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Jewish Director Puts Richard Wagner On Trial — At His Own Festival

Scholars have long argued whether Richard Wagner left traces of his anti-Semitic convictions in his opera, for example, by encoding characters with stereotypically Jewish traits.

When Barrie Kosky directed a “Ring Cycle” in Hannover between 2009 and 2011, the Australian director didn’t have a shred of doubt. For him, the duplicitous dwarf Mime (the cycle’s most charmingly villainous character) was a perfect illustration of what Wagner wrote about Jews and Jewish music, which the composer described as a “sense-and-sound-confounding gurgle, yodel and cackle.”

“You cannot not argue that Mime is the absolute personification of the Jew, which is why he was a Jew inmy production, with yarmulke, payis and vaudeville clown’s face,” the 50-year-old director reminisced recently from his office in central Berlin.

This summer, Kosky, whose ongoing tenure as artistic director of Komische Oper has been one of this city’s most thrilling cultural developments, becomes the first Jewish director to work at Bayreuth, the legendary Wagner festival founded by the composer as the optimal showcase for his work in 1876. His assignment: the composer’s most nationalist opera, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” a work that the Third Reich adored above all others.

“Meistersinger,” about a singing guild in medieval Nuremberg, which holds a contest for the hand of a fair maiden, is the only comedy among Wagner’s ten mature operas: but the laughter here is derisive; it is the laughter of exclusion, directed against the pedantic and scheming mediocrity Beckmesser, who, like Mime, has often been interpreted as a Jewish caricature.

That point is open to debate, but there’s no charitable way to parse the opera’s closing monologue. The hero, Hans Sachs, delivers a stirring speech to the victor of the song contest, the knight Stolzing. Sachs warns against foreigners and the decay of what is “German and true,” and trumpets the eternity of “Holy German Art.” Stolzing is won over by Sachs’ eloquence and gladly accepts the mantle of Meister, which he previously rejected.

Modern productions of “Meistersinger” have grappled with how to deal with this critical and highly problematic moment. In October 2015, the Berlin Staatsoper celebrated the 25th anniversary of German unification with a blissfully naïve and cliché-lade production from director Andrea Moser that showed a strong and prosperous Germany that had magically escaped the quagmire of history. Not so in David Bosch’s 2016 production for the Bayerische Staatsoper, set in a visibly depressed German town dominated by boxy gray concrete buildings with satellite dishes. At the conclusion of Bosch’s production, Stolzing snubbed the guild, grabbed his sweetheart and left town in a hurry. To his credit, Bosch didn’t ignore the nationalist ideology inscribed in the opera, like so many others have, (including Otto Schenk’s grandly historical production at the Met between 1993 and 2014). On the other hand, his idea of rejecting the monologue was clearly at odds with Wagner’s score.

“To me, the monologue is the absolute natural development of the material that happens in the hours beforehand,” Kosky explained. At the July 25 premiere, Kosky revealed his key insight about “Meistersinger.” It isn’t at all a piece about Nuremberg or Germany national identity. The opera’s true subject is Richard Wagner himself.

More ink has been spilled about Wagner than any other artist in history, making the composer at least as fascinating as the operas he bequeathed to posterity. “I think Wagner is so complex and so narcissistic that I think all these characters are part of himself,” Kosky explained, suggesting a very personal source for Wagner’s fanatical anti-Semitism. “Wagner carried the fear that he himself could contain Jewish blood in him. Whether it’s true or not, isn’t the issue. The issue is that he had the fear.”

The curtain rose on Wagner’s library at Wahnfried (sets by Kosky’s frequent collaborator Rebecca Ringst), the magnificent house the composer built for himself in Bayreuth. It’s a typical evening at casa Wagner, with Richard excitedly opening presents from admirers and swooning over fine silks and perfumes as Franz Liszt pounds out the Meistersinger overture on the piano. The composer dances across the room, lecturing Hermann Levi, the Jewish conductor who had a near-masochistic relationship with Wagner, one moment, and lunging to upwrap a portrait, the next. His wife Cosima visibly irritated by her husband’s shenanigans, nurses a headache.

The real Wagner loved to preview his operas-in-progress to his family and friends, reading dramatically from his libretti and providing musical examples in virtuosic one-man-shows that would last for hours. In Koksy’s production, Wagner scrambles about assigning roles to his guests in what quickly turns into an impromptu performance once the final bars of the overture segue into the Lutheran chorale.

Kosky wittily grafts the fictional characters onto the real ones. Wagner becomes Sachs (the stern Michael Volle); Cosima transforms into Eva (a miscast Anne Schwanewilms); Liszt, Wagner’s father-in-law, is assigned the role of Pogner (the sonorous Günter Groissböck), Eva’s father; a stand-in for Wagner who amusingly crawls out of the piano, assumes the part of Stolzing (the otherworldly Klaus Florian Vogt); poor Hermann Levi reluctantly becomes Sixtus Beckmesser (Johannes Martin Kränzle giving the evening’s best performance).

