Font Size: A A A


Wagner on Trial

Larry Wolff
In Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger, which opened the 2017 Bayreuth Festival, the musical cobbler Hans Sachs has been restyled as his creator Richard Wagner, isolated in the witness box at the Nuremberg Trials, and we the audience have now become the tribunal, passing judgment on him.

Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Michael Volle as Hans Sachs in Barrie Kosky’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 2017

Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only comedy, was an opera that Hitler loved, and it enjoyed enormous popularity in the Third Reich. When it was produced in Nazi Germany at Bayreuth, the Bavarian site of the annual Wagner festival established by Wagner himself in 1876, there were as many as eight hundred Nuremberg townspeople on stage in the final scene as the musical cobbler Hans Sachs sang his tribute to holy German art (“die heilige deutsche Kunst”); they perhaps represented an operatic counterpart to the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg celebrated in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Hitler himself, after coming to power in 1933, visited Bayreuth every summer until the outbreak of the war, and the enormous chorus at the end of Die Meistersinger, singing “Heil!” to Hans Sachs and affirming German art, was sometimes singing to Hitler in the audience.

In the director Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger, which opened the 2017 Bayreuth Festival on July 25, Sachs sings this tribute shockingly alone on stage, the bass-baritone cobbler now restyled as his creator Richard Wagner, isolated in the witness box at the Nuremberg Trials. The four flags of the occupying powers—America, England, France, and the Soviet Union—stand in the courtroom behind him, and we the audience have now become the tribunal, passing judgment on Wagner. Kosky’s Hans Sachs, singing of German art, seems to be desperately pleading for absolution after the vicious ways in which German high culture—and especially Wagner’s music—was harnessed to the ideology of Nazism. Lohengrin and Siegfried became Aryan warrior avatars of the Third Reich, while Hans Sachs and his singing protégé Walther von Stolzing became custodians of the purity of German art. Wagner’s own nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, his conviction that Jews were debasing German art and music, was assimilated into Hitler’s murderous twentieth-century anti-Semitism. The Nuremberg Trials did not actually pass judgment on Wagner, but the postwar world was well aware of Wagner’s special place in Nazi ideology, and an almost complete ban on his music in Israel has meant that his operas have never been performed there.


It has frequently been debated whether Wagner’s anti-Semitism was expressed in his operas, in such figures as Alberich and Mime, the Nibelung dwarves in The Ring, Klingsor the evil sorcerer in Parsifal, and the inept musical pedant Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, supposedly based on the pro-Brahms anti-Wagner half-Jewish music critic Eduard Hanslick. Though the libretto never directly suggests that Beckmesser is Jewish, Kosky’s production has no doubts about the character’s Jewish identity, which figures in disturbing and ultimately horrific fashion. In Die Meistersinger a young woman in Nuremberg, Eva, is to be awarded by her father in marriage as the prize for a singing contest. It is young Walther, the tenor, whom she secretly loves, who will ultimately win the contest—but the other aspiring contestant is the baritone Beckmesser.

Die Meistersinger is set in Nuremberg (just one hour from Bayreuth by train), but at the Bayreuth Festival this year the opera begins in Bayreuth, in a stage set of Villa Wahnfried, the grand residence that Wagner built for himself in the 1870s, while his festival theater was being constructed up on the hill. Wagner is buried just behind the villa—his grave is adorned by floral tributes during the annual festival. Theater and villa were, and remain, the two poles of Wagnerian life in Bayreuth, and Kosky has combined them with his staging of the villa in the theater.

During the famous C-major overture, usually thought to suggest the festive public rituals of Renaissance Nuremberg, we see the Wagner family at home at Wahnfried in the 1870s, gathering around the piano to play through Die Meistersinger. As the overture ends and the opera begins, the members of the Wagner family morph into the characters from Die Meistersinger, with Wagner himself becoming Hans Sachs, and one of his favorite conductors, Hermann Levi, assigned the role of Beckmesser, the maladroit musician who will comically lose the singing contest. 

Levi was the Jewish conductor to whom Wagner entrusted the first performance of his most Christian opera, Parsifal. Kosky’s identification of Levi with Beckmesser, however, leads to the production’s most disturbing development when, at the end of act two, the opera’s comical riot among the populace of Nuremberg, woken at night by Beckmesser’s awkward serenading, becomes a vicious pogrom. Beckmesser is lynched, while the whole Bayreuth stage fills up with an inflatable balloon caricature of a Jew taken from the Nazi publication Der Stürmer.

Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Johannes Martin Kränzle as Sixtus Beckmesser in Kosky’s production of Die Meistersinger, 2017


The Australian Kosky, who has described himself as a “gay Jewish kangaroo,” is, remarkably, the first Jewish stage director at Bayreuth. While Bayreuth—and other German opera houses—have in recent years attempted to take on directly the anticipatory connection between Wagner and Nazism (he died in 1883, six years before Hitler was born), there has perhaps never been anything so in-your-face as Kosky’s gigantic caricature balloon. And on the night of the premiere it confronted some prominent faces, including Angela Merkel and the king and queen of Sweden.

