A symposium last month at Wagner’s opulent home, Villa Wahnfried, which is now a museum, explored “Wagner and National Socialism.” Perhaps most startlingly, this season’s well-received new production of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by Barrie Kosky, the first Jewish director in the festival’s history, ends by actually putting Wagner on trial in a courtroom modeled to look like the one in Nuremberg where the Nazi war crimes tribunal sat.
“We tried to discuss the past,” the current director of the festival, Katharina Wagner, who is Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter, told me when I met her backstage on Sunday evening during one of the intermissions of “Götterdämmerung.” “Bayreuth has a very problematic past, and it was never really done before. So it was important to do it.”
Being an ardent Wagnerite can be complicated. For years I have tried to separate the art, which I find transcendentally beautiful, from the man, who espoused monstrous anti-Semitism, fearing deep down that such compartmentalization is suspect. It’s why my Wagner bookshelf is long on explorations of his music but short on biographies or his own writings. It’s why I was happy to snack on chocolate Mozart treats while in Austria, but found the Wagner sweets for sale here less enticing. It’s why I was transfixed by the exhibitions of old Bayreuth sets and costumes at the Richard Wagner Museum at the Villa Wahnfried, but was made uneasy by his well-preserved clothes and other household artifacts, which gave the place the uncomfortable feel of a reliquary. (The museum also explores, chillingly, the intimate friendship some of Wagner’s heirs forged with Hitler.)
The disturbing events of the outside world largely faded for me, though, once I entered the theater, where the “Ring” was given its premiere in 1876. As “Tristan und Isolde” began, the sound seemed to emanate from all around — Wagner’s famous sunken orchestra pit (he called it a “mystic abyss”) was even more sunken than I expected, with the musicians and the conductor completely hidden from the audience.
When the festival reopened several years after World War II, it consciously broke with its past by mounting increasingly abstract, symbolic productions that stripped away the Teutonic imagery that had become fraught with nationalistic associations. In the decades since, Bayreuth has moved toward increasingly avant-garde reinterpretations of the Wagner canon (the only operas done here). The stagings I saw, a “Tristan” whose first-act ship was represented by a series of Escher-like stairways, and a “Götterdämmerung” with a climactic scene in front of the New York Stock Exchange, would have been unrecognizable to audiences of a century ago.
My Bayreuth sojourn ended with that “Götterdämmerung,” with its themes of cataclysm, the fading of old orders and the possibility of redemption. When it was over, I left the theater, checking for the latest reports of the Nazi sympathizers on the streets of Charlottesville, and thinking about Bayreuth and how easy it was for the powerful to let their prejudices and blindnesses leave them on the wrong side of history. I walked past “Silenced Voices” panels devoted to Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann, a contralto who sang several roles here in the early 1900s and was killed in Auschwitz, and Hugo Lowenthal, a violinist who played here in 1912 and was later killed in a concentration camp in Poland.
Then my Bayreuth journey ended, and it was time to fly home. I picked up some newspapers at the airport, and though I do not read German, it was all too clear what phrases like “der Neonazi-Mob” meant in their dispatches about the United States.
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