Former German infantryman Hans Himsel lived through scenes in 1944 at the Bayreuth opera house worthy of the finale of Richard Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” when Valhalla goes up in flames.
In this bicentenary year of Wagner’s birth, Himsel, 90, recalled the last wartime production at Bayreuth. It was August 9, 1944 and the cast performed “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg”, which contains the command “honor your German masters”. The Nazis had turned the piece into a propaganda pageant.
Although malnutrition was rampant, and Paris was to be liberated two weeks later, Himsel, a butcher’s apprentice who was wounded five times and survived the Russian front, said for the last performance the backstage and catering crews were feted with a band, half a duck each and all the wine they could drink.
Adolf Hitler considered Wagner his favorite composer. History’s problem, compounded by Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism, has been disentangling the two.
“We danced at the feast while the soldiers died,” Himsel said in an interview at a Bayreuth restaurant and hotel where Wagner stayed when he was building his Bavarian opera house in the late 19th century.
Hitler was a Bayreuth regular and kept it going during the war by buying up tickets for soldiers to attend. Hitler’s use of Bayreuth for propaganda purposes, rivaled only by his manipulation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, resonates still.
“Of course Wagner’s reputation is terrible, I understand why people have the feelings they do about his music,” American soprano Deborah Voigt, who sings Wagner’s “Ring”-cycle heroine Brunnhilde, said in a telephone interview from Florida.
“It’s odd to me because as someone who is spiritual, and has a lot of faith, it feels like the music he wrote was divinely inspired and in such contrast to what his personal views were.”
“Wagner is a genius, the sound is extraordinary,” said Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer, who runs a Wagner festival in Budapest and is Jewish. “The music is not the person,” he added, saying what was important was “the intensity of Wagner’s music”.
From Seattle to Australia, and across Europe, Wagner compositions from the “Ring” with its Valkyrie cry “hojotoho”, to the romantic “Tristan und Isolde” which provides the soundtrack for the world’s end in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”, draw audiences of all ages.
“It gives a higher feeling, you get goose bumps,” artist-photographer Christopher Gemenig, 27, a stud in his lower lip, said recently during the interval of Wagner’s swan-knight opera “Lohengrin” at the Dresden Semperoper.
Gemenig, and his companion Mia Mueller, whose flame-red hair bolstered their resemblance to Wagner’s doomed lovers Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde, acknowledged that despite Wagner having joined ranks with anarchists in a failed revolution in mid-19th century Dresden, the taint of Hitler ran deep.
“Hitler liked the music and all that Hitler likes is evil. I think that’s a curse of Wagner,” said Gemenig, whose favorite bit is the overture to “Gotterdammerung”. “But I think this is not a problem for me, and for many people it also is not.”
As they have every year since 1990, Germany’s first couple, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, quantum chemist Joachim Sauer, will attend the summer festival at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the opera house Wagner built with money he borrowed from Bavarian King Ludwig II and never repaid.
“It never ends, it’s so rich,” Sauer, 63, said in a rare interview with Reuters, speaking of the appeal of Wagner’s operas. “And they are all so very different.”
These days Bayreuth is always sold out and has a waiting list that can be as long as a decade.
A little way down the “Green Hill” from the opera house, visible from the balcony of an annex built for Ludwig where Hitler acknowledged the Nazi salute of the crowd in the plaza below, is an outdoor exhibition called “Silenced Voices”.
Adult-height placards display short biographies and the smiles or serious gazes of singers, musicians, conductors and stage directors who were progressively shunned by Bayreuth, as the festival drew closer and closer to the Fuhrer.
Arranged in a multi-layered rectangle around a bust of Wagner by Nazi-era sculptor Arno Breker, the placards furthest away are for people who emigrated or somehow survived the war. Those closest died in concentration camps and gas chambers.
“This Breker bust, it is the fascistic Wagner image and this ‘Hitler Wagner’ is surrounded by his victims,” said Sven Friedrich, director of the Richard Wagner Museum and National Archive.
He brushed aside suggestions the bicentenary may trigger a debate about Germany’s role in Europe. Merkel is a “trustful person, she’s not dangerous at all” and her presence “gives this very bourgeois image to Bayreuth”, he said.
Hitler, and Bayreuth’s complicity in Nazi propaganda, is another story.
“Everybody is conscious about the history, it is absolutely necessary, we mustn’t leave it,” Friedrich said, speaking in a room Hitler used when he visited.
“In Bayreuth you can learn the ‘elysium’ and the ‘bestiarium’ of German history, both extremes…This is a very, very big tension.”
For his 200th, Wagner’s hometown of Leipzig will get an “anti-Breker bust” – a life-sized bronze statue of the composer with a black shadow several times his diminutive height looming behind him.
To be unveiled on the birthday, May 22, the 220,000-euro ($292,900) cost was raised privately and mostly from outside Leipzig, said Markus Kaebisch, 44, a businessman who spearheaded the effort.
