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‘Let’s keep Hitler off the opera stage’

Following this week’s Düsseldorf fiasco in which Tannhäuser, dressed as an SS guard, was seen shooting Jewish concentration camp prisoners in Wagner’s medieval opera, the German media has begun slightly to recoil from the worst excesses of Regietheater.


photo: DPA, from a Magdeburg theatre production

Alexander Kissler, writing in the online political magazine Cicero, calls for Hitler and Nazi insignia to be banned from the German stage in productions that have no basis in the Third Reich. Read him here (auf Deutsch). This could mark a turning point for the current Regietheater regime.

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  1. Basia Jaworski says:

    There is a HOPE!

  2. Where will this end? No Mao? No Stalin? No Sadam? The issues with Regie-theater aside, I think it is ludicrous to ban a character from the Stage. Where would we be without Mephistopheles? I’d prefer the discussion to be about the setting reveals about the work which we did not know before. I do not want to see a profuction that only affirms what I already know about a work. I want to be challenged. Placing a work in a new context is essential. I’ve heard nothing about the standard of the singers in this production. If it is simply a bad production, by all means, voice a complaint. But banning historical figures from the stage will get you ridiculed by history.

    • Mephistopheles is a mythical character, the personification of evil. Hitler, Mao and Stalin were actual human beings who played their bloody role in history. If we heard nothing about the singers in this particular production, it was precisely because the director chose, once again, to make it a nazi show in order to have his name in the papers. It’s the acme of laziness and talentlessness in opera direction, precisely as the article states, and hardly a “new context”. We know that Wagner was an antisemite. We know that Hitler loved Wagner. And we don’t need a director treating his audience like a bunch of idiots who can’t figure that out for themselves.

      • Monica Berserk says:

        So what you are saying is that depiction of any historical character should be banned from representation on stage? Or only historical characters whose politics you disagree with?

        • Gurnemanz says:

          “Alexander Kissler, writing in the online political magazine Cicero, calls for Hitler and Nazi insignia to be banned from the German stage in productions that have no basis in the Third Reich.”

          Key sentence which you are conveniently overlooking.

          • Monica Berserk says:

            And as we all know, the history of German government is that, having been allowed one small incremental step, they invariably are satisfied with this appeasement and ask no further concessions.

          • Timon Wapenaar says:

            In other words, it would be illegal to, say, cast Richard III as a Nazi… But mounting a production of “Bent” or “Albert Speer” with the appropriate trappings would be hunky dory. Glad to see all is back to normal in the EUSSR.

          • Monica Berserk says:

            So Richard Eyre’s production of Richard III starring Sir Ian McKellen could not be produced anywhere in Germany? Would it be forbidden to present the 1995 film adaptation of this play in a public cinema?

          • And, er, who decides what does and does not “have any basis in the Third Reich” ?

          • Monica Berserk says:

            Who decides what has and what does not have a basis in the Third Reich sounds like a job for Karl Lueger.

        • I was merely trying to point out that the metaphoric character of Mephistopheles, who does appear in opera under various names, doesn’t belong in a list of mass-murdering dictators who have actually strode this earth. And no, I don’t think some kind of state censorship would be any good. But just like the Godwin point in (internet) discussions, I think references to Hitler and the nazis in operas that predate the nazi era or just have plain nothing to do with it should render the whole staging invalid and entitle audience members to a full refund, for the simple reason that even the slightest hint towards the Third Reich will always obscure everything else and thus become meaningless.

    • Well said !

  3. Timon Wapenaar says:

    Tannhauser the Nazi was a patently stupid idea. “Springtime for Hitler” was genius. If we aren’t allowed to judge the difference between Kosminski and Mel Brooks for ourselves, when the state makes artistic decisions for us, woe betide the next generation.

    • Thank you for this, which says all that needs to be said.

    • anonBari says:

      Exactly. I’ll mention the Stefan Herheim Parsifal, which featured Nazis briefly at the end of Act II, and the production was widely acclaimed. It was beautiful, and the director tailored it to the Bayreuth audience.

      On the other hand, there are plenty of productions that feature no Nazis but are ghastly horrors that treat their audiences with contempt.

      Regulating art won’t prevent that kind of catastrophic bad taste, but it could stifle actual artistry.

    • If you read the article well, nowhere does the author call for legislation of any kind. He’s just fed up with taxpayers’ money being (ab)used to show Hitler on German stages whenever possible. I read it as an angry call to reason for opera directors, not for state censorship.

      • Timon Wapenaar says:

        I stand corrected. As far as I can tell (my German is sehr schlecht), there is no reference to banning, in principle or in law.

  4. Monica Berserk says:

    Yes, prior restraint is precisely the way to go! I say every artist should be required by law to submit a prospectus of his work to a government board of censors before being allowed to continue the creative process. The important thing is that not one single person ever be offended by any work of art, because the whole purpose of art, after all, is to not to stimulate thought, but rather to prevent it.

    George Santayana: who’s that again?

