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.
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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.


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