Nazi Tannhäuser Renews Debate Over Radical Opera Stagings

Monday, May 13, 2013

Deutsche Oper am Rhein's 'Tannhauser', with Markus Eiche (Wolfram), Thorsten Grümbel (Landgraf), men's chorus Deutsche Oper am Rhein's 'Tannhauser,' with Markus Eiche (Wolfram), Thorsten Grümbel (Landgraf) (Hans Joerg Michel)

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)


Brian Wise


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Comments [31]

Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

WANTED-Stage Directors/Operatic Productions.Prerequisites include:Musical illiteracy,ignorance of operatic tradition,and absolute contempt of audiences.Never having seen or heard an opera is a plus,as is having a "concept" diametrically opposed to the stated wishes of the composers and librettists.Preference given to graduates of the Peter Gelb Institute of Misguided Productions.Equal opportunity employer.Hopelessly unqualified cretins of all nationalities,ethnicities,and sexual orientations are encouraged to apply.

Aug. 24 2013 01:59 AM
Jeffrey Shabman from West Allis, Wisconsin

I am enormously proud of those audience members who chose to boo and jeer and walk out of the production; I hope they also withdrew their funding or demand the gov't do so since that is how opera houses in Europe receive funds.
Ever since England and the USA began airlifts to rescue destitute Germans after WW2, the people have been demonstrating that they want to repent from the atrocities left behind.
The gov't in Berlin funded its newly built Holocaust Museum to show repentance motives. Also Germany gives more money to support Israel's existence than any other country including the USA; so why allow such gross ideas to be resurrected? This behavior will only perpetuate our human nature for destruction instead of looking forward to a better future promoting peace and friendship.
Simply put - Will we ever learn to appreciate the differences we can share instead of looking toward what causes us to keep hating each other?

Aug. 07 2013 04:50 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Wagner was in every respect as much a revolutionary figure against monarchy, yet for a united Germany as was Verdi's compatriot Giuseppe Garibaldi for a united Italy. Wagner, as many leaders against an imperial status quo governing body, was imprisoned. His opera RIENZI, a man of the people, the historical last tribune of Rome was partially written, the overture especially exciting, while Wagner was in prison. The genius Mozart, like Wagner, depended on the financial support of royalty, yet pictured them for what they were, oppressive and the counts and Dons freakish womanizers.

May. 25 2013 11:15 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Bloggers you have every right to "stick to your guns." The two incredible mammoth size talents in opera are VERDI and WAGNER. They have been given short shift on Radioland including WKCR which has done better than one would need to expect given its potential rival. The average person might be mortified learning the names of many of their icons of art and politics and science and teaching that had major flaws in their psychological persona. The product of genius is what we should ourselves accommodate in adjusting our scheduling of time and our choices of seeing, reading or hearing. The 'taste test" should not require a Curriculum Vitae, a passport or a declaration from "on high," but rather our own internal gratification in the presence of masterworks.

May. 24 2013 09:20 AM
12-String Frank from Staten Island

Getting back to the production >>>> it's really shocking that in 2013 that some people would want to mount a Wagner production with the singers and extras wearing Nazi costumes. Totally wrong! Does anyone in the German arts community have any sense? Who in Germany provided the funds for this junk? Also, "Tannhauser" has nothing to do with Nazis or German officers. It's a medieval story. If you wanna be revisionist, just do it in modern dress. Germans today are very different from their yelling grandparents. Look at them in hard rock and metal bands. They like vikings now. Another thing -- are these singers so hard up for a job that they will accept doing Wagner in Nazi dress? Do they understand the implications of what they're doing? This is not like that scene in the 3rd Indiana Jones film (directed by a Jew). The best protest is for the audience to boo and walk out. These people took beautiful art from Wagner and turned it into crap.

May. 23 2013 03:44 PM
Mary Louise Murray-Johnson from Germany

Eurotrash productions!!!!!!! - Unfortunately young people of today who are exposed to these horrific stagings of what the composers had a right to expect from their own directions as to productions are maturing with no knowledge of the magic and beauty of opera. I specifially continue to talk about the Met Opera's nasty-Nazi hidden theme of the "new" Haensel und Gretel. The magic of the former production , which was a favorite Christmas treat for children and grandchildren, has now been replaced with this travesty of "Haensel und Gretel. Be aware - you who cannot see through the smokescreens. I was born, reared and educated in the Ivy League, New York, USA, but have lived long enought in Central Europe to see through the darkness. (Mannheim, Munich,Duesseldorf, Berlin, etc. are not immune.)
I am very concerned about what we are showing to the next generation: Further, bring back the Met's classic production of the "Ring" - not this clanking monstrosity that should self destruct and fall through the recently heavily weighted supportive expensive floor built to keep it at stage level. a good Goetterdaemmerung ending for it! Mary-Louise Murray-Johnson, NY and Heidelberg, Germany

May. 19 2013 02:33 PM
Howard Jaeckel from New York

I'm appalled that this discussion includes no dissenting viewpoint.

