Former German infantryman Hans Himsel lived through scenes in 1944 at the Bayreuth opera house worthy of the finale of Richard Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” when Valhalla goes up in flames.
In this bicentenary year of Wagner’s birth, Himsel, 90, recalled the last wartime production at Bayreuth. It was August 9, 1944 and the cast performed “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg”, which contains the command “honour your German masters”. The Nazis had turned the piece into a propaganda pageant.
Although malnutrition was rampant, and Paris was to be liberated two weeks later, Himsel, a butcher’s apprentice who was wounded five times and survived the Russian front, said for the last performance the backstage and catering crews were feted with a band, half a duck each and all the wine they could drink.
Adolf Hitler considered Wagner his favourite composer. History’s problem, compounded by Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism, has been disentangling the two.
“We danced at the feast while the soldiers died,” Himsel said in an interview at a Bayreuth restaurant and hotel where Wagner stayed when he was building his Bavarian opera house in the late 19th century.
Hitler was a Bayreuth regular and kept it going during the war by buying up tickets for soldiers to attend. Hitler’s use of Bayreuth for propaganda purposes, rivaled only by his manipulation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, resonates still.
“Of course Wagner’s reputation is terrible, I understand why people have the feelings they do about his music,” American soprano Deborah Voigt, who sings Wagner’s “Ring”-cycle heroine Brunnhilde, said in a telephone interview from Florida.
“It’s odd to me because as someone who is spiritual, and has a lot of faith, it feels like the music he wrote was divinely inspired and in such contrast to what his personal views were.”
“Wagner is a genius, the sound is extraordinary,” said Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer, who runs a Wagner festival in Budapest and is Jewish. “The music is not the person,” he added, saying what was important was “the intensity of Wagner’s music”.