Bayreuth’s Nazi Past Resurfaces in Exhibition, Casting Choices

Franz-Josef Selig and Samuel Youn
Franz-Josef Selig (left) sings Daland and Samuel Youn as the Dutchman in Bayreuth Festival's production of ``The Flying Dutchman.'' The opera opened this year's event on July 25. Source: Copyright Bayreuther Festspiele. photographer: Enrico Nawrath via Bloomberg.

Jewish musicians who were persecuted, exiled, deported and in some cases, murdered, are remembered in an exhibition called “Verstummte Stimmen” (Silenced Voices) at the Bayreuth Festival this year.

The biographies of 53 musicians who performed at Bayreuth before World War II -- and there are many who were barred -- are described on boards in the festival theater park, where visitors in shimmering gowns and dinner suits lingered to read them during the long intervals of “Tristan and Isolde.”

“Silenced Voices” is a traveling exhibition that has been on the road since 2006, with stops in Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden. Yet nowhere does it resonate as much as in Bayreuth, the last venue. Recent developments -- the sudden departure of a baritone because of a swastika tattoo -- remind us of that.

Richard Wagner, who founded the festival in his purpose-built Bayreuth theater, wrote in a racist essay that Jews were contributing to the “decay” of German culture. His wife Cosima, who led the festival after his death, had a policy of not casting Jews unless absolutely unavoidable.

In practice, that meant Jews were employed only in “demonic” roles -- such as the dwarf Alberich in the “Ring” cycle -- or when there was no alternative. Cosima’s son Siegfried, who took over as director of the festival in 1907, perpetuated his mother’s anti-Semitic casting policies.

Singing Idols

Some Jewish singers were such public idols that Bayreuth couldn’t afford to ignore them -- Friedrich Schorr, for example, considered by many the best Wagner baritone of the 20th century.

Schorr sang Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring” at Bayreuth from 1925 to 1931. His participation prompted Adolf Hitler to cancel his visit to Bayreuth in 1927. Winifred Wagner, Siegfried’s British wife and a close friend of Hitler, recalled the Nazi leader saying it was unbearable that “a member of the race that is destroying us politically, morally and artistically” should take the role of the king of the Germanic gods.

The baritone escaped to the U.S. in 1938, where he notched up 356 performances at the New York Met.

Not all the singers were so fortunate: Henriette Gottlieb, a soprano who sang at Bayreuth from 1927 to 1930, died in the ghetto at Lodz in 1942.

Dark Legacy

The Bayreuth Festival is still struggling with its dark legacy, perhaps not surprisingly, given that the same family has been in charge since the 19th century.

In a sign of how sensitive the past remains, the Russian bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin, scheduled to sing the title role in a new production of “The Flying Dutchman,” bowed out four days before the premiere in an uproar over the swastika tattoo he had done on his chest as a teenager in a heavy metal band.

He has since covered it over with a star design, yet felt compelled to drop out of Bayreuth after German television showed archive footage of him playing the drums, bare-torsoed.

In a statement published on the Bayreuth Festival website, Nikitin said he regretted the taboo tattoo. “I was not aware of the extent to which these signs and symbols can cause confusion and offense, particularly in the context of Bayreuth and the history of the festival,” he said.

The current directors of the festival, Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, were keen to stress at a news conference before the premiere that the decision was Nikitin’s alone. It was clear they hadn’t done much to persuade him to stay. When Wagner-Pasquier was asked whether he would be invited to sing in Bayreuth on a future occasion, she declined to respond.

Youthful Errors

It seemed disingenuous to attribute sole responsibility for the sudden departure to Nikitin. After all, he is not canceling engagements in Munich and New York, and no one is suggesting he should. This unfortunate incident had everything to do with Bayreuth and little to do with Nikitin’s youthful errors.

There have been plenty of attempts to confront Bayreuth’s Nazi past on stage: director Stefan Herheim’s “Parsifal,” showing six times this festival, has swastika banners and goose-stepping SS officers.

Yet the Wagner family could take further practical steps to help address past wrongs, said Hannes Heer, the curator of “Silenced Voices.” While it was a “major gesture” to allow the exhibition on the festival theater grounds, Heer said he would have liked better access to the family archives.

Permanent Home

Katharina Wagner told the pre-opening news conference that she would support a permanent home in Bayreuth for the exhibition, which she deems important, though she said it would be a decision for the town authorities. She and her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier have handed over all the documents they own -- the files of their father, Wolfgang Wagner -- to two historians, she said.

These are not the most interesting and historically important of the family documents, Heer said in an interview at a cafe on Bayreuth’s market square.

The archives of Siegfried Wagner and his wife Winifred -- who remained an admirer of Hitler until her death in 1980 -- are in the hands of a separate branch of the family which refuses to unlock them for research, the historian said.

“They argue that these are private family files,” Heer said. “But this is German history.”

“Silenced Voices: The Expulsion of the Jews From the Opera, 1933-1945” is at the Bayreuth Festival and the Neues Rathaus (Bayreuth town hall) through Oct. 14.

The Bayreuth Festival runs through Aug. 28. For more information, see

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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