He said Leipzig still has a “difficult” relationship with its native son, in part because of the anti-Semitism and Hitler, but also because Leipzig was host during their adult careers to so many other musical greats, including Bach, converted Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn – whom Wagner reviled – and Schumann.
“It’s never been a Wagner city,” he said in a telephone interview. “And I’m sure it won’t be better after this year is over.”
Music critic Barry Millington, whose book “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth” adds to a bibliography some say makes Wagner the third most written-about person in history, after Jesus and Napoleon, says there is no extricating him from his anti-Semitism.
“I’m attacked by the Wagnerians who think I am dragging him through the mud…They want the Wagner experience to be in this idea-free zone, they want to erect a firewall between the music and the ideology and you can’t. Wagner’s music is rooted in the ideology. That for me is what makes it fascinating,” the British author said.
Wagner’s infamous 1850 essay “Judaism in Music”, published at first under a pen name and some 20 years later under his own, took vile swipes at contemporary Jewish opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and the converted Mendelssohn, depicting them and other Jews as “a swarming colony of maggots” feasting on the carcass of German culture. The rants continued unabated right up to Wagner’s death in a Venice palazzo in 1883.
“Anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of the music of Wagner,” Millington said.
Another view comes from Hamburg-based author Joachim Kohler, one of whose books, called “Wagner’s Hitler, The Prophet and His Disciple” in English, struck a raw nerve with Wagnerians. Kohler, in an interview in his flat, said he had changed his opinion and now saw Wagner’s anti-Semitism as an adjunct of his artistic mind, not as a scenario for which Hitler and the Holocaust were the inevitable last act.
“Yes, I made a mistake…so I revised and I came to the conclusion that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was not political, it was theatrical,” Kohler said.
“And the proof that he had not deep-rooted anti-Semitism against people, it was just an idea against people, is that he had so many Jewish friends.” One of them, Kohler said, was the impresario Angelo Neumann whom Wagner, sick with the expense and trouble of the place, wished would buy Bayreuth.
Kohler’s latest book, entitled “The Laughing Wagner” in German, paints an altogether different picture of Wagner from the grim anti-Semite. Wagner, who stood just over 168 cm, or 5-1/2 feet tall, enjoyed cracking jokes and stood on his head when welcoming the visiting Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil to Bayreuth for the festival’s opening in 1876.
“He was a real entertainer, like a Las Vegas entertainer,” Kohler said, adding that Wagner’s “genius gave him not a multiple personality because the different personalities knew of each other, but I would say he had multiple identities.
“There were really opposites in him that can’t be easily reconciled because they are opposites.”
Some of those personality traits have been passed down from generation to generation in the famously feuding Wagner clan, and all its branches, whose lives read like a soap opera that regularly commands the attention of the German and world press.
Power struggles over who would control the festival, and the Wagner legacy, have pitted mother against children, children against siblings and different branches of the clan against each other. The German state and the town of Bayreuth now run it, with family members sitting on the board of directors and having artistic control.
One great grandson coaxed the then-septuagenarian Winifred Wagner, the English-born widow of Wagner’s son Siegfried, into revealing her affection for Hitler to a filmmaker in the 1970s: “If Hitler were to walk in through that door now, for instance, I’d be as happy and glad to see and have him here as ever…”
In their way the family machinations, and the concern of some Wagner researchers, among them Millington, that important correspondence between Winifred and Hitler is moldering away under lock and key in a Munich bank vault, out of public view, are a good public relations gimmick, archivist Friedrich said.
The documents in the vault have been “Fafnerised”, he said, referring to the dragon in the “Ring” who sits on his hoard of gold stolen from the Rhine maidens, including the accursed ring that gives its wearer supreme power. It is all part of what he called the “myth” that makes the family interesting.
Those myths, but particularly the ones Wagner fashioned out of old Norse legends and other sources, some of them brought to his attention by his Jewish friends and acquaintances, are what draw audiences to the treasure trove of Wagner today.
American stage director Francesca Zambello said she had reimagined Wagner’s “Ring” cycle for a production that focused on greed and power for Washington and on the destruction of the environment when she tailored it for San Francisco.
“I think Wagner’s music feels contemporary…The themes, the characters, the emotions, they resonate with a contemporary audience. Wagner, more than any other composer, can be interpreted in a variety of approaches because his works are mythic and mythic can mean the past, the present and the future,” she said in a telephone interview.
And Wagner does have a future in the eyes of some of the young people who will be around to mark his 250th birthday.
“I just know every opera from Wagner is very long but what I know, what I hear, I like,” Tomas Ottych, 32, of Brno, Czech Republic, said, passing a plaque mounted on a wall in Leipzig that marks the spot where Wagner’s birth house stood in 1813.
Ottych, a ballet dancer who will perform in a production to mark the bicentenary, said Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Hitler’s fondness for him were beside the point.
“I mean, it’s past, and his music is forever,” he said.