  5. harold braun says:

    Being jewish,I can only repeat myself:These scenes evoke horrible feelings inside me,especially when forced to see it totally unexpected and unprepared.If a director feels compelled to mention those horrors on stage(which surely is out of place in Tannhaeuser,which hasn’t got anything to do with it so he had to invent completely new strands of the plot,to which,naturally,Wagner had’t set a single note!),there would be more subtle or less sensation seeking ways to do so.

  6. José Lastarria says:

    …seine Kritik nicht auf den Kammerton der Betroffenheit herunter dimmt…

    What a brilliant expression. However, banning Hitler and the Third Reich from the stage would be as stupid as banning Wagner’s music, as has already happened in one country. Stifling a subject will not make us more intelligent or improve our taste; only confronting us with as large a panoply of relevant and cogent ideas as possible can encourage us to keep our creative and critical faculties in good health. From that point of view, this Düsseldorfer Tannhäuser was a good thing: theatregoers, exasperated by yet another insult of their intelligence by a half-witted opportunist, have finally voted with their feet and they have been heard. That’s worth much more than any misguided official censorship; it’s a triumph for democracy over totalitarianism and may make idiots like Kosminski think twice in the future before taking the easy way out and shocking audiences for its own sake.

    • Monica Berserk says:

      theatregoers, exasperated by yet another insult of their intelligence by a half-witted opportunist, have finally voted with their feet and they have been heard

      In fact, that is the opposite of what happened. Most of the ticketholders for this production had no chance to see it because a few malcontents at the opening night complained that their feelings were hurt. At that point the professional pot-stirrers swung into action, screaming random accusations about an event about which they had no first-hand knowledge. And then the management of the DO beat a cowardly retreat.

      The only lesson to be learned from this fiasco is that the meanest bully in the room will get his way.

      • José Lastarria says:

        The only lesson to be learned from this fiasco is that the meanest bully in the room will get his way.

        Yes, like Kominski.

        • Monica Berserk says:

          Kominski’s production was taken off the stage after a single performance. How is that “getting his way?”

          • José Lastarria says:

            Who are we talking about: Markus Eiche, Elena Zidkhova, Axel Kober, Daniel Frank, Thorsten Grümbel, Elisabet Strid? No, we’re talking about Kominski, who also doubtless got paid. He got what he wanted, he got his way.

        • Nonsense. His production failed to receive a full run and a hearing. Hardly getting his own way! More a suggestion, as I read it, that the “professional pot-stirrers” Monica refers to got -their- own way, and the production pulled, something which strikes me as a bad thing, whether the production was tasteful or not.

          • Quite wrong. It was the audience protests and the ticket cancellations that prompted the cancellation.

          • Monica Berserk says:

            Remember, Anon, Mr. Lebrecht was actually right there on the scene in Düsseldorf, interviewing both the management of the opera house, Kominski and a representative sample of the opening night audience, so he can speak with authority on the subject.

          • I would be helpful to have precise, documented information regarding ticket cancellations because opinions are strongly divided and people on both sides will inevitably cite causes that might not exist. German houses often let unpopular productions complete their full run, so other factors seem to be at work as well. It is also nothing new for people to storm out of theaters and slam doors if they are unpleasd. How many stormed out? How many asked for their tickets back? Proof? (It seems unlikely that so many would have asked for their tickets back so quickly so that’s antoher reason we need documented stats.) It is also worth considering if this would have continued for future performances, or if the controversy would have actually increased interest. This is a very interesting development and from a musicological persepctive we need objective, *documented* information to fully evaluate it.

          • Hawelka says:

            Re your previous post “And, er, who decides what does and does not “have any basis in the Third Reich” ? Not who, what. The simple fact that nothing can “have any basis” in anything previous to the actual happening. That excludes the whole human history – and creation – before 1933.

  7. Gary Carpenter says:

    There was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t see a production of anything on a German stage without Nazis in it. I’m surprised the Düsseldorf Tannhäuser wasn’t banned by the cliché police before it even opened.

  8. The most prominent aspect of the Kissler’s article is his polemic against Germany’s State Theater system. He stresses the words “deutschen Subventionstheater” over and over as if were essentially a genre, and implies it is the source of the problem.

    • José Lastarria says:

      Yes, that was strange, wasn’t it?

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Not at all strange. Read the article. His repeated use of the term leads up to and is explained in the last two paragraphs. And yes, the type of “Subventionstheater” in which directors if they have no ideas of their own but still want to be relevant and make “important” statements just throw Nazi stuff on the stage is almost a genre in itself, one which is superimposed onto whatever opera or play they are producing. And the tax payers pay for a lot of that. There is no other country in the world which spends so much money on the arts, on theaters and opera houses, and that can be a great basis to preserve the cultural monuments of the past but also for daring, innovative approaches to that cultural heritage. Including provocative and stimulating interpretations which address the dark aspects of German history and culture. But just throwing Nazi stuff on the stage isn’t daring and innovative anymore. It has gotten very, very old and it trivializes the subject. And the tax payers pay for most if that.
        So what Kissler is saying is, you get all that money to produce an opera any way you like but those means should be used in relevant, responsible ways. There is an expectancy that comes with the money and the artistic freedom it provides. So come up with something new and interesting, don’t regurgitate the Nazi stuff if you can’t come up with anything else.

