Saturday 2 July 2016

Book Review: Bernd Weikl, Swastikas on Stage

Bernd Weikl, Swastikas on Stage: Trends in the Productions of Richard Wagner’s Operas in German Theaters Today, tr. Susan Salms-Moss (Berlin: Pro-Business, 2015). 221 pp. €15.00. ISBN: 978-3-86460-305-1.

A scene from Burkhard C. Kosminski’s Düsseldorf production of Tannhäuser. Photo: Hans Jörg Michel/ Deutsche Oper am Rhein

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has recently made cultural as well as political headlines in Germany. In late 2015, it obtained a preliminary injunction against Berlin’s Schaubühne using images of its members in Falk Richter’s FEAR. The party’s 2016 manifesto for Saxony-Anhalt, where it came second in regional elections, spoke of obliging museums, theatres and orchestras to offer a ‘positive’ view of their ‘homeland’. Cultural organisations should not only stage more classical German drama but do so in productions that ‘inspire identification with our country’.[1] Cheered on by Facebook’s ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ (AMOP) page, which chillingly declares that it is not a forum for discussion but for mobilisation and conceals its mysterious administrators under the cloak of anonymity, this Kulturkampf receives implicit support in this equally chilling book by Bernd Weikl. Weikl certainly seeks no anonymity. Whether his politics in more general terms resemble those of AfD and AMOP, I have no idea; I have no reason to think so. However, his wish to prohibit Wagner stagings that do not conform to his conception of their ‘pure form’ (a slightly odd, yet not entirely unreasonable, translation of his original, ‘bloße Form’), urging criminal action against those engaging in presumably ‘impure’ productions, marks a sad coda indeed to a highly distinguished musical career.[2] For alas, if one of Weikl’s most celebrated Wagner roles were as Hans Sachs in Wolfgang Wagner’s almost incredibly banal Bayreuth Meistersinger, he seems to have taken Wolfgang the director as his model, rather than Wolfgang the daring recruiter of external directors from Patrice Chéreau to Stefan Herheim.

Weikl’s book is presented – not uninterestingly, yet with hopeless lopsidedness – as a trial of the facts. First, we have the evidence against Wagner, largely drawn from a few journalists, few of them truly informed on the range and depth of scholarship on Wagner and anti-Semitism. Weikl’s uncorroborated claim is that the German productions of which he disapproves are a response to and endorsement of claims of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s work. ‘Objectively speaking’, he writes, ‘opera directors have been trying for years to effect a necessary performance ban for Richard Wagner’s antisemitic music dramas, for their directorial concepts and sets repeatedly point out the composer’s hatred of the Jews and his link to the extermination mania of the Third Reich.’ Such, apparently was the ‘objective’ intention of David Alden’s Munich Tannhäuser and Wolfgang Mehring’s Nuremberg Meistersinger (pp. 82–3). Weikl gathers all such stagings – essentially, anything more probing than his beloved Otto Schenk – under the unhelpful umbrella-name of Regietheater, to which Anglo-Saxon theatres are apparently immune. The reasoning for such lies in a quick reference to the German Sonderweg, without naming it (p. 93) as such, and an approving reference to the USA, praised for ‘private donors who enable productions at the Metropolitan Opera that do not insert political scandals in Hänsel und Gretel, and thus remain true to the works themselves’ (p. 97). Ah, the works ‘themselves’. A whole generation or two of musicological, literary, other questioning goes unmentioned, unconsidered; we return to the comfortable realm of Werktreue, without so much as a mention of its ideological provenance, assumptions and consequences. No matter: Weikl-Spengler knows that our hallowed concept, allegedly ‘the recreation of a work that exists and is cohesive, and thus has already been created’ (p. 79), has been jettisoned during a period of ‘definite decadence in German theaters, […] already visible in the practice of the arts during the decline of the Roman Empire’ (p. 80).

