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Richard Wagner bust in Bayreuth
Image: Getty Images

Nazi-abused Wagner opera staged by Jewish director

Hans Christoph von Bock
July 25, 2017

Richard Wagner's opera "The Mastersingers" was used by the Nazis for propaganda. Australian stage director Barrie Kosky is the first non-German and first person of Jewish heritage to stage the troubled work in Bayreuth.


The Bayreuth Festival opens this year on July 25 with a work that has many hidden land mines for a stage director. "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" is frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted - and, notably in the Third Reich, abused for propaganda purposes.

In the history of the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, the "Mastersingers" has mainly been staged by Wagner's descendents. This season, its interpretation has been left to an outside director, the Australian Barrie Kosky - the first non-German to stage the work here, and the first of Jewish faith.

Earlier statements indicated that he never wanted to interpret this work - until he was approached by festival director Katharina Wagner.

DW: How did you come to terms with the "Mastersingers?"

Barrie Kosky: When Katharina Wagner asked me, I said, "No, I am not doing the piece. It's not my piece." Then she said, "Take your time." Gradually I and my team made a number of discoveries, and ideas came. I'm like a bull; when I taste the blood, there's no way not to go on with it. I suddenly realized that to do the piece, I would be able to juggle a few balls at the same time. 

Barrie Kosky
Stage director Barrie KoskyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

We discovered that Wagner identified very much with the central character Hans Sachs, more than with any other figure. In him he created an alter ego, a projection of how he wanted the world to see him. He even signed letters to his wife Cosima with "Sachs" or "Your Hans."

The discovery for me was the breathtaking narcissism of this piece. The two characters Sachs and Walther: on paper, they're two different people, but in fact it's Wagner himself playing two different roles. Hans Sachs is the prophet, crying in the desert, saying that one day, the great savior of German culture will come. And then, surprise, the Messiah arrives, and guess what?  It's me, Germany, Richard Wagner: Walther!"

So he sees himself as the prophet and the messiah, which is sort of outrageously interesting. That's what triggered my interest.

Read more: 'Mastersingers' give downbeat in Bayreuth as festival examines its Nazi past

How does it feel to be the first Jewish director in Bayreuth to stage the "Mastersingers"?

I don't run around with a badge saying, "I am Jewish." But of course I am interested in European projections of anti-Semitism onto theater. And I do try to bring a sort of Jewish humor to the piece.

You also have to honor a number of traditions here without making the place a holy temple or a cult institution. You can't say, "Oh, it's all terrible because of the Third Reich, Hitler and everything else." You can't demonize the entire place. You have to admire the fact that this man built this theater himself in order to reinvent music theater.

But you also have to be really, really honest about what actually happened here during the Third Reich. You have to understand that many artists who sung, who conducted or played here were sent to concentration camps or went into exile. 

Some people asked me, "How did you survive?" I said sometimes I felt the need to walk around with a string of garlic in one hand and a star of David in the other, saying "Go away, evil spirits, go away!" And in some ways this place does have to be exorcized. But it's just a theater, after all.

Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Everything is ready for a new production at the Bayreuth FestspielhausImage: picture alliance/dpa/D. Karmann

Unlike most years, the run-up to the opening of the Bayreuth Festival was notably scandal-free this time…

Nobody has swastika tattoos, and if they did, I probably would have used it in my production. And because it's "Mastersingers," we tried to do a sort of crazy comedy with it. I have to tried to have a kind of subversive lightness overall. And on the other hand, I filtered it with elements of Wagner's own life and the 20th century without hitting the audience over the head.

In the 19th century, Nuremberg was seen as the German Jerusalem, the German utopia. It was a city controlled by tradesmen; everything was beautiful, and everybody was happy. Historical nonsense, but for Wagner it was a dreamed up utopia where everything was perfect, except for the character Beckmesser.

Read more: 9 myths about Wagner and Bayreuth

The third element we play with is the idea of trial. Many of Wagner's operas are about trials - "Tannhäuser," "Lohengrin," and "Parsifal" in a way. And "Mastersingers" definitely is! Who judges what is a good song and what is a bad song, who judges who belongs in this community and who doesn't, and who is the judge of national identity? So this idea of judgment, of trial, is central to the story.

And that made me realize: What other city in the world went within less than 100 years from a German utopia to a German dystopia? First, you had this German-dreamed fantasy paradise, 19th-century Nuremberg. Then you had the Nuremberg Decrees, defining who is German and who is not. Then they had the Nazi Party Conventions there, and Wagner's "Mastersingers" was actually the soundtrack of the Third Reich. 

Komische Oper Berlin
Kosky also staged the operetta "Ball im Savoy" at Berlin's Komische OperImage: drama-berlin.de/Iko Freese

So what remains? What does the piece have to say to us today?

I don't think it's my job as a director to tell a German audience what they should think and do with their culture. It's not my responsibility, and it would be offensive.

At one point in history, at the famous "Wacht auf!" (Awaken!) passage, the chorus would turn to Hitler's loge and sing it to him. I know what I feel when I hear this piece. I feel chilled. Others might get goose bumps too, but for different reasons. I just hope I created a lot of associations with the piece. 

I think the character Beckmesser is Wagner's fear of the assimilated Jews like Heine, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. But this isn't just about Wagner's problem with the Jews. For Wagner, Beckmesser is the personification of everything they hated: the French, the Italians, and especially music critics.

Remember, he initially wanted to name the character Hans-Lick, symbolizing Eduard Hanslick, a Viennese critic. But the soul of the character is Jewish. I am not dealing with the Jewish aspect directly though, but instead with the parody of anti-Semitism. Beckmesser's role is that of a scapegoat for every trauma of the people. In my production, they make him the Jew.

Read more: Rediscovered films show a 'friendly' Hitler in Bayreuth

What about the anti-Semitic tirades Wagner wrote? How do they enter into an interpretation of his operas?

I believe that Wagner created his own hell. He's permanently in the witness box, having to justify what he did say and what happened to his music. That's the position Wagner is in, and I am not sure if he can get out of it. 

Of course he's dead, and it's just dots on white pages. But is it really? Wagner wrote and said lots of things. Can we constantly separate these things from those black and white dots on the page? 

Barrie Koskie with Hans Christoph von Bock
Barrie Kosky with Hans Christoph von Bock

The piece has its lighter moments, and I don't want to stage "Mastersingers" without a laugh for five hours. That's one of my big wishes - that you actually laugh, particularly in the first act. Often you sit there and say, "God, when will this finish!"

On the other hand, how can you take this as a light story where the character at the end of the piece says, "Beware of foreign influences, and we have to honor what is German and true!" What does that mean? And this was the piece used by the Third Reich as the absolute quintessential example of German art!

When Hans Sachs sings at the end, its just Wagner saying, "Beware of French music, of Italian music!" But we have to stop using Wagner as the spokesperson of the German tourist industry. This is really, really important. 

Barrie Kosky is general director and chief stage director at Berlin's "Komische Oper," hailed as Opera House of the Year by the German periodical "Opernwelt" after Kosky's first season there in 2013.


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