        • Fabio Fabrici says:

          I don’t understand the perk some people have with “Subventionstheater”. Good theater is ALWAYS “Subventionstheater” for hundreds of years. If you want to see something different without subsidies, you have to go see a musical on broadway or the X-Factor.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I am not sure I correctly understand what you mean by “having a perk with Subventionstheater” since you seem to mean something like “having a problem” with subsidized theater but I am not aware of a use of the word “perk” in that context (English speakers correct me if I am wrong). However, if you mean “having a problem”, that’s a misunderstanding of what Kissler wrote in the article and what I referred to.

            He doesn’t have a problem with the idea of subsidized theater at all, nor do I. What he says is that with the privilege – or the perk! – of being subsidized, of being given the means of putting on an opera production without having to worry too much about how well it will sell, also comes a responsibility of using the tax payers’ money wisely and responsibly.

            That means that those who get to spend the money are under a certain pressure to come up with something relevant, something perhaps educational, something which justifies spending all that money, otherwise they can easily be accused of just providing outdated, stuffy, elitist entertainment with the tax payers’ money. And there is some truth behind that, too. The whole point of the massive subsidies allocated to cultural institutions in Germany is to both preserve the cultural heritage but also to review it, renew our appreciation of it, rather to just repeat the same old over and over again.

            The problem that Kissler addresses here is that the type of subsidized Regietheater which when they can’t come up with anything original or relevant just drags in the Nazis because that is an important subject so you must pay attention, you must applaud, you must find that daring – that that has long become the “same old” – especially in a country like Germany which has done its collective historical homework very thoroughly. And which continues to do so. Which is why just pouring the Nazi sauce all over Tannhäuser is neither original nor relevant nor an adequate treatment of the opera. Nor is it an adequate and meaningful treatment of Nazi history. Nor is it an adequate treatment of the complex subject Wagner and the Nazi ideology.

  9. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    The public will ultimately decide. It is certainly gratuitous to force the plot of any theater work so that it relates to the Third Reich especially when the work was created before that period. But, if the reference is an integral part of the plot, there is less reason to “ban” the moment or the entire work. Who will ever forget the great Mel Brooks, and the scene from his film “The Producers?” The pay-off is the look on the faces of the audience as “the producers” try to create a flop to abscond with the backers’ money. Unfortunately for them, the show “Springtime for Hitler” becomes a big hit. Censorship is a slippery slope. We all need to remember forever what happened during the terrible period.

    • Monica Berserk says:

      Unfortunately, the public will not “ultimately decide” in this case: the management of the opera house has made a final and apparently irrevocable decision that the public will not be allowed to see this production. The Tannhäuser was scheduled for six performances, of which only one will be given in Kominski’s production. Thus about 5/6 of the potential audience of this staging will have no chance to “decide the case” — the decision has been made for them.

      • Hm no, these productions are shoved down the audience throats. If you want to hear unamplified voice, you have no choice. If you want to hear certain singers in operas you like live, you have to put up with these productions that pseudo-intellectuals force on us.

  10. So much of what “art” is is defined by particular events that have shocked the dull petite-bourgeoiseie types. Attempts to “ban” ground-breaking works have only had the effect of immortalizing them. It is hard for me to believe that none of the posters here have any idea of how much like Hermann Goering they sound. Particularly since none has seen the work in question.

    • It’s not necessary to see the production to know Nazis do not belong to Tannhäuser’s plot. It’s crystal-clear. Only idiots don’t understand it. When someone pays to attend a performance of a certain composer’s opera, that’s what one wants to see, nothing more, nothing less.

  11. Tobias Lea says:

    What? The Vienna Philharmonic are not involved? I am shocked!

  12. peter bowman says:

    [redacted] I have played many wagner operas and the music was written by a genius but also by
    a mad man. This discussion shouldn’t even be allowed to be written. I admit that i dispise most germans.
    We all make fun of the french but the french amuse me even when they are angry and rude. If it were
    up to me the wall would be put back up only this time around the entire country. My dream is to let
    the swastika and everyone who believes in its moral nonsense be put in the camps that killed millions
    of innocent people. Let’s get real and as for the opera? Kill it!!!!

    • Even though I haven’t seen the production in question, one need only look at the attitudes it has brought to the surface to see why Regietheater productions of Wagner might have a purpose — at least if done well.

      • The concept of ‘well done’ Regietheater is an oxymoron

        • Fabio Fabrici says:

          That’s (obviously) not true. “Regietheater” is only at a higher risk at getting it wrong. Because the risk for staging “as the composer wanted” is low. But here in Central Europe you have the average Opera goer seeing several Tannhäusers in his life time. So naturally people enjoy getting a different view on the matter by different “Regisseur” rather than seeing the same staging all over multiple times.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I can’t believe the above was written by someone who has actually lived in Germany for decades. Wow!