I don't like Regietheater; in my view, it represents nothing other than unbridled directorial ego and the craven abdication by opera management of its responsibility to preserve for future generations the integrity of some of our greatest musical treasures. Plus, I've never seen one of these "updated" production that I thought worked.

Rigoletto in Las Vegas is ridiculous -- no matter with what wild inaccuracy the Italian libretto is rendered in the subtitle translation, it is simply not credible that a twentieth century Rigoletto would be so shaken by the curse of an Arab named Monterone, that Gilda could have been kept so sheltered in the mid-1960s, or, for that matter, that the denizens of a Las Vegas casino would be speaking in Italian. Depicting fellatio in Tosca has nothing to add to our understanding of Scarpia other than shock value. And it only dilutes the drama of the appearance of the child in Madama Butterfly, and distracts attention from Puccini's music, when the child is a ridiculous-looking puppet being manipulated by two black-clad puppeteers.

All of these warrant booing from the audience, but would not justify closing a production that an opera house had the bad judgment to authorize. Introducing Holocaust themes where they have no possible relevance to the material is something else. It is an obscenity that shows complete lack of respect for the audience as well as the dead. The Dusseldorf opera acted correctly, if belatedly. Kosminski should have been shown the door as soon as his intentions became known.

May. 18 2013 02:47 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This topic developed as a corollary to a discussion of how new audiences can be attracted to opera in the Linked In group "The Art of Opera".I observed that Regietheater has been said to begin with Wieland Wagner and Felsenstein,and has evolved (or devolved)into such offerings as the Lepage Ring,or as I call it,"The Dreck from Quebec".Updated productions have to be evaluated on a case by case basis,as there are good and bad examples.As is the case here,some of the comments degenerated into personal attacks.This subject brings out the best (and unfortunately,the worst)in us.

May. 18 2013 11:41 AM
Shane Mage

It ain't "the director, the conductor and the singers,” who "create opera"--it's the *composer* dammit! Especially Wagner for whom "opera" is explicitly music drama, a "gesamtkunstwerk" combining text, scenery, and staging with the music itself. "Euro trash" is direct, conscious betrayal of the composer and of the work in the name of a completely specious "relevance" and "originality." It is possible to have genuine originality in a production, scraping away the layers of "performance tradition," but only if the work itself is respected!

Another point re. Wagner's antisemitism. It showed up in his writings, but nothing in his music, not a single note, conveys or promotes antisemitism (not even in Die Meistersinger, set in an historically antisemitic milieu). So why is antisemitism brought up against Wagner4, but nobody is scandalized by the virulent antisemitism in the revered work of Bach (the St. John Passion, for instance).

May. 18 2013 10:41 AM

I guess the producers did Nazi this coming Anne Frankly they should be ashamed of themselves.

May. 18 2013 10:32 AM
AF from Long Island

I agree with the posting of Greg from New Hampshire: If you want modern operas, based on stories that current audience can relate to, get today's composers to compose them! Stop the usually absurd "updatings."

Regarding other posts & the discussion of oppressed and oppressors, a line from poet William Wordsworth from The Prelude (in relation to the French Revolution) is one to consider: ". . .the oppressed became oppressors IN THEIR TURN. . . ." Maybe that's how it goes.

May. 18 2013 05:23 AM
jankelevich from Santiago

I don´t like modern versions of classic operas. I had the experience of attending a modern version of Tosca in Australia and it was shocking to see Tosca dressed with a raincoat and Scarpa tortuting Mario with electricity, then eating pizza and trying to rape Tosca in underware.
That was not the spirit of Pucini at all.
I can´t imagine how was it allowed to stage Tannhäuser in the way you described, with gas chambers killing jews?
That´s a disgrace.

May. 15 2013 04:05 PM
David from Flushing

While I could see something like "Tosca" being set in the fascist era as it is about dictatorship, I am not so certain about other works. There is a serious risk of creating a sort of "Springtime for Hitler" on the operatic stage.

May. 15 2013 03:41 PM
Greg Gauthier from Lebanon, New Hampshire

Here's what I don't understand. If composers, performers, producers, and audiences all want modern stories that can connect to modern audiences, then why in blazes does the industry keep showing MULTI-HUNDRED YEAR OLD operas?

If you buy a boat, I have to assume you WANTED a boat. If you get it home and start trying to turn it into a car, I have to ask: why didn't you just buy a blood car?

Surely there are good composers out there today making great music, who would be happy to write operas? I mean, in Verdi's time, people were watching VERDI operas. Surely, in this age of Howard Goodall, Hans Zimmer, John Adams, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, John Williams, Howard Shore, and Philip Glass, we can find a few willing and capable composers ready to provide a steady supply of new operas?

