Wagner Festival Confronts Controversial Past

Bayreuth Looks Back at a History of Music and Politics

Blue Man Group: This year, Wagner gnomes are ubiquitous at the Bayreuth Festival.
A.J. Goldmann
Blue Man Group: This year, Wagner gnomes are ubiquitous at the Bayreuth Festival.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published August 02, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Hitler’s enthusiasm for Wagner are two separate but related issues that make the festival so controversial. Hitler invested Wagner with much of the Nazi ideology that we still associate with his music. The affinity of the festival leadership — starting with Wagner’s vehemently anti-Semitic widow, Cosima Wagner, Franz Liszt’s daughter, who lived until 1930 — to Nazi ideology was a decisive factor that in the words of Thomas Mann turned the festival into Hitler’s “Court Theater.”

This alliance has had damning consequences for both the festival and the reception of Wagner’s music down to the present day. As Stephen Fry explains in the 2010 documentary “Wagner & Me,” “Hitler saw one side of Wagner and we tend to see Hitler’s side of Wagner because Hitler was such a huge figure in the 20th century and because his taste for Wagner was so enormous.”

In the film, Fry, who is Jewish, tries to reconcile his love for Wagner’s music with his discomfort at “how close to the Nazi fantasy world Wagner was, and how deeply stitched into Hitler’s vision of the world.”

After the war, Winifred Wagner, thoroughly unrepentant about her ties to Hitler, was barred from the festival, yet she proudly displayed her Nazi sympathies by appearing in public with old Nazi friends and neo-Nazi politicians. In 1975 she gave a five-hour-long interview to the experimental filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in which she spoke candidly about her undiminished fondness for Hitler.

The interview caused a scandal. In the words of the historian Frederic Spotts, her words “were the ventriloquized voice of numberless Germans and Austrians”: the public articulations of what many others still privately thought. At the following year’s festival, the German president, Walter Scheel, strongly denounced such attitudes in his address to the audience. In particular, he condemned the festival administration, “who still thought that Bayreuth was only a place of culture without noticing that it had long since become an instrument for evil policies.”

Nowadays, Bayreuth considers itself as more of a Wagner workshop than a temple to his music. Yet it remains the most prestigious cultural event in Germany, with a notoriously long wait for tickets and a thriving black market for the consistently sold-out performances. While it aims to present opera as something alive and relevant by routinely engaging controversial and cutting-edge directors, the festival remains very sensitive about the taint of its Nazi history.

Last year it weathered a scandal after the revelation that a baritone engaged to sing there had once performed in a heavy metal band with a swastika tattoo on his chest. The singer, Evgeny Nikitin, was slated to sing to title role in “Der Fliegende Holländer” and was summarily dropped from the production.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.