Susanne Kopp-Sievers, of Saxony-Anhalt’s Museumsverband, responded to the AfD manifesto in no uncertain terms; theirs was anti-pluralistic, frankly Nazi rhetoric. As Kopp-Seivers asked, echoing, consciously or otherwise, one Richard Wagner: ‘Aber was ist deutsch?’ Various participants at the conference at which she spoke interpreted the manifesto in terms of a wholesale rightist assault on the German cultural sector and public subsidy.[3] Like its UKIP counterpart, the populist AfD seems not to prize consistency; whereas other regional branches wish to eliminate public funding altogether, the Saxon-Anhalt manifesto spoke of increasing cultural subsidy, albeit only to approved, ‘positive’ causes. Goebbels, as we do not read in Weikl’s book, wanted entertainment, Unterhaltung, rather than Wagnerian challenge. (Parsifal, we may recall, was not performed at Bayreuth during the Second World War.) He likewise wanted newspaper arts criticism to be factual, not critical; discussion or even contemplation of ideas was not desirable. Indeed, he wanted, onstage and off, precisely what is longed for by many 21st-century ‘conservatives’, aghast at our own Cultural Bolshevism.

Weikl has, credit where credit is due, put his money where his mouth is. As he outlines in Part V, he has taken ‘real legal steps against those responsible for the especially onerous production of Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf’ (p. 99). He reproduces documentation, with reference to the German criminal code, which he sent to the public prosecutor in his ‘case’ that ‘on May 4 2013, the accused persons, [Christoph] Meyer as General Director’ of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein and Burkhard C. ‘Kosminski as Stage Director, working together in conscious and wilful collusion, produced Richard Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser, in which various serious offences were committed concurrently through its performance’ (p. 100). A correspondence with the poor public prosecutor ensues. ‘Unfortunately, these efforts’, writes Weikl, non-ironic lovechild to Stalin and Mary Whitehouse, ‘did not have any positive results. Similar steps by the wider public would, of course, be more than welcome’ (p. 99).

In this particular case, even Against Modern Opera Productions seems only to have wanted the production discontinued, which, after a carefully orchestrated campaign of online bullying, it was. Nevertheless, resort to legal methods, civil and criminal, is persistently urged on its page too. Weikl and AMOP share the trait of not even having seen a production, yet considering it entartet on the basis of a few pictures of the designs and manufactured outrage from a noisy section of the (alleged) first-night audience. Covent Garden-goers may recall recent stagings of Rusalka and Guillaume Tell. But this is, of course, a more serious matter. Because of Auschwitz, ‘the state educational mandate must be adhered to and freedom of expression and freedom of the press must have certain limitations’ (p. 11). Limitations, it seems, that go so far as to prohibit performances of Tannhäuser one has not seen, but which someone with whom one has made an online connection did not like. Some might think we already stand not so very far from burning – and certainly not in the modern sense – DVDs on the Bebelplatz/Opernplatz. Or, as Goebbels, in his 1933 Feuerrede, one of his earliest acts as Propaganda Minister, put it: 'German students: we have directed our actions against the un-German spirit; consign everything un-German to the fire. Against class struggle and materialism, for Volksgemeinschaft and idealistic living, I consign to the fire the writings of Karl Marx and Kautsky. Against decadence and moral decay […] I consign to the fire writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser, and Erich Kästner.'

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden, on the western corner of that square, reopened in 1955 with a performance of Die Meistersinger (as it had indeed also reopened in 1942, under Furtwängler). A fabled Scots fundamentalist response to Our Lord having changed water into wine at Cana is: ‘Aye, but he shouldn’a hae.’ Our celebrated Sachs seems to think, by contrast, that the East Berlin house should have skipped straight to his final peroration, shorn entirely of context and somehow thus registering as an act of anti-Nazism. Perhaps he should read Richard J. Evans’s tale of the David Irving trial and consider the dangers of not doing one’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung properly.[4] Doubtless Weikl sincerely believes the following, whatever it may mean, or may have meant prior to translation: ‘Cultural edification, including a differentiation of their [the audience’s] emotions, would be the basis for an altruistic image of humanity, and thus best suited as a contraceptive against new “beginnings”’ (p. 87). It seems, in context, to mean that ‘edification’ via ultra-reactionary, Met-like stagings, enabling ultra-reactionary (or worse) audiences to feel better about themselves are more likely to prevent a return of Nazism than ‘seeing swastikas and the gassing of Jews on the stage, which will more likely insult and anger them’ (p. 86). Perhaps, though, people need to be insulted and angered; perhaps it is one of the tasks of art to do so; and perhaps the censorship Weikl demands is more prophylactic than ‘contraceptive’. Following a lengthy, almost unreadably tedious series of allegedly satirical concepts for contemporary productions, we come to Weikl’s second, laudable ambition: performance of Wagner’s dramas in the State of Israel. Alas, the idea that we proceed to that via fulfilment of his principal, prohibitive ambition straightforwardly beggars belief.

