DP's Blog: Lohengrin

Posted on Fri, 2013-05-10 16:55 by David Pountney

I am very excited by the prospects for our new Lohengrin, firstly because Lothar Koenigs, our excellent Music Director, is passionate about the music of this symphony for a German revolution, and secondly because, if all remains on course as we devoutly pray, it has a superb cast with a strong element, as there should be for a company like WNO, of the home grown. That is quite an advantage given that its proximity to Wagner’s actual birthday on May 22 (Lohengrin opens on May 23) means that it is in competition with an avalanche of celebratory Wagner going on all over the world.

One performance with which Lohengrin will not be in competition now is the production of Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf which has just been cancelled after protests that the Nazi/Holocaust interpretation and its execution caused some members of the audience to be physically ill. There have been some very surprising statements by the theatre management, almost seeming to apologise for the fact that their production has had a visceral effect on the audience, which up to a point you might think was the idea of a theatrical event. Perhaps a certain line has been crossed.

The story will no doubt feed the anxiety of some members of many audiences about what might await them on stage in the plethora of productions marking Wagner’s anniversary. Wagner was himself in all senses an extremist – musically, dramatically and personally – and his art invites extreme responses from fanatical adoration to hatred. He was also undoubtedly anti-Semitic, and a revolutionary nationalist, and with historical hindsight this combination obviously takes on an unsavoury whiff of Fascism, particularly as the Fascists subsequently exploited this connection. However, throughout the 19th century, nationalism meant not national aggrandisation, in the Hitler sense of “Lebensraum”, but national liberation. This left-liberal brand of nationalism seems strange to us now, but essentially the decision by Wagner to go back to German mythology for his subject matter was made with the same intent that the German speaking Smetana chose to set Czech subjects, or the Russian “Mighty Handful” were steered by their “dramaturg” Stassov to go back to Russian history and mythology. As every Welshman will understand, the assertion of identity through language and mythology is one of the essential building blocks of national consciousness, and the aim of the 1840’s revolutions, in which Wagner enthusiastically took part, was to create national unity under the banner of democracy and free speech, and wrest power away from the repressive cluster of princes, bishops and kings who ruled the many small principalities that made up 19th century Germany.  

We actually had a fascinating debate with Antony McDonald, the director of Lohengrin, about the period setting of the production. The story of Lohengrin clearly takes place amidst the background of war, and Antony’s first instinct had been to set it, costume-wise, in the immediate aftermath of WW2. Lothar however passionately argued that this, whilst not directly evoking Fascism, was too close to doing so, and that this would distract from the essential meaning of Lohengrin, which ultimately carries the humanitarian democratic message that a man must be recognized for what he is, not for his origins. Lohengrin forbids questions about his origins – postulating a new revolutionary order in which heredity and descent have no place. Antony was gracious enough to accept Lothar’s arguments, and so the production will be costumed in the era of the revolutionary 1840s. It is important for reasons of artistic integrity that one can relate Lohengrin to its place in German history without automatically referring to what happened 100 years later.

So whilst our audience will be relieved to find that there are NO Swastikas in our Lohengrin, what about the case of Düsseldorf, which must have acquiesced in the planning of a production of Tannhäuser that did cite the holocaust in very explicit ways, and yet seem surprised and even apologetic that this has caused offence? I cannot comment on any specifics, because I have not seen the production, but even if we assume it was carried out brilliantly, there are certain issues of principle which can be observed. One is that the automatic, knee-jerk association of Wagner with Fascism is a cliché that has already been overworked. Furthermore, it is evident that the subject matter of Tannhäuser is something quite different, so that if the inevitably and rightly dominating issue of the Holocaust is introduced into a performance of Tannhäuser, the impact must be to elevate an historical side-effect of Wagner’s music to the central overwhelming theme. This is bound to be, in some senses, a distortion, unless you believe, as some Israelis evidently do, that any performance of Wagner is impossible without raising the spectre of Fascism. If you believe that, which I don’t, then the decision of the Israelis to ban Wagner altogether is more logical than introducing distortionary compensations into performances of his works. Finally, I think one has to urge extreme caution on anyone who now wishes to “cite” the holocaust in films, books, or indeed opera productions. Are they not thereby simply “buying in” a certain emotional and historical significance, just by quoting the well-known images and procedures – a significance possibly not otherwise so readily and instantly available via a well thought out novel, film or indeed production of Tannhäuser?      
Perhaps the little theatre in Karlsruhe has the truly honest answer to this question. On May 18th, they will not present the premiere of a work by Wagner, but the German premiere of Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger”. This is a work which does deal with the Holocaust very directly, parts of it taking place in Auschwitz itself, but the authors of this work were of that time – Weinberg fleeing the Nazis into the Soviet Union and losing his entire family, and the author of the original book, Zofia Posmych, who is still alive today, herself surviving 3 years in Auschwitz. Even so, when the work received its British premiere at ENO, some people, even the Jewish Chronicle, suggested that the authors had no right to make an opera of this subject. That is an opinion that I vehemently reject, as it is in effect an attempt to impose silence on those witnesses who were directly involved, and have every right to express their painfully gained understanding of the issues in a work of art. If an opera is not able to engage with the ultimately serious issues of history, society and politics what on earth is any kind of artistic perception for? But if even the right of people like Posmych and Weinberg to address this issue raises questions, how much more questionable must it be now, 70 years after the event, to reference these issues not in the inherent content of a work of art, but in the apparatus of an opera production. I salute the integrity of the theatre in Karlsruhe for presenting a real work of art which confronts these issues, not a production which may appear to exploit them cosmetically, but with every respect to them for their initiative, I do regret that this important work was not showcased for its German premiere in a more prominent house. In terms of acknowledging its artistic and historical responsibilities, Berlin turns out to be the backwater, and Karlsruhe the capital!