        • Can we just enjoy the opera and forget about the Nasi ?

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          By which I meant RO, not BR. I can’t believe that after decades of living in Germany, you want to make it look as if this production brought out “attitudes” from under the “surface” which were previously well hidden under that surface. As if you didn’t know how much and how openly the whole NS era has been addressed in Germany for decades. For longer than you have been there.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Cheryl says:
            May 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm

            “Can we just enjoy the opera and forget about the Nasi ?”

            You can, if you want to – and if the director lets you. But we shouldn’t just forget about the darker sides of history and how they are reflected in art – if they are reflected in the art. If they are, they should not be whitewashed, but they shouldn’t be just slapped on everything either.

            That reminds me, I haven’t had Nasi Goreng in a long time – I might just go out and get some today!

          • Hahaha, You must love Indonesian food :-)

  13. Tobias Lea says:

    As usual, William, your logic is astounding….

    • For those confused by these remarks from Tobias Lea, he is a member of the Vienna Philharmonic. The orchestra was a very active supporter of the Third Reich and has not been especially open about that history. So when discussions of Nazism and classical music come up, as in the case with this opera production, the Philharmonic can sometimes get a little jittery. The orchestra’s history would probably not be such a big issue, if it hadn’t continued sexist and racist employment practices long after the war, and whose vestiges continue to this day. (And lest there be any confusion, I wouldn’t have raised the topic on this blog entry on SD, except that Mr. Lea himself brought it up.)

      • And please note that I am not interested in discussing the Vienna Philharmonic in the context of this thread about an opera production.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          But you just did. You always do that. You drop in your Nazi stuff or your the WP is the orchestra of evil stuff and then you let us know that you are not interested in further discussion anyway, that you will be away on lectures or that you expect any dissenting views must come from “abusive” posters or blind-folded “Wagnerites” or whatever and then you just bow out. Hit and run tactics rather than participation in an actual discussion.

  14. Why is it more sickening to see on stage what happened in real life and rarely caused any horrified reaction to the real life mise-en-scene by the public? Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most evil one of all and why?

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      That’s not the issue, Helen. It’s about a director’s invalid appropriation of a historical atrocity to promote himself on the back of a masterpiece. People are angry because it’s not the first time it’s happened and they’re fed up with this brainless, provocative rape of their valuable cultural heritage. There, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    • Fabio Fabrici says:

      Isn’t the Nazi time 70 years over now? I would expect a mirror to reflect the present, not the past.

      What about a modern “Ring”, with Netanjahu as Alberich? And Dick Cheney as Wotan and Wanderer. G.W. Bush as Siegfried. In the opening of 3rd act Walkure we could show the thousands of dead Iraqi civilians being dragged around by the Valkyries and Rumsfeld as Mime, walking through pools of blood. Now that could be an interesting “mirror on the wall” to the present “evil”.

      Let’s lobby the MET to show some courage and put something relevant on stage.

      • Operalover1 says:

        Yes, Netanyahu as Alberich would be quite interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening for various reasons not least of all at the MET.

        • Gonout Backson says:

          That’s an interesting observation, especially in this discussion. I wonder if Mr. Osborne will notice.

  15. Gonout Backson says:

    I’m quite surprised (as, probably, she will be) with Monica Berserk : this kind of censorship is nonsense, the only way to fight these ideas and this kind of theatrical Kitsch, is to open all windows and let it fly.

    The Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s new decision is just as stupid and conformist as the first one : first they produced and vocally supported a santimonious dud; now, they have created a martyr of the eternal fight for artistic freedom, an honour Hr. Kosminski certainly did not deserve.

    Neither of these decisions was taken wisely, both were taken in fear and under pressure : the first, to please the Regietheater Wild Bunch, the second to please The Moral Majority. Congratulations.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Sorry, my first phrase is nonsense, it should be :

      “I’m quite surprised (as, probably, she will be) to agree with Monica Berserk etc.”

  16. Here are some articles from Germany about the Düsseldorf Tannhäuser. Der Tages Spiegel asks if the Nazi scenario was contrived, or if the problem was that the cultured public [bildungsbürgerliches Publikum] couldn’t bear to look at truths presented. The paper notes that this cannot be determined due to the abrupt cancellation:

    Die Welt calls the cancellation a “cowardly” deed, and an over reaction to a “provincial storm in a theater water glass.” The paper says that if the house is going to put something obviously controversial on the stage it should stand behind it and that “anything else is cowardly.” Die Welt says the cancellation is the real scandal.

    Der Spiegel notes the director set the opera in the Nazi period and the early, post-war Federal Republic of Germany to study the country’s guilt and sin and to thematisize Wagner’s anti-Semitism and influence on Nazi ideology.

