Outrage over Nazi-toned Wagner Tannhauser opera

A MODERN version of Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser opera has been cancelled in Germany after the opening-night audience complained about new scenes showing Jews being murdered and dying in gas chambers.
Burkhard Kosminskis cast in Tannhauser at the Rhine Opera House in Düsseldorf  some scenes shocked the audience. Picture: GettyBurkhard Kosminskis cast in Tannhauser at the Rhine Opera House in Düsseldorf  some scenes shocked the audience. Picture: Getty
Burkhard Kosminskis cast in Tannhauser at the Rhine Opera House in Düsseldorf  some scenes shocked the audience. Picture: Getty

A spokeswoman for Düsseldorf’s opera house yesterday said there would only be concert performances for the time being, without theatrical staging.

Monika Doll said producer Burkhard Kosminski had refused to tone down the disputed scenes, even though the Holocaust-related parts prompted several in the audience on Saturday to seek medical attention.

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Wagner remains a controversial figure in Germany because of his anti-Semitic views.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was an admirer, and playing Wagner’s music is still considered a taboo in Israel.

Tannhauser was first performed in Dresden in 1845.

Some guests to the opening performances last weekend needed medical treatment for trauma after leaving their £100 seats to head for the exits.

The opera was subsequently performed only as a concert after director Kosminski admitted “artistic reasons” meant controversial scenes will have to be cut before it can reopen as a full-scale production.

Thirty minutes into the premiere of the opera last Saturday night came the first boos from the audience, followed by several angry departures.

One of the Rhine Opera House’s doors was broken in the rush to get out, and media reports spoke of a “monstering” at the first night party afterwards for Kosminski over his decision to turn the main characters in the opera – traditionally a celebration of the legends of an early Middle Ages poet – into Nazi war criminals.

He said he wanted to “address” the anti-Semitic attitudes of composers such as Wagner.

In the classic version, the Tannhauser overture involves performers celebrating love and life on the slopes of the mythical Venus Mountain.

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In Kosminski’s version, the overture features performers trapped in a transparent gas chamber and Venus as a Nazi officer. At one point, the titular main character, depicted as one of the goddess’s SS henchmen, is forced to murder a family.

There were more gasps from the audience when a character called Elisabeth was raped by Tannhauser’s rival, Wolfram, and left bloodied and crying.

While there was sustained applause for the musical direction of Axel Kober, the producer earned jeers.

In one scene, a mother, father and daughter were led up by members of the Wehrmacht; their clothes were removed, their heads shaved and then they were shot.

Israel’s ambassador to Germany voiced his displeasure, and some left the theatre “bathed in sweat” according to a report in the online edition of the Rheinische Post.

Oded Horowitz, head of the Jewish community of North Rhine, said: “Survivors are likely to find the provocative handling of Nazi history in this Tannhauser production quite painful.”

While remembrance of Nazi crimes is important, he said, “a theatre scandal is not our preferred form of confronting the past”.

Last July, Russian opera singer Evgeny Nikitin was pressured to withdraw from Germany’s famous Bayreuth Opera Festival because of Nazi tattoos on his chest and arm.

He was supposed to sing the lead in The Flying Dutchman.

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At the Tannhauser first night party afterwards, normally sedate opera buffs hurled insults such as “nightmare” and “you have made a travesty of German culture” at Kosminski as he toyed with a cocktail.