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!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • 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.