Coming to Terms with History

For the first time in the history of the Bayreuth Festival, a Jewish director staged a new production

Mark Ronan

A decent interval after the Second World War — in 1951 — Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival restarted. It was a tricky moment because Hitler had been a great fan during the war, and became a personal friend of Wagner’s daughter-in-law, the English-born Winifred, who ran it. With her sons Wieland and Wolfgang now taking control, the festival severed its connection with their mother, safely ignoring Wagner’s own anti-Semitism, to say nothing of Winifred’s. Yet there was still a need to come to terms with the past, so a few years ago they put up monuments to the Jewish musicians who worked at Bayreuth, recording with taste and honesty what happened to them, many perishing in concentration camps.

This year they took a further step. Wieland Wagner (1917–66), eldest of the composer’s grandchildren, and a brilliantly creative opera director, was the excuse for a hundredth anniversary that served not only to celebrate his life but make further amends for the failings of the Hitler years.

The night before the festival opened they organised a special concert featuring three speeches: two short ones by family members, and a 40-minute address by Sir Peter Jonas, former general director of ENO and subsequently of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Apart from praising Wieland Wagner, his task was to help lay to rest some not fully exorcised ghosts. Hitler’s name he mentioned numerous times, particularly in connection with Winifred, who wanted the great leader to be an “ersatz father” to Wieland. It was a bold speech, and as a friend of mine said, it could never have been given by a German.

Ghosts of the past were also laid to rest another way, this being the first time in the festival’s history that a Jewish director has staged a new production. Productions stay in the repertoire for about five years, with a new one almost every year, and this season was the turn of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. As Wagner buffs know, this ends with the great poet Hans Sachs delivering a paean to the Mastersingers of Nuremberg as guardians of German art, warning against foreign rule, and ending: Zerging’ in Dunst/ das heil’ge röm’sche Reich,/ uns bleibe gleich/ die heil’ge Deutsche Kunst. (Even should the Holy Roman Empire dissolve in mist, for us there would still remain holy German art.) I’ve never found this the least controversial, but some do, and directors handle it in different ways.

One recent British production shows portraits of the great and the good from German history, but Barrie Kosky, the Australian artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin and self-professed “gay Jewish kangaroo”, created a brilliant coup de théâtre. Everyone leaves the stage except for Sachs in 18th-century clothing, Wagner-style with a black velvet beret on his head.

Slowly the rear wall of the stage rises, and from nowhere appears a full-scale orchestra, while the theatre orchestra continues to play from below. Sachs himself takes a baton and conducts the onstage orchestra, creating a very clear message — it’s the music, stupid.

As for Wagner’s anti-Semitism, Kosky finesses it well. Some people have seen the character of Beckmesser in Meistersinger as a Jewish caricature, but in an excellent programme essay Kosky writes:

Beckmesser is not Jewish. He is a Frankenstein creature sewn together from all the bits and pieces Wagner hated: the French, the Italians, the critics, the Jews. You name it, Wagner hated it and it all ends up in Beckmesser. His skin may be that of a 16th century town clerk but his soul and character are marinated in every anti-Semitic prejudice that emanated from the blood libels of medieval Europe: he is a thief, he is greedy, he can’t love, he steals German women, he steals German culture, he steals German music.

Being Jewish himself, Kosky could take liberties where others might fear to tread. In the rumpus ending Act II we see Beckmesser with a large head surmounted by a yarmulke showing the Star of David, and alone on stage in the first scene of Act III he is surrounded by Jewish dwarves who paw at him. Kosky also takes the liberty of setting Meistersinger in the real world rather than medieval Nuremberg, which he describes as Wagner’s “invented fantasy . . . a magical city kissed awake from the sleep of the past by his own music”, going on to point out “that the real Nuremberg was never ruled by tradesmen, that guilds were banned from the city in 1348, that the city was a major centre of banks, banking and international trade . . . Nuremberg was for Wagner the centre and soul of Germany, the Jerusalem on the Pegnitz”.

It was also the city where the Allied powers conducted the Nazi war trials after the war, and curiously enough Meistersinger includes trials in all three acts: Walther’s trial by the Mastersingers in Act I, Beckmesser’s trial by Sachs as he delivers his serenade in Act II, and their separate trials by the people in Act III. Kosky takes this on board by setting Act III in the famous Nuremberg courtroom with flags of the occupying powers — the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union — in the background. These bold moves worked so well that there was scarcely a boo for the production team — in a place where such disapprobation can go on . . . and on . . . and on, in admirably Teutonic fashion.

It takes a non-German to tackle the modern history of Germany, just as Norwegian director Stefan Herheim did several years ago with Parsifal. His production was replaced last year with a new one, controversially set in the Middle East, and Angela Merkel opted out of attending the first night. Security precautions shot up to far higher levels than before, and have stayed there. Where one could once wander over and chat to the Chancellor — as I did — that is now quite impossible. As we left at the end to walk down the hill to our hotel, we found a camera crew making a training video of the exit convoy for Merkel and others, headed by 15 police motorcycles. A far cry from Nazi times, but military precision nonetheless, and since the war is long over, the occupying powers now largely absent, Germany must learn to defend itself — and, as Wagner said, German art.

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