German Theater Groups Criticize Cancellation of Nazi-Themed Tannhauser

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The Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf has faced mounting scrutiny for canceling a controversial Nazi-themed production of Wagner's Tannhäuser last week.

Klaus Zehelein, the president of the German Stage Association, a trade group for German theaters, condemned the opera house, calling the cancellation “excessive.” He told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur that while he hasn’t seen the work himself, “Art must be able to maintain a certain social pressure level, even if something has failed.”

Based in Cologne, the German Stage Association (Deutschen Bühnenverein) represents some 430 opera companies, theaters and ballet companies in Germany.

On Thursday, Klaus Staeck, the President of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, called for the production, by Burkhard Kosminski, to be reinstated in its original form, complete with the reported scenes of gas chambers and the title character executing Jewish prisoners.

“No aesthetic assessment or substantive debate justifies discontinuing a production after only one idea," Staeck wrote in an open letter to Christoph Meyer, Dusseldorf’s director, and Kosminski.

“Art – regardless of quality – is not a fair-weather affair," Staeck’s letter added. "Whether it is right or wrong, has failed or is brilliant, it needs to be discussed." He added that if a staging has "oppressive imagery" or endangers the health of audience members, it can come with a warning.

The Dusseldorf company said last week in a statement that members of the audience were reporting seeking medical attention as a result of seeing the Tannhäuser production. There were also reports of booing and heckling by audience members who attended the premiere.

Kosminski has defended his production and called the change a form of censorship. In an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, he said he was interested in exploring "the great archaic theme of guilt" during the Third Reich. He said his staging wasn't intended to ridicule victims of the Holocaust, but rather to mourn them.