The Nuremberg riot was essential to Wagner’s very first conception of Die Meistersinger back in the 1840s, when, as he recalled in his memoirs, he took the historical figure of Hans Sachs cobbling outside his shop—“to this picture I now added a narrow, twisting Nuremberg alley, with neighbors, uproar and a street-fight to close the second act—and suddenly my whole mastersingers comedy stood before me so vividly.” The opera was not composed until the 1860s. A century and a half later, in Kosky’s vision of a brutal pogrom, the gala audience only gradually realized what they were watching as the balloon inflated. The curtain fell, and the applause was subdued. It was hard to know whether this was a stage image that you could really applaud, even if you admired the conception. 


The night before the Meistersinger premiere, Bayreuth held an unusual centennial concert tribute to the composer’s grandson Wieland Wagner, who was born in 1917, and died in 1966. Wieland was directly responsible for the postwar reopening of the Wagner festival in 1951, after the Nuremberg Trials and the postwar “denazification” campaign. Wieland, who called Hitler “Uncle Wolf” as a teenager in the 1930s, and of whom Hitler was extremely fond, was excused from military service in World War II and studied art. After 1951 he designed a series of revolutionary stage productions that constituted, in effect, the denazification of Bayreuth: he removed any suggestions of Teutonic German nationalism from the scenarios and offered instead modernist symbolism, based on abstract forms (famously a giant disc as the foundation for the Ring Cycle), the juxtaposition of light and dark, and an evocation of ancient Greek dramatic values rather than modern German elements. He removed, for example, the imagery of old Nuremberg from Die Meistersinger in his 1956 production, which was ironically known as “Die Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg”— without Nuremberg. 

Frederic Spotts, writing about Wieland in his classic study of the history of Bayreuth, observes that the “scrapping of the old interpretations was ultimately a purging of his own past and of Bayreuth’s past. Expunging history was a deep psychological and artistic need for Wieland.” The centennial concert paid tribute to Wieland with speeches from his son Wolf Siegfried Wagner (born in 1943 and possibly named after “Uncle Wolf”) and his niece Katharina Wagner (the current director of the festival, who has directed her own share of controversial productions). 

ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Wieland Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger at the Bayreuth Festival, July 1, 1956

There was also a complex tribute from the opera impresario Sir Peter Jonas, who compared Wieland to another centennial figure: the same reforming zeal, the same dedication to enacting a new vision, the same recklessness in public and private life. And just as I thought he was going to name Leonard Bernstein, Jonas surprised the whole audience by announcing: “Of course I am speaking about John F. Kennedy.” Both died young in the 1960s, the fullness of their postwar visions perhaps unrealized. In 1961, the year that Kennedy hesitantly sent federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders who were fighting for civil rights in Alabama, Wieland brought to Bayreuth its first-ever black artist, twenty-four-year-old Grace Bumbry, as the “Black Venus” in Tannhäuser.

To honor Wieland, the Bayreuth orchestra ascended from its submerged orchestra pit and performed on stage in full view of the audience. Otherwise you never actually see the orchestra at a Bayreuth opera performance, and while the whole un-air-conditioned nineteenth-century theater is oppressively hot in summer for the audience in full formal dress, it’s said to be even hotter in the submerged pit. The sound is completely different with the orchestra on stage, more brilliant, less acoustically blended. 

Very unusually, in Wieland’s honor, the concert included music that was not by Wagner—for his operas are the sole repertory at Bayreuth, according to a decision laid down by his widow Cosima after his death. Here was Wieland breaking with tradition again, from the tomb, as scenes from Berg’s Wozzeck and Verdi’s Otello were performed (operas that Wieland had staged, but not at Bayreuth). The conclusion was the prelude and transformation music from Parsifal, and the concert was led by the conductor of the Dutch National Opera, Hartmut Haenchen. A number of my German colleagues told me that Haenchen was himself Dutch (though in fact he was born in Dresden in 1943), as if they somehow wanted him to be Dutch in the spirit of Wieland’s de-Germanization of Bayreuth.



Wieland grew up in the compound surrounding Villa Wahnfried, the setting for an academic symposium that accompanied Kosky’s production—the reason I was in Bayreuth during the opening week of the festival. The Wahnfried main hall, with Wagner’s Steinway piano in front of the big bay windows, was filled that week with academics, music critics, musicians, and impresarios gathered to discuss Kosky’s production and Wagner’s problematic relation to Nazi Germany and the postwar world.