Musical Theater composers are churning them out like dime-store western novels. Why isn't anyone doing the same with Opera?

May. 14 2013 10:45 PM
Markonymous from Brooklyn

"Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief". As a reminder, here is the topic: "Weigh in: What modern updates of operas have you seen that did or didn't work for you?".

That said, I believe that most producers are not artists. They are ego whores who will do anything to upstage each other for the sake of publicity. They do not have the best interests of the composer in mind.

I disagree with James Jorden's opinion regarding 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."

First off, as Mr. Gelb who has little background in opera admitted, the job of opera management is to draw an audience into the house.
The people who create opera are usually the composer and librettist, not management, director, conductor or singers, or audience.

Its not a terrible terrible thing to send a message to these "artists" that if they do something that does not convey the composers intentions they are history.

This travesty should have been billed as
Burkhard Kosminski's Tannhauser not Wagner's.

I suspect Gelb will stage it any season now.

May. 14 2013 07:39 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

To ardath_bey, Holocaust Jews never threw stones much less bombs to Germans. The comparison of Israel and Hitler is only pure anti-Semitism and envy to the progress of Israel. Arabs are still tiding camels and killing innocent people in Syria. You ardath_bey do not throw any stones from the glass box in which you live. Palestinians do not have a State because do not want, if they wanted they already had a State that was offered to them already several times. Arafat said that he did not accept a State because he was afraid to be killed that demonstrates what I say.

May. 14 2013 07:06 PM

What Israel has been doing to Palestinians in the Middle East for the past 65 years has virtually canceled what Hitler did to Jews in the 1930s and 40s. Israelis ARE Nazis so this bitching about an opera Tannhäuser production is just that, hypocritical bitching.

Jews should stop throwing rocks from a glass house.

May. 14 2013 06:50 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

I misspoke, I meant to cite for the happy endings productions of SHAKESPEARE plays the DRUARY LANE THEATER, not the Sadler Wells Theater, which was one of the theaters that presented exclusively the oeuvre of GILBERT AND SULLIVAN. In my earliest days as a professional singer I sang Nanki Poo [MIKADO] and Frederic [Pirates of Penzance] with the touring S.M. Chartock Company. People then remarked that my Nanki Poo sounded more like Siegfried and my Frederic like Tristan.

May. 14 2013 03:38 PM
Leslie from Belfast, Maine

You don't have to know about, r see the that new Tannhauser to know that anti-semitism is alive. Just as alive as any of the bigotry we have in our world against anything or anyone different from ourselves.

May. 14 2013 11:57 AM
Kate from New York, NY

I'm most disappointed to finally find a production of Tannhauser going on and it's mired in controversy. There's no way for me to give an informed opinion without seeing the show, but I'm wary of why the need for Nazis. As an artist, I do think there should be boundaries in taste and I don't understand why the need to go in this direction. (I was going to say excess, but it would be more accurate to call it realistic given history.) However, I'm personally too used to somebody employing Nazis in their work as the symbol of ultimate evil, and it's a lazy tactic. It reduces the suffering of real people and the actions of those who oppressed them down to cartoonish villainy. There are a thousand other ways to put on a production. I'm curious to know the production team's motivations. It's not the audience's job to support the artist's vision, it's the artist's job to communicate their vision and if they can't do it, it's their own fault.

May. 14 2013 11:22 AM
Doreen from New York

First of all, Wagner doesn't need any more negativity associated with his music other than that Hitler liked it. Not that he shouldn't be played; his music is sheer genius. But really, why rub in the nazi connection? Second of all, I have a lot of trouble with 'updating' operas. The composer had a vision when they wrote the opera and updating it is like telling that composer he/she didn't do a good enough job and we're going to improve it. I mean, if an opera has any merit it should be able to stand on its own, the way it was originally intended to be seen. Personally, I wouldn't even consider seeing any opera that was updated, no matter who was in the cast or where it was being done.

May. 14 2013 11:02 AM
Rob from Washington, DC

Thanks for some clear-headed discussion of the real issue here: Whether or not the performances should have been cancelled. It's good to hear about it from professionals.

Most of the turmoil seems to be coming from people (amateur opera fans who haven't seen the production) who are offended either by the basic concept (which DOES sound offensive, granted) or by the mere fact that anyone would "go against the author's intent" when producing an opera.

I'm glad to hear some intelligent conversation about the situation, and I appreciate that our panel declined to make an artistic judgement on the staging, since none have actually SEEN it.

Thank you.

May. 14 2013 10:37 AM
A.C. Douglas from Lakewood, NJ

This production should never have been staged at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in the first place. It's fraudulent from top to bottom. It purports to be a staging of Wagner's _Tannhäuser_ and it's clearly nothing of the sort, not by any stretch, notwithstanding that it hijacked the text and music of Wagner's opera for its own uses.


