Don't Mention the Nazis: An Encounter With Wagner and His Reticent Granddaughter

Attending the annual Bayreuth Festival, the writer finds an angry audience, a reticent relative of the German composer and an unusual exhibit on Jews.

Dalia Shehori
Dalia Shehori

Over 500 meter-high plastic statues of composer Richard Wagner fill the German town of Bayreuth, which is celebrating the 200th birthday of the controversial artist who founded the festival bearing its name.

The works, created by German artist Ottmar Hoerl, depict Wagner waving his arms conducting and add a measure of precociousness to the festival's heavy celebrations. But the complex past of "New Bayreuth" (as the festival has been called since it was revived in 1951) peeps out of every corner of the town that was one of the Nazi strongholds during the period of the Third Reich.

Very close to the Festspielhaus, in the upper section of the park, close to carpets of flowers in the shape of half a Star of David, which became the symbol of the festival, an unusual exhibition has been held over the past year, called "Silenced Voices - the Bayreuth Festival and the Jews 1876-1945." Over 20 rectangular panels adorn the exhibit, bearing on both sides pictures and stories of Jewish women and men who worked at the festival as soloists, choral singers and musicians until the Nazis rose to power, after which those who did not flee Germany were blacklisted, fired, sent to concentration camps and murdered.

Other panels starkly depict the history of the festival. It is noted in the exhibit's introduction that Wagner's wife, Cosima Wagner, tried to turn Bayreuth into a place for raising awareness about the inferiority of the Jews.

The memorial panels are arranged in the park in a rectangle, whose back part surrounds the neo-Classical bust of Wagner by Arno Breker, who joined the Nazi party in 1937. Crowned by Hitler as Germany's official sculptor, he made sculptures of the Fuhrer, Goebbels, Goering and other Nazis. Most of Breker's sculptures survived World War II, but the Allies destroyed most of the remaining ones. The sculpture of Wagner, installed in the park in 1939, was probably destroyed in the Allied bombing of Beyrouth in 1945. The town invited the same Breker in 1955 to make a new one, which stands there today.

The audience booed

This year the festival put on a new production of "Der Ring des Nibelungen," which was first performed in Bayreuth in its entirety in 1876. The half-sisters, Katharina Wagner, 35, and Eva Wagner-Paquier, 68, granddaughters of Richard and joint directors of the festival, signed a contract in 2011 with stage director Frank Castorf to put on the production.

The East Berlin-born Castorf is the veteran artistic director of the Volksbruhne in the German capital. He was a choice of last resort after other deals fell through. Known for being a deconstructivist who takes classic texts and dismantles them at will, he was forbidden in the contract from changing the music and the libretto of their great-grandfather.

He had two years to prepare, not much time for the Ring cycle of four operas, which last a collective 15 hours. Banned from playing with the text, he built a story parallel to the Ring tales, which are based on ancient German and Nordic mythology about gods, giants and dwarves seeking a golden ring stolen from the Rhine River. Castorf set the story in modern times, replacing the gods with the United States and the Soviet Union and gold with black gold, oil.

But the tale came across as disjointed and presumptuous. Most of the time it didn't connect with the original and sometimes went against the libretto and spirit of Wagner's music. If Wagner spoke of creating inclusive art meant to bring the viewer to identify with the work, Castorf alienated and annoyed spectators.

Castorf paid the price when the curtain fell on the fourth opera, when he and his staff went on stage for the first time and were greeted with a volley of whistles, boos and foot stomping, which lasted 10 minutes. Not even the oldest festival-goers recall such a scene.

However, the audience made a clear distinction between the musical production and the direction, as they applauded the singers, who were mostly good to excellent. They loved the Bayreuth chorus, which perhaps has no rival, and went wild every time the Russian-Austrian conductor Kirill Petrenko, who recently conducted the Israeli Philharmonic, and became in Bayreuth the star of "The Ring."

Don’t mention 
Nazi artists

I had a strange encounter with Katharina Wagner. I requested and received a half hour meeting with her. The festival's press bureau made it clear that Wagner was not giving interviews at the moment, so it was not an interview.

Wagner arrived very late, leaving me just 10 minutes to talk to her. After exchanging welcomes I turned on my tape recorder and explained that it was clear that this was not an interview and the recorder was there to help me keep exact notes, and that in this case I would not attribute them to her but rather to "Festspielhaus sources."

She was silent.

I told her that because we had very little time left, I would get straight to the questions that interest Israelis. She nodded yes. Referring to the German performance artist accused of making Nazi salutes, I said, "I wanted to ask you about Jonathan Meese..." - and she got up and left.

Two press bureau employees entered the room and said they told me this would not be an interview. I explained why I turned on my tape recorder and added that I was prepared to deposit it with them to erase any doubt. Meanwhile I caught a glimpse of Katharina Wagner trying to return - and the festival spokesman, Peter Emmerich, pushing her back.

Meese, a radical artist slated to direct "Parsifal" in Bayreuth in 2016, is known for his work with Nazi symbols like drawings of swastikas. He was acquitted this month in a trial in Kassel for making two Nazi salutes, banned by German law since 1945. His lawyers claimed freedom of artistic expression.

He says he was being provocative, but that the salutes are muscular symbols, whose significance is given to them by each person according to his or her desire.

He never directed an opera before, and the Wagner sisters approached him, it seems, because of his radicalness and his popularity. They no doubt are aware of his admiration for Nazi symbols, as well as the sensitivity of the issue in Bayreuth of all places.

It is likely that the fear of a new scandal (the last one was two years ago when the Russian opera singer Evgeny Nikitin, who was about to sing in the festival the role of the Dutchman in the "Flying Dutchman," withdrew after German television broadcast a film showing a swastika tattoo on his chest) is what caused the unacceptable reaction of Katharina Wagner, when she heard the name of Jonathan Meese from the mouth of an Israeli journalist.

The set of the opera 'Siegfried' at 2013 The set of the opera 'Siegfried' at 2013 New Bayreuth Festival, celebrating the works of composer Richard Wagner. Credit: Bayreuth Festival/Enrico N.

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