Act I brims over with constant activity and invention. Bayreuth’s audience is notoriously hostile, especially at premieres. But thunderous applause shook the house once the first act curtain fell. Having raised the bar so high, however, Kosky seemed to be setting himself an impossible task. The remainder of the production never quite reached that same level of theatrical achievement.

The two remaining acts of Meistersinger crescendo in crowd scenes that call for a chorus of over 100. As he has so often in Berlin, Kosky proved himself expert at managing this onstage clutter; the antics that culminate in Beckmesser being pummeled by the nighttime rabble here took on the character of a pogrom, with the town clerk being forced into a gigantic mask of an anti-Semitic caricature right out of “Der Stürmer.” While Beckmesser is thrashed, out-of-sight, behind a painting of Wagner, the “evil Jew” mask reemerges as a massive balloon dominating the stage. While the symbolism is excessive, Kosky does succeed to conveying one critical point; not that Beckmesser is Jewish, but rather that, at this juncture in the opera, he becomes the Jew the villagers need in order to justify their descent into madness and violence.

One could take the point one step further. Through his theoretical writings and the music that reflected them, Wagner created his own sort of “Jew,” the undesirable other he was able to define himself – and the German culture whose savior he styled himself as – in opposition to. “I believe you cansee Beckmesser as a metaphor for the fear and humiliation of the assimilated Jew,” Kosky explained. “Wagner’s big problem wasn’t with Shtetl Jews and Eastern European Jews but with 19th century assimilated Jews. They look like us, they dress like us, they talk like us, but be careful, beware. They’re out to infiltrate us and destroy us.” It’s hard not to hear an echo of this suspicion and fear in Meistersinger’s closing speech.

As in most every Meistersinger production I have seen, Johannestag, the St. John Day setting for the climactic song contest, was presented as a historical Volksfest, with elaborate period costumes (by Klaus Bruns), energetic flag waving for the medieval guilds and good-natured rowdiness. There was one enormous difference, however. Kosky situated the festival inside the courtroom of the Nuremberg Trials. This was Kosky’s most daring move, as well as his least satisfying one. Stepping out of Wagner’s monomania, the production contrasted Wagner’s fairy-tale Nuremberg with the Nuremberg that served as the backdrop for the spectacular rallies immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl in “Triumph of the Will,” before being chosen as the site to reveal the Nazi regimes’ greatest crimes.

“I stand accused and must acquit myself.” Those words, spoken by Sachs in the final scene, formed a leitmotif throughout the third act. In the song contest, Sachs defends himself against Beckmesser’s accusation of having written a bad song. The ballad in question is Stolzing’s “Preislied,” the knight’s contest entry, midwifed into existence by Sachs during the first half of the act.

In this production, rather than merely defend himself against Beckmesser’s slander, Sachs, or rather, Wagner-disguised-as-Sachs, is called on to justify himself, and perhaps his posthumous reputation.

Early in the act, Sachs and Stolzing sit alone in the empty courtroom, composing the “Preislied” like two lawyers going over a brief. Aside from this, the courtroom played no significant role until the end of the act. The austere setting allowed the focus to be placed directly on the music, sensitively rendered by Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan into a delicate and probing disquisition on the artistic process. Michael Volle’s dramatically nuanced songwriting lesson and the radiant Morgentraum quintet made this the most surpassingly beautiful part of the evening.

While preparing the production, Kosky was focused on Meistersinger’s long composition history. “It’s not acomedy,” Kosky asserted, pointing to how Wagner’s initial idea of writing a Satyr play (to imitate the Greeks) that would parody his earlier opera “Tannhäuser” evolved into something very different 25 years later. “At first, the whole idea of tradition was to be mocked and laughed at. And a few decades later, it’s to be venerated.“

Alone on stage at the end of the evening, Wagner / Sachs stands in the witness box and directly addresses the audience. Volle pleads with us bitterly and dramatically, and at this point in the evening, the lack of supertitles makes Wagner’s message – the moral of the story – more palatable. Volle’s gesticulating and fist-waving occasionally brought Hitler to mind; yet I more often found myself thinking about Chaplin’s great final speech in “The Great Dictator,” where the Führer’s furious oratory style, so memorably parodied earlier in the film, is turned on its head by the Jewish barber. It is possibly the most moving plea for humanity and compassion ever committed to screen. Astonishingly, Chaplin underscores it with Wagner: the ethereal prelude to “Lohengrin.” I’ve always felt certain that this musical choice was the director’s defiant insistence that sublime art must never be harnessed to serve odious ideology.