Villa Wahnfried holds artifacts of the master, including the small sofa on which he died in Venice (the Sterbesofa). A new exhibition wing is now showing a brilliant costume exhibition from the Bayreuth productions of Wieland Wagner. Our conference began with private Wagner family films from the 1930s: the cozy informality of Hitler’s visits with the family, his appearances on the balcony of the opera house, walking with young Wieland or chatting with Wieland’s British-born mother Winifred. Winifred, then a widow, may have considered marrying Hitler, and in the films she has the air of Hitler’s gracious first lady—presiding over the Bayreuth that Thomas Mann called “Hitler’s court theater.” As late as the 1970s Winifred declared that “if Hitler came in the door today, for example, I would be just as pleased and happy as ever to see him.” 

The denazification campaign removed Winifred from any official role at Bayreuth and allowed her sons Wieland and Wolfgang to take over the postwar festival. At the symposium, Professor Micha Brumlik of the Berlin Center for Jewish Studies reflected on the “ghosts” of Nuremberg that haunt the Kosky production of Die Meistersinger. Professor Dörte Schmidt of the Berlin University of the Arts described the postwar Bayreuth culture produced by the encounter between musicians who had remained in Nazi Germany and those who returned from exile. I spoke together with Professor Elisabeth Bronfen of the University of Zurich about Wagner in American culture. We discussed the presence of his music in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s and the striking fact that in America, where Wagner and most other German composers were eliminated from the repertory during World War I, Wagner’s operas were staged regularly during World War II. The Metropolitan Opera had a busy Wagner season in 1942–1943, presenting the complete Ring cycle (sold out!) along with Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Tristan und Isolde.

In part, it was émigré artists from Germany and Austria who refused to allow the Nazis to hijack Wagner entirely—at the Met, for instance, the Ring cycle featured important singers who had emigrated from Germany and Austria, and opposed the Nazi regime, such as Lotte Lehmann, Emanuel List, and Friedrich Schorr, under the baton of the Viennese Jewish émigré conductor Erich Leinsdorf. The staging of Wagner, however, also became a point of American intellectual pride: for instance, The New York Times in 1943 declared that “as regards operas of the German repertory, we have escaped war hysteria entirely.” In early 1945 the Saturday Review published an essay about Wagner titled “Background Music for Mein Kampf”—acknowledging the Wagner cult in Nazi Germany but refusing to join in a musical “witch hunt.” In fact, producing Die Meistersinger at the Met— replete with Wagner’s celebration of “holy German art”—was seen as the ultimate test of America’s resistance to cultural Germanophobia: “Even Die Meistersinger has been given this season [1944-1945], after being cautiously kept from the repertory during the first years of the war.”

The twenty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943, jumping in for the indisposed Bruno Walter, to conduct a program that concluded with the overture to Die Meistersinger. Arturo Toscanini’s concert at Madison Square Garden in 1944 to benefit the Red Cross had as much Wagner as Verdi on the program. The Met opened its first postwar season in November 1945 with Lohengrin. Wagner was so fully domesticated in the US that not even his privileged musical place in the Third Reich could jeopardize his American standing. If I myself ever merit a footnote in Bayreuth history, I hope it will be for introducing Bayreuth to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in What’s Opera Doc?—Warner Brothers’ brilliant 1957 cartoon travesty of Wagnerian music drama. “O Bwunnhilde you’re so wovewy,” sings Elmer. “Yes I know it, I can’t help it,” sings Bugs, on a white horse, wearing blond braids and a winged Valkyrie helmet. Ten years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials, Hollywood could have its way with Wagner in a spirit of uninhibited musical farce. 


A few years ago the Austrian baritone Bernd Weikl (who sang the role of Hans Sachs at Bayreuth in the 1980s) published a cranky book entitled Swastikas on Stage, in which he denounced contemporary Wagner productions for their insistence on connecting Hitler and Wagner. Some Wagnerians may feel that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is irrelevant to his music, or at least that Hitler’s love of Wagner should not be held against the composer himself. They would certainly be offended by Kosky’s Nuremberg courtroom scenario (and perhaps by Bugs Bunny in drag as Brünnhilde), but Kosky’s Bayreuth production does not make simple equations. At the present moment of far-right xenophobic political movements in Europe and America and the increasing vilification of refugees, revisiting the 1930s on stage seems neither arbitrary nor irrelevant. Kosky, reaching for the 1940s and the Nuremberg Trials, offers a subtle production that forces us to judge for ourselves when Hans Sachs, transformed into Richard Wagner, testifies from the witness stand on behalf of German art.
What’s Opera, Doc?, 1957

Kosky thus poses the question of Wagner’s relation to the genocidal Nazi regime without actually answering it, while allowing the beauty of the music to speak for itself. Perhaps most moving of all was the conclusion of the first scene of act three, the exquisite Morgentraum quintet, with the five main characters ranged across the otherwise empty Nuremberg courtroom, singing with rapt inward reflection and sublime mutual harmony of the “morning dream” that they have just begun to fathom. The courtroom setting reminds us that even beauty must come before the bar of justice, as the most moving dreams of artistic creation become entangled with the nightmares of irrevocable history.

Barrie Kosky’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger is at the Bayreuth Festival through August 27.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

© 1963-2024 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.