Clichés concerning how much has been written on Wagner may or may not be true; one can safely say, however, that no composer has had such a high quantity of arrant nonsense – and sometimes worse than mere nonsense – published concerning him. Weikl is not one in any sense to stand in the way of tradition. I was no fan of Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger when I saw it at Bayreuth. While finding many of the underlying ideas interesting, their execution on stage seemed to me so inept as to undo any good that might have been done – save, perhaps for the old, arguably still-necessary, chestnut of épater les bourgeois. At least Katharina, though, in succeeding her father’s – and Weikl’s – production, acknowledged onstage that Wagner had been and could be again what Thomas Mann ironically yet truthfully called a Kulturbolshewist; in that, her staging offered hope for Wagner and for Bayreuth. The man who once sang Sachs in houses across the world, telling us that the art of old German masters would flourish, no matter what the political situation, now places himself firmly in the activistic camp of Mann’s Munich assailants.[5] Or, as they now style themselves online, ‘Gegen Regietheater in der Oper’.[6]

(This review was first published in The Wagner Journal, 10/2 (2016), 78-82. Please click here for subscription details.)

[1]     ‘“Die Stimme der Bürger!” – unser Programm! Wahlprogramm zur Landtagswahl am 13. März 2016. “Wir für unsere Heimat”’. Manifesto of the Alternativ für Deutschland, Saxony-Anhalt , accessed 30 Mar. 2016, 20.
[2]     I have not had opportunity to consult the German original (Bernd Weikl, Warum Richard Wagner in Deutschland verboten muss (Leipzig, 2014)), but Barbara Eichner, who has, tells me that ‘bloße Form’ is used for the equivalent phrase to the English blurb explanation, while the more troubling ‘rein’ [pure] is used frequently throughout the book.
[3]     Christoph Richter, ‘Der Traum von der deutschen Leitkultur‘, Deutschlandfunk, 12 Mar. 2016, <>, accessed 30 Mar. 2016.
[4]     Richard J. Evans, Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History, and the David Irving Trial (London, 2002).
[5]     Thomas Mann, ‘Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner’, in Essays of Three Decades, tr. Helen Lowe-Porter (New York, 1947), pp. 307–52. Mann’s celebrated address was delivered at the University of Munich on 10 February 1933, and was followed by the ‘Protest’ in the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten of 16/17 April, subsequent to the ‘national restoration of Germany [… having] taken on definite form’. It is reprinted and translated in Sven Friedrich, ‘Ambivalenz der Leidenschaft – Thomas Mann und Richard Wagner. Zum 125. Geburtstag Thomas Manns’, in Programmhefte der Bayreuther Festspiele (Bayreuth, 2000), pp. 142, 150.
[6]     That is the German-language version of AMOP, where the still harder-core material, semi-free from prying Anglophone eyes, appears. What seems to be a slight misquotation from Marcel Prawy, in which the Kiss me, Kate enthusiast and sometime Viennese dramaturge likens Regietheater to AIDS – ‘Das Regietheater ist für die Oper das, was Aids für den menschlichen Körper ist’ – has been posted approvingly on more than one occasion (e.g., 13 July 2015, , accessed 23 Mar. 2016). Protests met with all manner of abuse, homophobic, misogynistic, racial and more, often from members with a curious pattern of coincidentally having ‘liked’ Pegida pages.