Wagner's Dark Shadow: Can We Separate the Man from His Works?

By Dirk Kurbjuweit

Photo Gallery: The Mad Genius Photos
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Part 2: Germany's Most Important Social Event

The scene is that fortress of evil, Green Hill in Bayreuth, on July 25, 2012, the premier of "The Flying Dutchman." German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the audience, together with a half-dozen top politicians from Berlin. It's hot, the men are wearing tuxedos and the women long dresses, and their hairdos seem to shrink as the hours wear on. The Bayreuth Festival is still the country's most important social event, but it is also a drably German affair. The guests consume bratwurst in large quantities, the famous bratwurst of the Bayreuth Festival. Nowadays there is even a lobster bratwurst, which says a lot. But even the dressed-up version of bratwurst is still just a bratwurst, and German society is still a bratwurst society, no matter how sophisticated its behavior.

When the music is playing, the Festspielhaus (Festival Theater) soon becomes a disaster area. The seats are hard and packed tightly together, and it's warm and muggy inside. The audience becomes restless, the men remove their tuxedo jackets, the women fan themselves with their programs, the air becomes thick with body odor and an old woman in the lower right-hand section of the theater has to be carried out by medical personnel. Soon mobile phones are slipping out of the pockets of the tuxedo jackets, which the men have placed across their knees, crashing to the floor while Christian Thielemann directs the "Dutchman."

A young man is sitting around the middle of the orchestra section, with his hand on his companion's knee. His body twitches whenever the singers appear, as if he were trying to contribute to the success of the production. When applause erupts at the end, he gets up and pushes his way past people still in their seats and heads for the exit. The singers are applauded, the director is applauded, there is much clapping and stamping of feet and cheering, and a flood of bravos, and then the young man from the orchestra steps onto the stage. The audience's response is even louder than before, but now it consists of boos and whistles, loud and shrill.

Hitler Returns to Green Hill

Eight months later, the young man, Jan Philipp Gloger is sitting in a restaurant in the southwestern city of Mainz. He directed "Dutchman" in 2012. "I was prepared for the boos," he says, and in fact directors in Bayreuth are often met with harsh criticism. Gloger, 32, says he can live with the boos, which he considers normal. But in his case there was also something else, at it was worse than the catcalls. Suddenly Hitler was there again, and Hitler's presence in Bayreuth is a big deal, even today.

Hitler didn't know very much about Wagner when he received the invitation to the Green Hill. In the biographies he read, Wagner was portrayed "as a person with a horrible life." He used women, deceived friends and was constantly groveling for money to pay for his luxurious lifestyle. One case, in particular, is illustrative of what Wagner was like. He was in a relationship with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of a director who often worked for Wagner. She had a child fathered by Wagner, which she foisted on her husband. When rumors surfaced about the affair, Wagner wrote a public apology for Cosima, which he had signed by his patron Ludwig II, King of Bavaria. Wagner later married Cosima.

He was fleeing from creditors when he was caught in a severe storm in the North Sea. According to legend, the experience inspired him to compose "The Flying Dutchman." Gloger wanted to stage the opera without any allusions to Wagner's anti-Semitism or the Nazis. He wanted to avoid the past and the constant references to Hitler and create a more contemporary production. He turned the Dutchman into a "modern traveler" who suffers from "restlessness and emotional emptiness." The singer he chose for the role was Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, who, according to Gloger, demonstrated "immense empathy" during rehearsals and sometimes wept as he sang.

Gloger was watching the rehearsals for "Lohengrin" in Bayreuth when he was told that there was a problem. Runes that had also been used by the SS were tattooed on Nikitin's body. Gloger sat down for a beer with Nikitin, who told him that the images were spiritual symbols of the Vikings. Then it emerged that Nikitin also had a tattoo on his chest that looked like a swastika. The premier was in five days.

Suddenly German's past had come back to haunt Germany's present. Could an opera singer perform in Bayreuth with runes and a swastika on his chest, despite "Judaism in Music," and despite Winifred and Hitler? Nikitin withdrew from the role, Gloger hastily rehearsed with another bass-baritone, and on the day of the premier he tried to explain to journalists at a press conference that it was his production, that he and his team had done a great deal of hard work, and so on. It was very hot in the press room, and it was a very German situation. Someone said that Hitler wasn't everything, and that everyone shouldn't always obssess about him. In the end, though, the conversation inevitably returned to the topic of Hitler.

As Gloger tells his story at the restaurant in Mainz, he comes across as one of the defeated in German history. He says that you only get a chance like that once, and that it was "presumably the biggest production of my life." But what remains of it is the image of a swastika on the chest of a singer who ended up not singing because of it. Gloger looks sad today, a man who reached for the stars at an early age and, like Siegfried, failed tragically. Those who become involved with Wagner can soon come across like one of his characters. There is still a spell, both good and evil alike, hanging over the Green Hill.

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1. Wagner
Jakespeare 04/13/2013
Wagner was first and foremost an Artist... and as an artist he portrayed the world he lived in with musical tones, daunting silence and thundering crescendos. True Art is totally subjective... and Wagner wasn't making musical statements of his antisemitism... he was playing back the deep and disturbing state of affairs of a Germany at war with herself and the world. If you were Wagner, the Industrial Age was stepping in and demolishing all established order. Christians in Germany had no love for the Semite either at that time. He captured chaos in his music... and it is unfair to lay National Socialism over him and his music. Germany was at the time, at the forefront of Science, Medicine, Art, Psychology and Technology. You can hear that all in his music... and the tragedy of the Titans fall from grace. Lighten Up Germany!
2.
golestan 04/13/2013
The German obsession with post-Nazi guilt borders on the absurd. Anybody who could possibly have been in a position of decision making in 1945 (say of age 21) is now at least 89 years old. Not many of them left and of those who are still there 95% had nothing to do with the horrendous crimes committed in that era. Germany’s conduct ever since the founding of the Federal Republic has been exemplary on the international scene. Now you are tainting the reputation of a great composer, who was dead 6 years before Hitler was even born, just because Hitler liked his works? I have news for you: Hitler also liked Berchtesgaden and he was a teetotaller. Are now all the teetotallers and Berchtesgaden also tainted??? ... just the opinion of a Canadian bystander.
3. Angst, angst and yet more angst
sylvesterthecat 04/13/2013
Sometimes I really despair about our German cousins. Germany manages to produce a towering genius like Richard Wagner, after giving the world the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and still worry about the fact that Wagner didn't like Jews very much. Would you have preffered a man who loved everything Jewish but couldn't write music? As he seems to be such an embarrassment to you, can I suggest that you ' find ',(perhaps under the floorboards at Wahnfried), a dusty old Birth certificate in the name of 'Dickie Wainwright' born 1813 in Felixstowe? We'll be delighted to adopt him especially as genius is in short supply these days. Incidentally, the most fanatical Wagnerians I know of, are both Jewish.
4. How about the United States and Slavery
dorbarn 04/14/2013
Slavery was upheld in our constitution... etcetc, we all know the history... can the good things that came to US history and culture through people and institutions, churches, courts, that upheld slavery be separated from this dark history?
5.
Kurnewal 04/14/2013
I think the German emphasis on obedience, respect for authority and discipline historically fostered a society where emotion was repressed. In the arts, especially music, this huge reservoir of repressed emotion could be released. This is why Germany produced a successon of composers who have no equals in musical history: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. The idea of any composer from another nation being measured against any one of these giants is ludicrous.
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