trial by opera

Festival Takes on Wagner

Trial by opera. Source: PR

Giant inflatable puppets, a pogrom with Nuremberg’s citizens clad in medieval robes, and courtroom scenes from Nazi trials: For once the real drama at this year’s Wagner festival took place on stage, not off.

Australian Barrie Kosky’s production stole crowds by putting the composer’s anti-Semitism on stage in “The Mastersingers of Nuremburg.” The Jewish director transformed the comedy into what one reviewer called a trial of Wagner at his own festival.

That is a big change for Bayreuth, the annual opera celebration that is a traditional, if not staid, celebration of Richard Wagner’s work. Usually, the most exciting thing most Germans read about the Bayreuth fest is warring among the factions of the composer’s family.

This year, the Wagner clan’s Nazi involvement was on stage for the first time since 2008 in a production of “Parsifal” by Stefan Herheim. Mr. Kosky, who leads Berlin’s Comic Opera, staged a work that got to the heart of the famously anti-Semitic composer’s work.

Wagner’s “Mastersingers,” first performed in 1868, is about a man and woman who fall in love, and an older man who regretfully renounces his love. It also features a singing competition where a competitor is able to convince a crowd of skeptics, the leader of whom is then humiliated. It’s also about being German and the supremacy of German art.

Mr. Kosky staged the piece as a counterpoint to its popularity amid the rise of Hitler and the Nuremberg trials, and features the history of its reception. With its display of current nationalisms and mechanisms of exclusion, it combines family constellation, Punch and Judy show, and trauma research.

Director Barrie Kosky is suspicious of the collective, painting the people of Nuremberg as a shrill, hysterical mob.

The staging starts out with a dollhouse view that shows the parlor of the Wahnfried household and the singers as a domestic puzzle game. Viewers in later acts are then transported to auditorium 600 at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where the Nuremberg trials took place in November 1945 and in the final act, the common people spread out where after the war, the accused and judges sat.

Musically, the conductor increases the tempo and reduces the volume to make a Wagner as delicate as Mozart, as estranged as Mahler. But the music is also on trial, and Mr. Kosky focuses on the creation and impact of music, and on its moral aspect as he satirizes, parodies, ponders and collages as if he were Wagner himself.

Mr. Kosky is suspicious of the collective, painting the people of Nuremberg as a shrill, hysterical mob. There is much scrapping on stage: In no other Wagner opera is there so much discussing, quarreling, or lecturing. Sometimes the fight becomes physical, culminating in a pogrom. But Mr. Kosky advocates a war of words: Don’t stop disputing with one another.

The work made waves, from the New York Times’ portrait and review entitled “A ‘Gay Jewish Kangaroo’ Takes on Wagner at Bayreuth” and “A New ‘Meistersinger’ in Bayreuth Stars Wagner” while the New York Review of Books described it as “Wagner on Trial.”

It’s one of the first times the warring family’s antics haven’t stolen the show. For many years, the Wagner family saga was a competition for the role of chief director of the festival, and keeper of the keys of the composer’s legacy. As the Bayreuth festival ended this week, its latest production may signal change for the future.


This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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