Wagner's bicentennial marked by controversy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 4:37pm


Opera houses the world over are scrambling to pay tribute to Richard Wagner, the controversial German composer often referred to as Hitler's favourite, who would have turned 200 this past week.

More has purportedly already been written about Wagner than any other artist in history, but publishers are churning out new biographies, critical studies and books.

Magazines and newspapers are bursting with reviews, interviews and articles, while new and re-issued recordings fight for attention.

In the run-up to this month's bicentenary, the world's leading opera houses - including the Met in New York, Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, the Bastille in Paris and Vienna State Opera - have unveiled new stagings of Wagner's opus magnum, the 16-hour-long, four-opera Ring cycle.

In Germany, which boasts around 80 opera houses, even the most dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian would struggle to keep track.

Among the more outlandish projects is a staging of The Rhinegold on a barge on the river Rhine.

Historians, musicians and conductors still fiercely debate the extent to which Wagner's musical and artistic legacy is impregnated with anti-Semitism

But for true Wagnerians, perhaps the main highlights of the year take place in Bayreuth, the town in Franconia where Wagner designed and built his Festspielhaus. The hallowed theatre with its amazing acoustics usually only opens its doors for four weeks in the summer.

On Wednesday, German maestro Christian Thielemann conducted excerpts from his best-known operas. The centrepiece of this year's Bayreuth Festival, which begins on July 25, will be a new production of The Ring by the iconoclastic German theatre director, Frank Castorf.

As always with Wagner, controversy is never far away.

In Dusseldorf this month, a staging of Tannhauser ended in uproar, when director Burkhard Kosminski set the story of the medieval knight-minstrel in the Nazi era and included a graphic portrayal of the gassing and execution of Jews.

After unprecedented protests, the production was pulled after just one performance.

But the incident goes to the heart of the controversy surrounding a composer who is reviled as much as he is revered.

"I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees," the Jewish maestro Leonard Bernstein once said, summing up the deep ambivalence many harbour towards him.

Wagner was born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813, and died in Venice on February 13, 1883, long before the rise of Nazism. But Hitler was an ardent admirer of his music, as well as a regular visitor to Bayreuth. He became a close friend of the Wagner family, who affectionately called him "Uncle Wolf". Hitler claimed that it was one of Wagner's early operas, about the Roman tribune Rienzi, which inspired him to begin thinking about a political career.

The Nazis used Wagner's music in their propaganda films and rallies, so much so that the composer's operas are still informally banned for performance in Israel.

Music scholars, historians, musicians and conductors still fiercely debate the extent to which Wagner's musical and artistic legacy is impregnated with anti-Semitism and proto-Nazi ideas of racial purity.

In addition to his 13 completed operas, Wagner was a prolific writer and theorist, and among his most infamous publications is a virulently anti-Semitic pamphlet entitled "Judaism in Music".

The bone of contention is whether his g esamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, was innately apolitical, or whether he used it to propagate his racist, anti-Semitic and nihilistic world view.

In musical terms, Wagner's achievements are undeniable.

His medieval love epic, Tristan and Isolde and his final stage work Parsifal broke the boundaries of tonality, influencing the work of later composers including Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg.

Wagner's use of the orchestra, with exotic new instruments designed to his own demands, was similarly revolutionary.

But critics, such as his great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner, said the man cannot and should not be separated from his art.

"There are terrific sides and dark sides" to Wagner, he said.

Agence France-Presse