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Springtime for Hitler… In Dusseldorf? With Wagner?

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Last Saturday the Düsseldorf opera house opened a new version of  Tannhäuser. But this wasn’t any old version of the classic Wagner opera: the director transposed its setting from the Middle Ages to 1940s Germany. The Nazi-themed version, according to The Guardian, contained scenes of rape and showed people dying in gas chambers. The opera has now been pulled, but damage has already been done:

The opening scene depicted singers inside glass containers dropping to the floor as they were enveloped in a white fog – a clear allusion to the gas chambers that killed millions in Nazi death camps. Another scene that caused some in the audience to gasp and cover their faces showed an entire family having their heads shaved before being shot dead by the SS.

Michael Szentei-Heise, the head of Düsseldorf’s Jewish community, reported that members of the audience had “booed and banged doors” as they left the performance before the end.

We’re not sure why nobody realized this was a bad idea before committing to the huge cost of an opera production; it’s hard to imagine just how much stupidity was required to make this happen. Maybe they thought because it worked in The Producers, it would work for them?

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  • Corlyss Drinkard

    “We’re not sure why nobody realized this was a bad idea before committing to the huge cost of an opera production; it’s hard to imagine just how much stupidity was required to make this happen.”
    Don’t follow opera production trends on the continent much, do you? Unfortunately this kind of bastardization of opera has been spearheaded by the Germans and has pretty much overtaken traditional production styles for the last 20 years anyway. It’s even beginning to show up in the US. I tuned out when they started bragging about Handel operas done in the nude. There were hints this kind of contempt and tastelessness in the 80s, but it took the fall of the Berlin Wall to spread the contagion. Something about the general feeling of celebration and freedom resulted from the fall, and this trend seems a part of that.

  • Fat_Man
    “Berlin Tarts Up Opera With Sex and Violence” By JEREMY EICHLER
    Published: July 21, 2004

    BERLIN * * * Philipp Himmelmann’s production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, and Calixto Bieito’s widely reported staging of Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio” at the Komische Oper. …

    … Mr. Himmelmann’s production of “Don Carlo” in its four-act Italian version. … The first bizarre touch, however, comes in the first act as Princess Eboli’s ladies-in-waiting have been inexplicably transformed into a squad of secret agents who stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the front of the stage, attaching silencers to their handguns and pointing at the audience.

    … It’s nonsensical but still innocuous compared with the sheer brutality of the second act auto-da-fé. Over the course of this lengthy scene, the king feasts serenely on a banquet as five bound infidels lie naked and quivering in front of his table. Executioners duct tape the mouths of the captives and then slowly douse them with gasoline. They are then strung up by their ankles and hoisted high in the air, spinning precariously as they go. The executioners spark their lighters, raising them up toward their dangling prey as the curtain falls.

    * * *

    But if spectacle was the goal, Mr. Himmelmann was soundly outdone by Mr. Bieito, the Catalan director who has moved Mozart’s “Abduction” from a Turkish harem to a modern-day Berlin brothel with transparent walls. …

    The Pasha Salim drags the captured heroine Konstanze around on a leash and locks her in a cage. Osmin slits the throat and cuts off the nipples of a prostitute. There is rape and masturbation, drugs, suicide and the drinking of urine. The cumulative effect of it all was so numbing that by the time our hero Belmonte gunned down the all the prostitutes, scarcely a boo was heard.

    The final results do not add up to theatrical daring or the demolishing of clichés. Mr. Bieito’s “Abduction” is simply a prolonged and tasteless exercise hard to take seriously. His highest priorities seem to be shocking the audience, receiving publicity and strengthening his reputation as a bad boy of European opera.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    “Isn’t that what the Renaissance artists were doing when they abandoned religious iconography in favor of classical themes?”

    No. They were trying to recreate the classical ethos to leaven their own society, most of which was familiar with the classics. I doubt very much that “challenging” their audience was what they had in mind. “Challenging” the audience is very much a 19th Cent. motivation.

    “Does that mean that the production was a bad idea?”
    Well, if you have to ask . . . . Categorically yes. This obsession with showing everything that is implied, down to the last gruesome detail, is nothing but cheap porn. It’s as unnecessary to the artistic experience as it is repulsive to both the artist who created the work and the poor audience looking for a bit of diversion from what it already knows is often a sordid reality. I don’t need to see the act portrayed explicitly. I have an imagination. Leave me to fill in the blanks without having to endure the persistence of producer’s wretched vision.

    • wigwag

      Do you really think that the type of realism depicted in Dusseldorf would be repulsive to the artist? Even if it was; who cares? Once the artist creates the work, in a sense it no longer belongs to him (or her).

      As for the realistic depiction in “Turn of the Screw” that I described, it’s hard to know what Henry James would have thought but my guess is that the sexually adventuress composer (Benjamin Britten) would have loved it.

    • wigwag

      By the way Corlyss, I think you underestimate the revolutionary nature of Rennaissance Art. The Bonfire of the Vanities was inspired by popular revulsion over art and ornaments that the public found outrageous because they believed it to be blasphemous. As to the motivation of the artists themselves, surely there is no one size fits all explanation. But you may want to consider the case of one of the greatest Renaissance painters, Botticelli. His “Primavera” was inspired by the stories of Ovid and by De Rerum Natura” by Lucretius. The poem by Lucretius was about as big an antidote to Christianty as can be imagined. It’s no wonder the Church tried to suppress the poem and reacted to the painting with suspicion.

  • Hard truths

    It’s called Regietheater, and depending on your artistic tastes and/or political leanings, it’s either making opera relevant to the 21st Century or debasing a noble art form for the crass pleasure of self-indulgent directors…

    The following article from City Journal explains:

  • wigwag

    If this production was, to use Professor Mead’s term, “a bad idea,” was Salman Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses” a bad idea because it enraged a substantial portion of the Muslim world? Is an angry audience really the best metric to determine whether an artistic work is a good idea or a bad idea?

  • Blaton Hardey

    I can’t see what’s wrong with this. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Should they have Hitler sing “all you need is love” and the SS give out ice-cream to little children instead?

  • Marty Keller

    Or, on the other hand, perhaps it’s just harder to get attention in our standards-free, anything-goes culture.

  • Kavanna

    What were they thinking?

    Mel Brooks was tasteless, but funny. This is tasteless, and not funny.

    As “Downfall” showed, the Germans can do serious period pieces on the Third Reich, as hard as it may be for Germans (still) to cope with it.

    It’s going to take more decades of such seriousness before such a healed wound can be manhandled.

  • Tom Chambers

    It is one of the contradictions of music-theater, that the music lives on basically intact whereas the theater is always being reinvented. In the 17th century the social role of opera was to reflect the virtue of the aristocracy. In the 19th century operatic plots had to get past the state censor. Today, opera must be provocative in order to be socially relevant. I suppose this is a healthy development, but the danger is that us fuddy-duddies who just want to hear Wagner will refuse to partake: we can stay at home and listen to the CD.

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