People hate Wagner because they think he was an anti-Semite, which is true, and a Nazi, which is not. The Bayreuth Festival was certainly a haven of arch-conservatism even before the Third Reich, and later a lode star in the Nazi cultural firmament; and Siegfried’s wife, Winifred, who ran the festival through the end of World War II, adored Adolf Hitler, a frequent visitor to the home (her four children called him Uncle Wolf).
You really can’t blame the Nazis on Wagner, who had been dead for decades by the time they came along, but the Nazi association, and the anti-Semitism, is enough to keep his works off the stage in Israel, although several artists, including Daniel Barenboim and Asher Fisch, keep chipping away at the prohibition.
The works are controversial in other cities, too. When German director Achim Freyer’s “Ring” production played in Los Angeles in 2010, with an accompanying Wagner festival, a local activist created a grass-roots movement to try to shut it down.
The master, his art and women
The question is whether the art itself is tainted, and the answer, I think, is that it is not, simply because art cannot tell you how to think. Art rises and falls on its ability to communicate emotional truths, and characters who were conceived solely as two-dimensional stereotypes would not come to life on stage, as Wagner’s do. Whether Wagner intended to depict his figures in a certain way is almost beside the point; the art, flawed and inexorable, has prevailed precisely because it offers more than the composer perhaps intended to put into it.
This is nowhere clearer than in the women of Wagner’s legacy. Wagner was hardly a feminist, and he tended to treat women’s power, in his female characters, with considerable reserve. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Parsifal,” his final work, in which Kundry and her sexuality are the agents of a symbolic castration, which is cured by a symbolic cauterization — in Wagner’s day, the conventional remedy for female hysteria.
Yet in real life, he left a matriarchy behind him. Bayreuth has been run much longer by women than by men, even given the long tenure of Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang, and it is now in the hands of two of the composer’s great-granddaughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier.
And his female characters have kept taking on a force he may not have fully intended. Francesca Zambello, in her “Ring” production (which began at the Washington National Opera, was cut short after the third opera for lack of funds and will return complete in the 2015-16 season), is not the first director to maintain that Brünnhilde, rather than Siegfried, is the real hero of the piece; she is the one who stays free of the quest for the gold, and saves the world. Indeed, in Zambello’s “Götterdämmerung,” the final opera of the four, which I saw when the cycle was staged in its entirety in San Francisco in 2011, Siegfried even seems a little silly.
Earlier this month, a production of “Tannhäuser” set in a concentration camp was booed so vociferously on opening night that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein saw fit to pull the staging. To many people, this was yet another example of stage directors running amok. Yet the director had reasons for the updating: He was trying to find a contemporary expression of Tannhäuser’s guilt that would be as powerful to modern audiences as making love to the pagan goddess Venus was in Wagner’s original conception. The result: Wagner was at the nexus of a scandal involving Nazis, Jews, German archetypes and questions about the bounds of artistic decency and good taste — a place he spent most of his life. In another hundred years, he may still be there.