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 3 of 3)

More recently, Katharina Wagner, who is the composer’s granddaughter and has managed the festival along with her half-sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, since 2008, has pledged to hand over the letters that passed among Wolfgang, her father and Hitler. She gave little hope, however, that the “potentially explosive” correspondence between Winifred and Hitler, which are in the possession of another Wagner cousin, would ever see the light of day. Winifred claimed to have no knowledge of the final solution. What is known, however, is that she asked the SS chief in Prague, Karl Frank, for the confiscated property of Czech Jews who had been deported to camps. It is difficult to assess just how transparent the festival truly is. And this year the festival has also maintained a certain amount of secrecy about its new “Ring” cycle.

“Ring,” a monumental tetralogy derived from an ancient Teutonic saga about gods, dwarfs, giants, dragons (and a few mere mortals), is arguably the fullest encapsulation of the composer’s racial and nationalistic ethos. Modern productions, starting with the centenary “Ring” of 1976, directed by Patrice Chéreau, commonly chip away at the myths to challenge Wagner’s assumptions about everything from race and purity to women and power. That production, set during the industrial revolution, was much reviled at its premiere but has since become a rarely rivaled benchmark. In the present day, the best Wagner directors working are those who find ingenious and unexpected ways to confront the problematic aspects of the music, libretti and ideology. Among them is Stefan Herheim, the Norwegian director who contributed the festival’s much praised 2008 production of “Parsifal,” which was stuffed with allusions to Bayreuth’s past (including huge Nazi flags and goose-stepping extras).

Aside from a handpicked group of 10 journalists who were invited to sit in on rehearsals of the first two installments, of the “Ring” cycle, “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre,” Frank Castorf’s production has been completely off-limits to members of the press. After being denied access to the planned media preview of “Götterdämmerung,” the cycle’s final, longest and loudest installment, I managed nevertheless to gain admittance to the high-security final dress rehearsal of “Rheingold” on July 18, where ushers scrutinized the 2,000-audience members’ tickets and passports. Castorf, who has led Berlin’s Volksbühne for the past 21 years, has a reputation for being an edgy and occasionally vulgar provocateur. From a distance, his iconoclastic approach to theater seems like a good match to Bayreuth in the 21st century. Nowadays, taking an ax to the sanctity of Wagner’s music dramas is always welcome. Although he canceled all his interviews in the run-up to the festival, Castorf did reveal a few details about his vision for the cycle in an interview with German news sources last year. The juiciest admission was that he would tell “Ring” as a vision of postwar Europe’s scramble for oil in the Middle East.

Based on what I saw, Castorf seems less interested in addressing Wagner’s anti-semitism or dealing with the festival’s dark past than he is in interpreting the “Ring” operas as an highly ironic allegory for American cultural hegemony, “cowboy diplomacy” and western dependency of oil. His “Rheingold,” set in a motel along Route 66 and featuring an unsavory cast of thugs, bimbos and drug-addicts, was occasionally entertaining and humorous, but otherwise puzzling and frankly a trifle boring. Nevertheless, it is invigorating to witness such a desacralizing of Wagner occurring in the very place that served as a shrine to the Holy German Art he claimed to embody.

Walter Scheel, the German president who addressed the 1976 festival, spoke about the importance of the festival as an emblem of both cultural honor and national shame. “Bayreuth’s history is part of German history,” he said. “Its mistakes are the mistakes of our nation. And in this sense Bayreuth has been a national institution in which we are able to recognize ourselves.” Four decades later, those words still ring true.

A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based writer and critic.


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!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • 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.