    FAZ reports that Kosminski was shocked by the cancellation. They reprinted a quote of him from the Mannheimer Morgan, “It can’t be that this sort of censorship takes place.” Kosminski spoke with the Intendant of the house, and asked for the creation of “a substantive discussion that would calm the angry tempers on both sides” The paper notes the proposal was not granted. The director said he did not “at any moment want to use the terrible crimes of National Socialism as an end in themselves to provoke a cheap scandal.” The paper notes the Jewish community in the city said they understood the cancellation, but that they did not want to interfere in artistic affairs. The paper says the Jewish community found the production tasteless, but did not request that the production be cancelled.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      “Der Spiegel notes the director set the opera in the Nazi period and the early, post-war Federal Republic of Germany to study the country’s guilt and sin and to thematisize Wagner’s anti-Semitism and influence on Nazi ideology.”

      That may be so, and those all are important subjects to address, but is a distorted production of Tannhäuser the right way to thematize them? Especially when all these subjects have been constantly thematized in many forms and publicly discussed in Germany for many decades now? How about writing a new play or some form of musical theater which uses elements of Wagner’s music and world view and Nazi ideology and symbology and which really puts all these in meaningful relations to each other and analyzes them, rather than just slapping Nazi stuff on this opera?

      • Michael Hurshell says:

        @ Michael Schaffer: well said. The issues are important, but piggybacking on opera is not the way to achieve any progress or dialogue. I also, regrettably for the ump-teenth time, must object to the phrase (used by Mr. Osborne, referring to the Spiegel article) “Wagner’s anti-Semitism and influence on Nazi ideology.” That is, I object to the rather fashionable juxtaposition of these two elements, as representing the 2 halves of a single idea; Wagner’s “influence” is hardly what many current commentators make it out to be. Practically all the contents of “Das Judenthum in der Musik” were plagiarized from earlier German publications; and the Nazis had no need of Wagner for their ideology and crimes. The fact that they tried to convince everyone that Wagner was one of their own, is a pity, esp. since many people today believe this. But apparently people today prefer to believe what the Nazis said about Wagner – what a misunderstanding! Incidentally, I am a great fan of “The Producers” and think Mel Brooks was a lot better at dealing with this part of history, in an art work, than the Regisseurs being discussed.

        • Mr. Hurshell’s view that Wagner had little influence on the Nazis is idiosyncratic to say the least. Here is an article from the Telegraph that outlines some of the influences Wagner had on Hitler. There are countless articles, both journalistic and scholarly that address the influences:

          • Here is the sentence used in the Spiegel article:

            „Die Oper spielt in seiner Inszenierung in der Zeit des Nazi-Regimes und der frühen Bundesrepublik – auch, um damit den Antisemitismus des Komponisten und dessen Einfluss auf die Nazi-Ideologie zu thematisieren.“

            It is Der Spiegel (one of Germany’s oldest and most respected news magazines) that said the production thematized Wagner’s „anti-Semitism and its influence on Nazi-ideology.” In Germany, it is widely believed that Wagner had a considerable influence on Hitler. This view often accounts for how Wagner is staged in the country. Forgive me if I avoid involvement in this debate. With Wagnerites, its more like discussing religion than art.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Of course Wagner had *some* influence on Hitler. Just “exactly” how much though, and if it was really “considerable” is very difficult to say which is why there are so many books, articles, documentaries etc about the subject.

            But it’s not like the world was a happy place without bigotry and conflict, then Wagner came along and made all that nasty stuff up and that created Hitler and his buddies. Rather, it is in the nature of extremists like Hitler to just help themselves to whatever bits and pieces they need from wherever they can get them, and if Hitler found some of those bits and pieces in Wagner’s work and his writings, that doesn’t mean that Wagner’s influence on him was really “considerable” and formative.

            Plus, the Nazis also conveniently ignored the aspects of Wagner’s works which didn’t fit their ideological needs – like the fact that his magnum opus, the Ring, is not so much about blond German heroes but actually about total power and corruption and it ends in destruction of the world.

            We have to be careful to speculate about such things, but I think it is probably safe to say that Wagner with his decidedly anti-authoritarian stance would not have approved of a totalitarian regime like the Nazis. And I think we can be very sure that he would not have approved of them dictating what the arts should be like.
            And remember, for Wagner, that wasn’t just rhetoric, he actually took part in the unsuccessful revolution of 1848 and that not only cost him his privileged position as Kapellmeister in Dresden but even made him a wanted man. And that situation contributed to making him a more bitter, conflicted and, out of necessity, opportunistic man, the man who so many now love to hate. But he wasn’t just hot air rhetoric.

            BTW, I think it is a rather cheap shot of you to just label those who want a more nuanced discussion of this subject than your own black-and-white view allows as “Wagnerites” and so dismiss whatever they may have to say out of hand, not even worthy of your further attention. Hit and run again.

