are also resonances of Midrashic philosophy, and there’s actually a section in there that repurposes some of the liturgy of Yom Kippur. So there’s all that stuff, but it’s counterbalanced by a huge element of pop culture.”
Also complicating the narrative is that the Middle East, then as now, is a site of contention, with groups both indigenous and imported struggling for survival and/or dominance. That seems to play out in London’s trumpet, keyboard, and percussion score for Salomé: Woman of Valor, although the composer says that might be more a reflection of his musical interests than a concerted attempt to mirror Karasick’s skein of stories.
“I wish I could be so smart to say that I intentionally focused on that intersectionality in my choice of musical references,” London says, once Karasick hands him her phone. “Alas, it’s not exactly so. But I think it will read that way.
“People know me from klezmer, but really avant-garde jazz is my home turf, and also different Middle Eastern musics and Indian musics and Arabic musics are all things I’ve studied,” he continues. “So what I really tried to do with the music is that I’ve taken all these elements and created kind of a dreamy world that is a mix of intellectualism and popular culture. It’s abstract, but it’s got a narrative. It’s intellectual, and then it’s really a punch in the gut. It’s very literal, and then all of a sudden it’s nothing but an abstract dance piece. What we’re trying to do is to create a new world—one which goes with a new way of telling this old story.”
The Chutzpah Festival presents Salomé: Woman of Valor at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from next Thursday to Saturday (March 8 to 10).