Nazi Tannhäuser Renews Debate Over Radical Opera Stagings

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Last week, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf cancelled a Nazi-themed production of Wagner's Tannhäuser, when the premiere performance prompted booing, mass walkouts and even reports of audience members getting sick. With scenes that reportedly showed Jews being murdered and dying in gas chambers, it certainly shocked — but it was hardly the first revisionist opera production.

In this podcast, Naomi Lewin asks three prominent opera-watchers whether Düsseldorf was right to cancel the production, and what radical updates can bring to the art form.

To some commentators, the Dusseldorf Tannhauser was a stretch: the opera is set in the Middle Ages and based on a ballad about a bard called Tannhäuser. Yet the intention of the director, Burkhard Kosminski, had a logic that many could understand. In the month of Wagner’s bicentennial, he wanted to link the opera to the Holocaust – an event which the composer’s own ardent anti-Semitism seemed to presage.

John Berry, the artistic director of English National Opera, called the Düsseldorf company “extremely well established” and he praised its talented leadership. But a company should also prepare its audience for a provocative concept. "Usually, in an opera house, you receive a model and an outline of the ideas a year, two years, sometimes even longer [beforehand] so the Düsseldorf management would have had a good idea of the overall vision for the piece,” he said.

“On the face of it, it does seem shocking that the whole production has been pulled due to the audience response," he continued. "I haven’t heard of that anywhere. But I haven’t seen the piece.”

James Jorden, opera critic of the New York Post and editor of the blog Parterre Box, took a sterner view of the company’s cancellation.

“The job of opera management is to present the vision of people who create opera – the director, the conductor and the singers,” said Jorden. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing and a cowardly thing to send the message to these artists that we’re not going to support you. If someone complains about your work, we’re out of here. We'll drop you like a hot potato."

Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, noted that Nazi references are not uncommon in German Wagner productions, typically as a way of exploring issues around German nationalism. But what may have ignited the Düsseldorf controversy was the fact that "it actually showed people being killed."

Still, Midgette believes that opera has the power to confront and challenge. "You’re dealing with an art form that many, many people approach with a sense that it's safely distant," she said. “A production that puts people being gassed on stage is going in there wanting to grab the audience by the collar." 

(In a statement, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein said that although it knew that the production would be "controversial" it did not expect the extreme reactions that followed the premiere.)

But when does a strong directorial concept (aka "Regietheater," or "director's theater") lose focus and cross over into what detractors label “Eurotrash?" Berry believes modern updates can be highly successful if essential ingredients are in place. "In the end, whether it’s a modern updating or not, is it well-sung, is the director telling the story, does it have a dramatic and musical power?”

Sometimes a concept will completely miss the mark. Jorden recalls seeing a Carmen in Stuttgart where the title character "died six or seven times in the course of the opera – but not at the end." Yet he also remembers Calixto Bieito’s staging of Wagner’s Parsifal, set in an apocalyptic landscape inspired by Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road.

"Not only did this make me question completely my ideas of what the opera was about, it still to this day has me wondering what the purpose of religion in human existence is," Jorden said. "I don't think you could ask for a more profound meaning in an operatic performance."

Weigh in: What modern updates of operas have you seen that did or didn't work for you? Tell us about it in the comments box below.

Photo: Piotr Beczala as the Duke and Oksana Volkova as Maddalena in the Met's "Vegas"
Rigoletto (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)