          • Michael Hurshell says:

            @ Mr. Osborne: Unfortunately, the Telegraph article.serves up the usual vague statements, like: “Wagner’s anti-Semitic and fervently nationalistic writings are thought to have had a quasi-religious effect on Hitler.” Thought by whom? Is it simply convenient to quote Hitler’s own propaganda about himself? He is not a very reliable witness, I believe. Again, using the Nazis’ arguments as reliable interpretation of “what Wagner meant” is, at best, extremely imprecise, and at worst a rather alarming choice of sources. This doesn’t mean one ignores the anti-Semitism in various Wagner statements, but the idea that Hitler shaped his policies based on Wagner is really the stuff of bad satire. The truly influential figures were folks like Lueger and von Schönerer. So, what precisely was the influence? What part of the Nazis’ policies and crimes was based on their being influenced by Wagner? “Quasi religious effect”… puh-lease. And please don’t drag Chamberlain, Winifred and all the other people who entered the picture after Wagner died into a discussion about his influence on AH.

          • Gurnemanz says:

            This “idiosyncratic view” is endorsed by just about any modern historian that is a recognized authority on Hitler and the Third Reich one cares to name. I’ll keep the list reasonably short but highly distinguished: Sir Ian Kershaw, Sir Richard Evans, Saul Friedlander, Christopher Browning…As of recently, such “idiosyncratic view has even been embraced by Joachim Kohler, formerly one of the main purveyors of the “Wagner influencing Hitler” theory.

          • For those interested, Mr. Hurshell and I have already discussed at length here on Slipped Disk the relationships between Wagner, his work, and National Socialism. To enter this discussion again would likely be repititious and I’m a little pressed for time. To read our previous thoughts and interesting comments by others, see:


            The relationship between Hitler and Wagner is a very open-ended topic that not even the best scholars will likely never resolve — though partisans on both sides insist the matter is settled. Whatever the case, it is clear that a symbolic relationship exists, justified or not, regardless of how straight or indirect the lines might be. And it is clear that Hitler and his supporters were active in creating that symbolic relationship.

            For survivors and many of their descendents, and for the German people, this symbolic association awakens deep pain. Perhaps someday those symbolic associations will dissolve, but until then we should exercise care and consideration when judging their approaches to Wagner and the Reich.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Fascinating: “symbolic relationship” “created” “by Hitler and his supporters” – it would seem that “Hitler’s influence on Wagner” is much more powerful and overwhelming than “Wagner’s influence on Hitler”…

            But, of course, I’m just thinking aloud.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      Tagesspiegel’s comment is excellent in one point (the Düsseldorf direction has most certainly “alles falsch gemacht”, these people are the real culprits here), and rather shaky in the conclusion (“Anders liegen die Dinge, wenn es hier ein bildungsbürgerliches Publikum einfach nicht ertragen kann, in die Fratze der grausamen und abgründigen deutschen Vergangenheit zu blicken.”), even if Mr Osborne’s translation uses the dangerous word “Truth” which doesn’t actually appear in the original text. The “bildungsbürgerliches Publikum” has been looking into the German past for the last 60 years, and very much on stage. This public didn’t need Hr. Kosminski’s opportunistic Kitsch to remind them that Nazis were Very Very Bad…

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        And that’s exactly the problem here. Because the subject is taken so seriously in Germany, and because for decades now, there has been a lot of very open discussion and education about the Nazi era, it is easy for people like this director to use the subject to ambush the people they work with and their audience and take them hostage.
        Just “thematize” something in relation to the Nazis, and everybody has to listen to you and take what you have to say seriously. If they reject it, then you can just say, well, they aren’t ready to face the “truth”.

        Another unfortunate side effect of this is that, as we have seen in a number of commentaries in earlier threads about this unfortunate opera production, many people outside of Germany take the reactions to this production as meaning that people in Germany are “still not ready” to address the subject – when it has been openly and intensely discussed for many decades now.

        • Gonout Backson says:

          Absolutely. But, unfortunately, Mr Osborne never answers embarassing arguments of this kind.

          • That’s not so. He is a meticulous respondent.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            I’m sure you are right, having the deepest possible knowledge of our reactions and idiosyncrasies.

            Still, I’m a little surprised to find that this particular argument (briefly: “Nazis have been present on the German artistic scene for decades” etc), an obvious fact, doesn’t seem to affect those who reject any critique of the Regietheater follies not on aesthetic, but on political grounds. And Mr Osborne, unfortunately, is one of those.

            I might have missed something, but he seems to be suggesting (there was a comment by him along these lines, which I cannot find anymore) that no production of Wagner’s works is valid unless it addresses the question of his turpitudes. I couldn’t disagree more, and many others have voiced the same opinion here.