Yet Kosky is up to something quite different. As the monologue reaches its climax, a dummy orchestra glides forward on a stand from backstage. Cosima reclines adoringly in front of the musicians, savoring the triumphant final chorus. (The orchestra at Bayreuth plays from a hooded pit and is hence invisible to the spectators, which makes Kosky’s decision to have a mock orchestra onstage all the cheekier). In the end, the music wins out.

Does this mean that Wagner gets an acquittal? Kosky leaves us with the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable tension between intolerant philosophy and supreme music; between aesthetics and ethics; between Wagner’s warped egomania and the universality of his art; and between the historical uses and abuses of that music and what encountering it in means for us in the 21st century.

“Some people don’t like the idea that the waters are muddied with Wagner,” Kosky told me. “But geniuses can be assholes, and geniuses can be monsters and geniuses can be also very contradictory and problematic.”

In the end, it is the music that endures. That is one conclusion suggested by Kosky’s production. And it is quite similar to one proposed by another Jew who, not too long ago, went in search of Wagner in Bayreuth: Stephen Fry in the 2010 documentary “Wagner & Me” argues that we can and must open ourselves to these works because, “Wagner’s music is bigger and better than Hitler ever imagined it to be.” In the new Bayreuth “Meistersinger,” Wagner gets a very different, and slippery, kind of acquittal. You might even say that the trial was rigged from the start. The composer has scripted and staged the whole thing in order to vindicate himself. Hence, what initially seems to be a cop-out musica vincit omnia – reveals itself as the production’s logical conclusion. It holds up a mirror to Bayreuth and its audience, reflecting how they are trapped, perhaps hopelessly so, inside of Wagner’s overpowering solipsism. As a probe of Wagner’s intolerant, megalomaniacal and brilliant mind, Kosky’s “Meistersinger” is a fascinating coup de theater, but as an interpretation of the piece it is unsatisfying. The Nuremberg Trials cannot help but seem out of place in a production that is so stuck inside Wagner’s head for most of the evening. The Nazi history of the Bayreuth continues to bedevil the festival that is still in the control of the composer’s family. I almost got the sense that Kosky, against his better judgment couldn’t resist at least cracking the lid on this can of worms.

“The place has a Ring-like curse on it and this means that it can veer between tragedy and farce, and often both,” Kosky responded when asked to share his thoughts on the festival. “You have a theater constructed by a man whose family then ran it, whose wife deified him, whose wife turned that wooden theater into the Kaaba in Mecca, with people walking around it in circles to be purified so it became not a theater but a temple. And then you’ve got the war, where it became a Nazi theater and was used and abused by the family and by Hitler.” Over the past decade, the festival has certainly begun to confront the most shameful episode of its past. Like Herheim’s ”Parsifal,” Kosky’s invitation to direct “Meistersinger” should be seen as a step in this direction. Beyond owing up to its Nazi past, Bayreuth has also struggled to assert its continued relevance, as well as to justify why a publically funded opera festival should be in the hands of the Wagner clan. This year’s festival program includes some of the best arguments for and against the tenure of Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter who has run the festival, by various degrees, since 2008. In addition to the final revival of Frank Castorf’s universally hated Ring Cycle from 2013, the program also includes the first revival of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s mind-bogglingly stupid Parisfal, set in ISIS-controlled territory. However, freed from the high expectations that attend any premiere here, the exemplary musical caliber, featuring Hartmut Haenchen’s fluid, rich conducting and the magnificent Austrian tenor Andreas Schager in the title role, was able to shine through more completely. Beyond Meistersinger, the most compelling case for Katharina Wagner’s artistic vision for Bayreuth in the 21st century was her stunning and dreamlike 2015 production of “Tristan und Isolde,” although the July 27 performance lacked the holistic energy and conviction of the “Parsifal” revival. The fierce boos that met Katharina when she took her bow came as something of a shock. (It must also have been fairly embarrassing for the festival, since Angela Merkel was attending). Were the dissenters in the audience angry about the production or her overall leadership of the festival?

Kosky has nothing but kind words for Katharina, who he says gave him complete artistic freedom and made his assignment there unexpectedly enjoyable. Nor did he feel any disquiet working for the festival that once hosted and toasted the Nazi high command: “Bayreuth, even with the Hitler story, is a set for farce, not a setfor tragedy. The tragedy happens in the art that you put on thestage. But that whole domestic world of Wahnfried and that whole Nazi circus at Bayreuth, to me, it’s Mel Brooks. I’m horrified by what the Nazis did outside Bayreuth. But what the Nazis did in Bayreuth is ‘Springtime for Hitler’!” With his big assignment behind him, it’s safe to say the director will be laying off Wagner for the foreseeable future. When Kosky returns to Berlin in the fall, he will throw himself into a work that is much closer to his heart, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The Bayreuth Festival runs until August 28

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