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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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.


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