          • Just for the record, I think that Wagner’s operas offer a wide range of possible stagings. Some might include commentary on Wagner’s racism and influence on the Nazis, but it is obviously also legitimate if they don’t. As I’ve mentioned, productions in Germany address these political themes more than in other places because there is an on-going effort to explore the complex cultural backgrounds that led to the Third Reich. I admire these efforts on the part of Germany, even if the difficult problems presented by such stagings are very difficult to do successfully.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            ” I think that Wagner’s operas offer a wide range of possible stagings. Some might include commentary on Wagner’s racism and influence on the Nazis, but it is obviously also legitimate if they don’t. ”

            Please… Whatever you think of “Wagner’s racism…” etc, what you say is, unfortunately, nonsense.

            First and foremost, no one asks a director for a “commentary”. It’s not what he’s being paid for. The only living musician who ever “commented” on music he played was Glenn Gould… and it’s probably not for this we love him best. The director, just as every musician involved, has to PLAY the work as it is. There are as many ways to “play” it on stage as there are to interpret it musically, and none of these include the incredible bashing exercice you seem to demand

            If the director doesn’t like the composer or the work, which is his right, he can always refuse to do it. But the accept the offer only to show that the author was a scoundrel and he has to be publicly vilified, is… let’s use a very British understatement : unacceptable. It’s also profoundly dishonest.

          • All live performance is a commentary on the work being performed — a systematic series of evaluations and interpretations.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Now you’re just being cute.

            No, Mr Osborne: a “live performance is” NOT “a commentary on the work being performed — a systematic series of evaluations and interpretations.” You’re clumsily playing with words “commentary”, “evaluation” and “interpretation”. A pianist “evaluates” and “interprets” the data the work contains, to produce an asymptotically best possible “actualisation” of the work, as the current jargon would have it. This is also what a serious director does.

            A clown of Kosminski’s kind is tampering with all these data, throwing some out, ignoring others, adding a lot of his own.

            If a pianist did that without clearly mentioning in the program, you would be the first to throw rotten tomatoes at him.

            But since Mr Kosminski’s and his kind are close to your heart ideologically, so you’re trying to obsure the debate with your word playing. Tsk tsk tsk.

          • Western classical music notation is a precisely defined discipline. The notation of stage directions in theatrical texts are not, and their use varies widely. These range from an almost complete lack of them in many Greek plays to the precision of Samuel Beckett’s who wrote two plays made only of stage directions, to opera where stage directions are often very careless, loose, and poorly thought out. The adaptation of plays to performance spaces, large variances in budgets, differing arrays of available stage machinery, evolving technology, and wide variances in social and historical contexts all obligate the discipline to openness and flexibility. These variances allow for a wide range of traditions and techniques in stage direction one of which is Regietheater.

            Ironically, Wieland Wagner is often cited as the first person to use Regietheater, exactly because of the social difficulties of presenting his grandfather’s work after the war. Wieland’s minimalist productions, which often completely ignored Wagner’s directions, stressed the universality and psychological depth of Wagner’s work and played a significant role in rehabilitating his image.

            And to explain further, I will repeat my comment from an earlier SD blog. To illustrate the difficulties of producing a fully authentic 19th century production of any work, we would need to use gas lights, lime lights, and arc lights. Electric lighting can emulate these effects, but it has entirely transformed our concept of the stage – as have many other aspects of modern stage machinery – many of which Wagner would have loved to have had.

            17th and 18th century lighting would have to go back to chandeliers and later the Argun burner – essentially a kerosene lamp with an enriched oxygen supply. Most lighting effects were just painted onto scenery.

            And of course, 19th century Wagner costuming these days would undoubtedly come across as hilarious to many, as would the hokey trompe l’oeils. And let’s not even begin with the melodramatic concepts of 19th century acting.

            This all reinforces the point that those calling for authentic productions don’t even have a clear idea what they would be, and that even if they did get them, they probably would miss most of the developments we now take for granted.

            Forgive me if this is my last word on this. I generally avoid religious discussions…. ;-)

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Please, Mr Osborne, this sounds desperate indeed…

            No one asks, and most certainly I haven’t, for an “fully authentic 19th century production of any work”. For a strict respect of Wagner’s didascalia. How many times has one to refute this nonsense? How many times shall you, desperate for a better argument, flog this dead horse, galvanize this cadaver?

            All I demand, and it seems that I am not alone, is – please, listen carefully and try to answer this, and not something else – is to respect Wagner’s words (just in case: I mean the libretto…), Wagner’s music, and the story they tell. Because only that can be called “Wagner’s Tannhäuser”.

            That’s what Wieland Wagner did, and many, many others – real artists, not sanctimonious, cynical Hochstaplers of the Kosminski’s kind. They specialize in travesty.

            You end with a refusal to lead a serious, argumented debate and a frank insult. “Religious discussion”? The ideological stanza, the “strong beliefs” with no valid arguments, the constant avoiding of addressing the real issues here, is yours and yours only.

            Are you still this “meticulous respondent”, as Our Host so generously qualified you?

          • Mr PK, you are being unacceptably aggressive, acting like a troll. Please desist.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Dear Mr Lebrecht,

            Please, accept my deepest apology for my unruly temper.

            I would most certainly have amended my ways – even without those surprising initials in your post.

