An exhibition entitled "Silenced Voices" during the Bayreuth Festival's current season explores a dark chapter in German history. Nazis used the music festival as a means of spreading anti-Semitic propaganda.
The plaster is crumbling off part of the façade of Bayreuth's opera house. Flower beds adorn the park in front of the building, which is beleaguered by curious onlookers as the Bayreuth Festival kicks off on July 25. Shrubs encircle freshly mown lawns. Wind blows through the leaves of the stately trees. A few visitors stroll across the manicured grounds.
It almost feels like it does every summer up on Bayreuth's fabled Green Hill - except for the 40 or so gray panels standing in the park near the sunken-eyed bronze bust of Richard Wagner. The bust itself was created by one of the Nazis' preeminent artists, Arno Breker.
From a distance, the panels resemble modern-day gravestones and, actually, that impression is not far off the mark. Black-and-white pictures and texts adhere to the panels, displaying brief biographies of long-passed musicians who once participated in the Bayreuth Festival, but who were persecuted due to their Jewish heritage.
During the Third Reich, it was not just two, as has been rather trivializingly propagated until now, but - according to new research - 12 members of the festival orchestra who became victims of the Nazis. They were banished to the ghettos and murdered in concentration and death camps.
Yet, as this outdoor exhibition reveals, members of composer Richard Wagner's clan were professed anti-Semites long before Hitler's seizure of power. To a certain extent, during the reign of the German Empire, they even helped pave the way for the horrific Nazi era.
Touchy subject for Wagner clan
"Silenced Voices. The Bayreuther Festspiele and the Jews from 1876 to 1945" is the name of the exhibition taking place, which unabashedly documents the most current research on the subject. Given the recent controversy over Russian singer Evgeny Nikitin - who was slated to sing the lead role in this year's "The Flying Dutchman" production, but was thrown out once reports about a covered-over swastika tattoo on his chest surfaced -, the exhibition has become all the more explosive.
The show runs through October 14 on the Green Hill in Bayreuth, with a corresponding display going on in the New City Hall. The two directors of the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner's great-granddaughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, approved of the exhibition.
The presentation looks at the beginnings of the music festival before turning to the so-called "cleansing" of German opera houses of their Jewish ensemble members during the Nazi era. Bayreuth, however, remains the clear focus. For the historians who based their research primarily on newspaper articles and historical source material (although they were unable to view documents in all the known archives), the exhibition is a cautious attempt to address a subject that is particularly sensitive to the Wagner family.
Richard Wagner's ideologies
"Of course, Richard Wagner really laid the ideological foundation for all his successors with his treatise "Judaism in Music" and especially with his anti-Semitic writings in the last years of his life," said Hannes Heer, who curated the historical exhibition. "He was truly a radical anti-Semite. His idea was to expel Jews from Germany - and that in 1879!"
Wagner tolerated Jewish conductor Hermann Levi, even though he considered "the Jewish race," as he called it, the "born enemy of a pure human race and all that is noble." Levi was nevertheless permitted to direct the premiere of "Parsifal" in 1882, but only due to pressure by King Ludwig II.
"[Wagner] tormented Levi; he humiliated him, but then brought him back because he was fascinated by his abilities as a conductor," said Heer. Wagner, however, refrained from psychologically terrorizing the conductor, Heer added.
It was a different matter with Wagner's wife, Cosima. She conducted a kind of "policy of apartheid," Heer noted. After becoming director of the Bayreuth Festival following the composer's death, she harassed Levi and other Jews in the cruelest fashion and systematically crossed Jewish musicians off the list of performers.
Currently, Bayreuth's New City Hall is the venue for the second part of the show that depicts the fates of 44 persecuted stars of the German opera scene. There, some of the "silenced voices" can be heard again - such as Jewish baritone Friedrich Schorr.
Cosima's son Siegfried, who become the festival's artistic director in 1908 and carried on the anti-Semitic course until 1930, cleverly selected Schorr for the Wotan role in Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung." He did it as a way of stemming critique about the Bayreuth Festival having degenerated into a breeding ground for German nationalism with an anti-Semitic touch. Following a German-nationalistic celebration that included anti-Semitic tirades, many renowned newspapers had mockingly written that Bayreuth had been used for a political party event.
The two-part exhibition "Silenced Voices. The Bayreuther Festspiele and the Jews from 1876 to 1945" vividly depicts how the opera festival's conductors and members of the Wagner Family - including Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifred, who directed the festival until 1944 - sympathized with National Socialist ideologies from early on. They represented a nearly unbroken tradition stretching from the anti-Semitic resentment of composer Richard Wagner to the extermination of Jews in Hitler's concentration camps.