Lurid Nazi-themed production of Wagner opera cancelled

Company explains Wagner production only in concert form since it made some ill

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 May, 2013, 4:06am


It was supposed to be one of the highlights of Richard Wagner anniversary celebrations, but a controversial Nazi-themed production of his Tannhäuser has been cancelled after it caused some audience members to seek medical help and prompted others to walk out in anger.

A cascade of boos during Saturday's opening night performance turned into a flood of complaints about scenes of shootings and gassings.

The management of Düsseldorf's Deutsche Oper am Rhein quickly decided that it was better heard than seen, announcing that it would now be performed as a concert, with singing and music but little in the way of staging or costumes.

"We are reacting with the utmost concern to the fact that a few scenes, particularly a very realistic depiction of a shooting scene, obviously led to great stress for numerous visitors," the company said on its website. "We cannot justify such an extreme effect of our artistic work."

German society has never fully come to terms with Wagner's mixture of artistic brilliance, poisonous anti-Semitism and, in particular, his posthumous exaltation at the hands of the Nazis.

Debates about the composer's place in German culture have reached a new high with the yearlong celebration of his work that has accompanied what would have been his 200th birthday.


The Düsseldorf production includes scenes of people dying in gas chambers, being raped, and of members of a family having their heads shaved before their execution.

The opera house said some who saw it were so traumatised they needed medical assistance.

The leader of the west German city's Jewish community, Michael Szentei-Heise, said it had strayed so far from the original intentions of Wagner, who wrote it as a romantic opera in the 1840s and set it in the Middle Ages, that it was implausible.

"This opera has nothing to do with the Holocaust," he said.

Opera house managers acknowledged that they had always accepted that the production would be controversial.

The director of the opera house, Christoph Meyer, said his company had not meant to offend, and its purpose had been to "mourn, not mock" victims of the Holocaust.

The production, by director Burkhard C. Kosminski, is said to have bombarded the audience with shocking Holocaust imagery from the start. The opening scene depicts singers in glass containers falling as they are enveloped in a white fog, a clear allusion to the gas chambers that killed millions in Nazi death camps. Kosminski declined to make changes to soften the impact of the violence.

Additional reporting by The New York Times