            Best wishes for you and for your remarquable blog.

    • This reaction from the German press is unsurprising, given that most of the media (especially, as I understand it, in Germany) is in thrall to Regietheater. Many critics, most of them profoundly ignorant on the topic of opera history, long ago jumped cravenly on this bandwagon in order to show how ‘with it’ they are.

      • A large majority of the opera productions in Germany are fairly traditional, so much of the polemic here about the pervasiveness of Regietheater is unfounded. Second, there isn’t any real definition of Regietheater since most stagings everywhere are updated in many respects from the original. Third, it is a mistake to think the German opera public forms some sort of anti-Regietheater block. Forty-five of the top 100 cities for opera performances per year are in Germany. Many Germans have seen productions of the same operas many times and appreciate new and unusual stagings. And in the case of Wagner, his works are so laden with unfortunate history that Germans have difficulty accepting his work without some form of dramaturgical commentary. And fourth, it is simply ridiculous to say the German intelligentsia, including arts journalists, simply promote Regietheater to look cool.

        • Fabio Fabrici says:

          “And in the case of Wagner, his works are so laden with unfortunate history that Germans have difficulty accepting his work without some form of dramaturgical commentary.”

          What unfortunate history would that be? You do know, that Wagner’s libretti are fictional, right?

          • Operalove1 says:

            I must say that I like Fabio’s comments the most. I agree with him on this. All of this post-Wagner stuff is ridiculous. The libretti, with the exception of the Ring Cycle to a point, are all of a certain time in history. Keep them there! I am a relatively new listener to Wagner and I see much in him that I, as a progressive, agree with. The Ring is very much anti-capitalistic. It’s interesting how people see nationalism as very much an idea of the Right. But it can also be very much a thing of the Left. We’ve gone back to a society, at least in the US, that like much of 19th century “Germany” is ruled by a small cadre of elites. Then it were princes and grafs and so on. Today it is bankers and Ceos. But I totally disagree with the whole idea of Regietheatre in the first place. It isn’t the idea that you can’t possibly change the settings and interpretations. Sure, make Figaro like a French bedroom farce. That’s an obvious one. But much of it today is quite vulgar and seemingly done just to shock. I refer all to that list in “How to Opera Germanely”. That was so on target.

  17. Fabio Fabrici says:

    I keep thinking the whole thing might have been a little – turned into overwhelming – marketing trick.
    Had Dusseldorf put a wonderfully intelligent Tannhäuser production on stage, they would not have gotten even 1% of the on air time and name dropping they are getting now. And now they are even saving a little money AND get all the publicity. Good job! ;)

    • Gonout Backson says:

      I’m afraid (scared would be more like it) this is indeed the right answer and the simple explanation of everything.

      One example: Mr Sebastian Baumgarten, the author of the pitiful Bayreuth Tannhäuser, has been given the new Don Giovanni in Zurich.

  18. It’s funny, in the past librettists would disguise controversial figures/ideologies as historical allegories to get their productions on stage. Now it’s the other way round.

  19. Just to start a completely different spin on this – someone should research the exent to which Regietheater, and particuarly Nazi-obsessed Regietheater, stems from the US cultural policy in post-war Germany. As effectively the only funder of the arts in the occupied zone, the US also sought to use cultural policy as an instrument in reshpaing Germany. Largely this was by trying to create a ‘year zero’ in which all previous manifestations of German nationalist culture (Nazi or previous) were suppressed and a new generation was encouraged to start German culture on acceptable lines. This had interesting conequences when for example, the composer Werner Egk, who had more than flirted with the NS Kulturkammer, was financed to create a ballet ‘Abraxas’ based on a scenario of the (until recently suppressed) Jewish poet Heinrich Heine – pretty politically correct, huh? Also highly interesting (in the context of the Tannhauser under discussion here) that after three performances this was suppressed by the Bavarian authorities on grounds of ‘depravity’, resulting in it receiving very widespread publicity and soon being produced in Berlin and elsewhere……(See, e.g. David Monod, ‘Internationalism, Regionalism and National Culture: Music Control in Bavaria, 1945-1948’, in ‘Central European History 33/3′ (2000) ) Other consequences arguably included the ‘empty stage’ versions of Wagner in the resuscitated Bayreuth…and perhaps the so ‘daring’ attacks on German history that have become a central yawn factor in opera Regietheater in Germany. Even composers and theatre directors, and academics in the arts, go where the money is – they have to earn a living, after all. The Nazis paid them to attack and exclude the Jews; the modern liberal political elite pays them to insist that ‘we are all guilty’. If they depended on ticket sales to the audience, of course, their artistic agendas might be rather different.

  20. The choice of photograph to illustrate this story is strange… It’s from a theatrical adaptation of a screenplay filmed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1942 as “To be or not to be” – a black comedy set in Nazi-occupied Poland.

    It seems a little disingenuous to use it to illustrate an article about the “gratuitous” use of Nazi imagery in opera productions…

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