Uproar in Germany Over Nazi Scenes in New Wagner Opera

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BERLIN – Just in time for Richard Wagner's bicentennial this month, a controversy has erupted over a new production of Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf because of violent depictions of a Nazi concentration camp in the staging of the opera.

A cascade of boos during Saturday's opening night performance turned into a flood of complaints about scenes of shootings and gassings. The management of Düsseldorf's Deutsche Oper am Rhein quickly decided that its new production was better heard than seen, announcing that it would now be performed as a concert, with singing and music but little in the way of staging or costumes.

"We are reacting with the utmost concern to the fact that a few scenes, particularly a very realistic depiction of a shooting scene, obviously led to great stress for numerous visitors," the opera said Wednesday in a statement on its Web site. "After considering all the arguments, we have come to the conclusion that we cannot justify such an extreme effect of our artistic work."

German society has never fully come to terms with Wagner's mixture of artistic brilliance, poisonous anti-Semitism and, in particular, his posthumous exaltation at the hands of the Nazis. More than 130 years after he died, his popularity remains undimmed with the passing years but is no less problematic for it.

Debates about the composer's place in German culture have reached a new high point with the yearlong celebration of his work that has accompanied his impending 200th birthday on May 22. There has been an outpouring of performances, exhibitions and books about Wagner. His hometown, Leipzig, will unveil a monument on his birthday, a life-size bronze statue of him with an even larger silhouette looming like a dark shadow behind it.

The newsmagazine Der Spiegel this year featured a picture on its cover of the composer holding a fire-breathing dragon on his lap with the words, "200 Years of Richard Wagner: The Mad Genius." For many, Wagner has come to symbolize the seeds of anti-Semitic sentiment in German culture that would grow into the Nazi terror. "Richard Wagner's legacy prompts the question: Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?" Der Spiegel's story asked.

It was less than a year ago that the Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin had to resign from the Bayreuth Festival production of "The Flying Dutchman" over a tattoo that appeared to be a swastika on his chest. Chancellor Angela Merkel is among the prominent Germans who make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth each summer for the annual festival run by Wagner's descendants.

Many Germans prefer to dwell less on the Third Reich, World War II and the Holocaust. But the legacy of the period has been hard to leave behind, as illustrated by the trial that began in Munich this week of the surviving member of a neo-Nazi group accused of a series of anti-immigrant murders.

It is not uncommon for stage productions in Germany to incorporate totalitarian themes as the country continues to examine its troubled 20th century past. According to news media reports, the opera showed Tannhäuser shooting Jewish prisoners. The statement released on the opera's Web site said distraught audience members even sought medical attention after watching the depictions of executions.

The director, Burkhard C. Kosminski, who turned the production into a graphic commentary on Nazism, declined to make changes to soften the impact of the violence, which led to the cancellation after one performance. He told the newspaper Westdeutsche Zeitung that he had been completely transparent with the opera house about his intent for the production and that he was not a "scandal director."

"It would be good if the debate continued," Mr. Kosminski told the newspaper, "and we learned what the underlying reasons were for this great emotionality."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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