German soprano Annette Dasch performs as Elsa von Brabant during the rehearsal of the opera 'Lohengrin' by Richard Wagner in Bayreuth in this 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle/Files
Former German infantryman Hans Himsel lived through scenes in
1944 at the Bayreuth opera house worthy of the finale of
Richard Wagner's "Gotterdammerung" when Valhalla goes up in
In this bicentenary year of Wagner's birth, Himsel, 90,
recalled the last wartime production at Bayreuth. It was
August 9, 1944 and the cast performed "Die Meistersinger von
Nurnberg", which contains the command "honour your German
masters". The Nazis had turned the piece into a propaganda
Although malnutrition was rampant, and Paris was to be
liberated two weeks later, Himsel, a butcher's apprentice who
was wounded five times and survived the Russian front, said
for the last performance the backstage and catering crews
were feted with a band, half a duck each and all the wine
they could drink.
Adolf Hitler considered Wagner his favourite composer.
History's problem, compounded by Wagner's virulent
anti-Semitism, has been disentangling the two.
"We danced at the feast while the soldiers died," Himsel said
in an interview at a Bayreuth restaurant and hotel where
Wagner stayed when he was building his Bavarian opera house
in the late 19th century.
Hitler was a Bayreuth regular and kept it going during the
war by buying up tickets for soldiers to attend. Hitler's use
of Bayreuth for propaganda purposes, rivaled only by his
manipulation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, resonates still.
"Of course Wagner's reputation is terrible, I understand why
people have the feelings they do about his music," American
soprano Deborah Voigt, who sings Wagner's "Ring" cycle
heroine Brunnhilde, said in a telephone interview from
"It's odd to me because as someone who is spiritual, and has
a lot of faith, it feels like the music he wrote was divinely
inspired and in such contrast to what his personal views
"Wagner is a genius, the sound is extraordinary," said
Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer, who runs a Wagner festival
in Budapest and is Jewish. "The music is not the person," he
added, saying what was important was "the intensity of
From Seattle to Australia, and across Europe, Wagner
compositions from the "Ring" with its Valkyrie cry
"hojotoho", to the romantic "Tristan und Isolde" which
provides the soundtrack for the world's end in Lars von
Trier's "Melancholia", draw audiences of all ages.
"It gives a higher feeling, you get goose bumps,"
artist-photographer Christopher Gemenig, 27, a stud in his
lower lip, said recently during the interval of Wagner's
swan-knight opera "Lohengrin" at the Dresden Semperoper.
Gemenig, and his companion Mia Mueller, whose flame-red hair
bolstered their resemblance to Wagner's doomed lovers Tristan
and the Irish princess Isolde, acknowledged that despite
Wagner having joined ranks with anarchists in a failed
revolution in mid-19th century Dresden, the taint of Hitler
"Hitler liked the music and all that Hitler likes is evil. I
think that's a curse of Wagner," said Gemenig, whose
favourite bit is the overture to "Gotterdammerung". "But I
think this is not a problem for me, and for many people it
also is not."
As they have every year since 1990, Germany's first couple,
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, quantum chemist
Joachim Sauer, will attend the summer festival at the
Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the opera house Wagner built with
money he borrowed from Bavarian King Ludwig II and never
"It never ends, it's so rich," Sauer, 63, said in a rare
interview with Reuters, speaking of the appeal of Wagner's
operas. "And they are all so very different."
These days Bayreuth is always sold out and has a waiting list
that can be as long as a decade.
A little way down the "Green Hill" from the opera house,
visible from the balcony of an annex built for Ludwig where
Hitler acknowledged the Nazi salute of the crowd in the plaza
below, is an outdoor exhibition called "Silenced Voices".
Adult-height placards display short biographies and the
smiles or serious gazes of singers, musicians, conductors and
stage directors who were progressively shunned by Bayreuth,
as the festival drew closer and closer to the Fuhrer.
Arranged in a multi-layered rectangle around a bust of Wagner
by Nazi-era sculptor Arno Breker, the placards furthest away
are for people who emigrated or somehow survived the war.
Those closest died in concentration camps and gas chambers.
"This Breker bust, it is the fascistic Wagner image and this
'Hitler Wagner' is surrounded by his victims," said Sven
Friedrich, director of the Richard Wagner Museum and National
He brushed aside suggestions the bicentenary may trigger a
debate about Germany's role in Europe. Merkel is a "trustful
person, she's not dangerous at all" and her presence "gives
this very bourgeois image to Bayreuth", he said.
Hitler, and Bayreuth's complicity in Nazi propaganda, is
"Everybody is conscious about the history, it is absolutely
necessary, we mustn't leave it," Friedrich said, speaking in
a room Hitler used when he visited.
"In Bayreuth you can learn the 'elysium' and the 'bestiarium'
of German history, both extremes...This is a very, very big
A STATUE, A SHADOW, IN HIS HOMETOWN
For his 200th, Wagner's hometown of Leipzig will get an
"anti-Breker bust" - a life-sized bronze statue of the
composer with a black shadow several times his diminutive
height looming behind him.
To be unveiled on the birthday, May 22, the 220,000-euro
($292,900) cost was raised privately and mostly from outside
Leipzig, said Markus Kaebisch, 44, a businessman who
spearheaded the effort.