May. 14 2013 10:33 AM
arden Broecking from Connecticut

There's nothing wrong with innovation or a fresh approach to an opera until it utterly violates the intent of the composer and turns a myth or a story into travesty. Certain recent productions of classoic pieces, including but not excusive to Puccini, Wagner and Mozart have been visually disgusting,or simply ridiculous.

May. 14 2013 08:48 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

We need to separate art from the artist. Wagner was not a nice man but his music was incredible. As for these modern stagings around the world, this is nothing more than bashing of great works. The production of Rigoletto at the Met this year was inspired by the film Aria with an Elvis look-alike singing LaDonna e Mobile. The film was fun but the Met production was pure unadulterated c---p. The same for their Traviata, Macbeth, Masked Ball, etc.

May. 14 2013 08:01 AM
Jeff Dodick from Jerusalem, Israel

This production is simply disgusting. There is no excuse for a Nazi-themed production in art. Histories of music have definitely shown that Wagner was terribly anti-Semitic (and this had nothing to do with his wife Cosima as was noted by Ralph Braskett in his response). My response is not connected to any hatred against Germans. However, Nazi-era Germany (which was responsible for the Holocaust and the general devastation of Europe during WW2) chose Wagner as their official music BECAUSE it and Wagner's views represented the philosophy of Nazi Germany. Mounting a stage production that relies on the themes of this philosophy is disgusting and the people responsible should have shown more understanding and sensitivity. I am glad to see that this production cancelled as it had no artistic merit.

May. 14 2013 04:40 AM
Harry from New York

Ralph Braskett from Lakewood NJ should read THE ANTISIMITIC "JUDAISM IN MUSIC" by Richard Wagner, published in 1850 to understand how ANTISIMITIC Wagner was, and not blame it on his 3rd wife Cosima. The "bashing" you allude to by me is not directed at the Germans, but at the ANTISIMITIC elements that still prevail in Grmany. Wagner's ANTISIMITIC writings had a great influence on Hitler and the resulting annihilation of 6 million Jews.

May. 14 2013 03:02 AM
Ralph Braskett from Lakewood NJ

Harry from NY can't stop bashing the Germans. What about the Anglo-Saxons in their colonies; killing off the 30%+ of natives after the 60% that our European germs killed--our secret weapon.
Herr Wagner had German Jews in his orchestras; the extreme anti-Semitism ascribed to him was due to:
Cosima Liszt, his second wife, was the keeper of the anti-semitic flame;
the NAZIs who used his music as a tool in their anti-Semitic madness, which denied them the talents of most able part of their population in their was against the Anglo-Saxon & European countries

May. 14 2013 12:26 AM
Markonymous from Brooklyn

While I have not witnessed this new production, I've heard people who have ask: what does this production have to do with Wagner's libretto? It seems that this question was barely broached in this 'debate' yet I find it to be fundamentally essential.

I have witnessed the new, much raved about Michael Mayer production of Rigoletto and again I had to wonder just how did this interpretation jive with Verdi's intention. Audience laughter during what is essentially meant to be a tragedy seems to miss the point of the composer, his score and the libretto by about a mile no matter how you slice it.

I have no objection to modernizing a production to the contemporary period as long as the story line is faithful to the composer's musical expression and intention. He did not compose it for us to interpret. A feeling moved him to compose it and he wished to express this feeling to us.

Matthew Bourne's imaginary interpretation of Swan Lake is entertaining, but, except for the score, has very little to do with Tchaikovsky's vision of the ballet. But it is not billed as Swan Lake. It is billed as Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake.

I think that the same principal should apply here. This audience was mislead into believing that they were going to attend a performance of Wagner's Tannhauser. In all fairness to the audience and the composer, what they attended should have been billed as
Burkhard Kosminski's Tannhauser.

May. 13 2013 10:58 PM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn NY

As a writer and professional reviewer, I am generally in favor of seeing an opera in an imaginative new way as long as the show in question males theatrical and hopefully musical sense.

A recent Bayreuth Meistersinger elites the idea of Sachs as a turncoat, a cool hipster art professor who takes Walther under his wing to show him how to turn his singing into a profitable career. Harry Kupfer has a long history of breaking new ground in Wagner:he placed Parsifal in a steel and glass bank vault and mounted the Ring on a post-apocalyptic "road of history." The recent François Girard Parsifal at the Met is also of considerable merit, with its chief virtue being that Mr. Girard"s version of the show is open to more than one interpretation.

May. 13 2013 06:57 PM
Harry from New York

It appears that antisemitism is still alive and striving under the mask of art in Grmany. Isn't it ironic that these scene should appear in an opera composed by the outspoken antisemite called RICHARD (may he rot in hell) WAGNER?

May. 13 2013 06:55 PM

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