Canceled Opera Director: 'I Wasn't Ridiculing Holocaust Victims'

An April dress rehearsal of Kosminski's staging of "Tannhäuser." Zoom

An April dress rehearsal of Kosminski's staging of "Tannhäuser."

A recent staging of Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" at Düsseldorf's Deutsche Oper am Rhein was withdrawn when protests broke out during and after the premier. The director of the production, Burkhard Kosminski, 51, discusses the controversy and why he decided to set the opera in the Third Reich.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Kosminski, in your operatic debut with "Tannhäuser," by the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner, there is a scene in which dying prisoners stagger out of a gas chamber. What was your dramatic concept?

Kominski: In Wagner's opera, the mortal Tannhäuser sins by loving the goddess Venus. Today the story can no longer be told as a scandal that leads to expulsion from society. I'm interested in the great archaic theme of guilt. Why then shouldn't Tannhäuser be made into a perpetrator, into a war criminal? In my staging Tannhäuser is forced by members of the Wehrmacht to shoot a family. The production deals with individual guilt under National Socialism and during the development of the Federal Republic of Germany.

SPIEGEL: How did you experience the protests at the premier?

Kominski: There was heckling during the performance. When I bowed during the applause, there was a chorus of boos mixed with many bravos. At the premier party I was insulted heavily.

SPIEGEL: After the premier there were protests by the Jewish Community -- does that make the situation especially precarious?

Kominski: Of course I'm alarmed about that.

SPIEGEL: Michael Sentei-Heise from the Jewish Community of Düsseldorf criticized the performance as tasteless.

Kominski: It's unclear whether he has seen it himself. I would be very happy to discuss it with him. But the Jewish Community did not demand that the performance be withdrawn. My staging doesn't ridicule victims, but rather mourns them.

SPIEGEL: The head of Düsseldorf's Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Christoph Meyer, pulled the plug on your production before the second performance, because you didn't want to revise it. Why did you refuse?

Kominski: I submitted the entire artistic direction of my concept 10 months before the premier. All concerned parties were aware that we were headed for an evening full of controversy. At the final dress rehearsal I was asked to somewhat shorten the shooting scene, which I did do. Why after that should I remove scenes or stage them in darkness? Why change the concept?

SPIEGEL: Is your relationship with the head of the Düsseldorf opera now destroyed?

Kominski: No, but I am shocked and speechless and cannot understand his decision. We were both put under massive pressure by the local press and the know-it-all ignorance of people, of whom most of whom aren't even familiar with the performance. What happened in Düsseldorf is the censorship of art. That is the actual scandal.

Interview conducted by Wolfgang Höbel

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