He said Leipzig still has a "difficult" relationship with its
native son, in part because of the anti-Semitism and Hitler,
but also because Leipzig was host during their adult careers
to so many other musical greats, including Bach, converted
Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn - whom Wagner reviled - and
"It's never been a Wagner city," he said in a telephone
interview. "And I'm sure it won't be better after this year
Music critic Barry Millington, whose book "The Sorcerer of
Bayreuth" adds to a bibliography some say makes Wagner the
third most written-about person in history, after Jesus and
Napoleon, says there is no extricating him from his
"I'm attacked by the Wagnerians who think I am dragging him
through the mud...They want the Wagner experience to be in
this idea-free zone, they want to erect a firewall between
the music and the ideology and you can't. Wagner's music is
rooted in the ideology. That for me is what makes it
fascinating," the British author said.
Wagner's infamous 1850 essay "Judaism in Music", published at
first under a pen name and some 20 years later under his own,
took vile swipes at contemporary Jewish opera composer
Giacomo Meyerbeer and the converted Mendelssohn, depicting
them and other Jews as "a swarming colony of maggots"
feasting on the carcass of German culture. The rants
continued unabated right up to Wagner's death in a Venice
palazzo in 1883.
"Anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of the music of
Wagner," Millington said.
Another view comes from Hamburg-based author Joachim Kohler,
one of whose books, called "Wagner's Hitler, The Prophet and
His Disciple" in English, struck a raw nerve with Wagnerians.
Kohler, in an interview in his flat, said he had changed his
opinion and now saw Wagner's anti-Semitism as an adjunct of
his artistic mind, not as a scenario for which Hitler and the
Holocaust were the inevitable last act.
"Yes, I made a mistake...so I revised and I came to the
conclusion that Wagner's anti-Semitism was not political, it
was theatrical," Kohler said.
"And the proof that he had not deep-rooted anti-Semitism
against people, it was just an idea against people, is that
he had so many Jewish friends." One of them, Kohler said, was
the impresario Angelo Neumann whom Wagner, sick with the
expense and trouble of the place, wished would buy Bayreuth.
Kohler's latest book, entitled "The Laughing Wagner" in
German, paints an altogether different picture of Wagner from
the grim anti-Semite. Wagner, who stood just over 168 cm, or
5-1/2 feet tall, enjoyed cracking jokes and stood on his head
when welcoming the visiting Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil to
Bayreuth for the festival's opening in 1876.
"He was a real entertainer, like a Las Vegas entertainer,"
Kohler said, adding that Wagner's "genius gave him not a
multiple personality because the different personalities knew
of each other, but I would say he had multiple identities.
"There were really opposites in him that can't be easily
reconciled because they are opposites."
NOT BAD FOR BUSINESS
Some of those personality traits have been passed down from
generation to generation in the famously feuding Wagner clan,
and all its branches, whose lives read like a soap opera that
regularly commands the attention of the German and world
Power struggles over who would control the festival, and the
Wagner legacy, have pitted mother against children, children
against siblings and different branches of the clan against
each other. The German state and the town of Bayreuth now run
it, with family members sitting on the board of directors and
having artistic control.
One great grandson coaxed the then-septuagenarian Winifred
Wagner, the English-born widow of Wagner's son Siegfried,
into revealing her affection for Hitler to a filmmaker in the
1970s: "If Hitler were to walk in through that door now, for
instance, I'd be as happy and glad to see and have him here
In their way the family machinations, and the concern of some
Wagner researchers, among them Millington, that important
correspondence between Winifred and Hitler is mouldering away
under lock and key in a Munich bank vault, out of public
view, are a good public relations gimmick, archivist
The documents in the vault have been "Fafnerised", he said,
referring to the dragon in the "Ring" who sits on his hoard
of gold stolen from the Rhine maidens, including the accursed
ring that gives its wearer supreme power. It is all part of
what he called the "myth" that makes the family interesting.
Those myths, but particularly the ones Wagner fashioned out
of old Norse legends and other sources, some of them brought
to his attention by his Jewish friends and acquaintances, are
what draw audiences to the treasure trove of Wagner today.
American stage director Francesca Zambello said she had
reimagined Wagner's "Ring" cycle for a production that
focused on greed and power for Washington and on the
destruction of the environment when she tailored it for San
"I think Wagner's music feels contemporary...The themes, the
characters, the emotions, they resonate with a contemporary
audience. Wagner, more than any other composer, can be
interpreted in a variety of approaches because his works are
mythic and mythic can mean the past, the present and the
future," she said in a telephone interview.
And Wagner does have a future in the eyes of some of the
young people who will be around to mark his 250th birthday.
"I just know every opera from Wagner is very long but what I
know, what I hear, I like," Tomas Ottych, 32, of Brno, Czech
Republic, said, passing a plaque mounted on a wall in Leipzig
that marks the spot where Wagner's birth house stood in 1813.
Ottych, a ballet dancer who will perform in a production to
mark the bicentenary, said Wagner's anti-Semitism and
Hitler's fondness for him were beside the point.
"I mean, it's past, and his music is forever," he said.