WNO's Artistic Director Discuses: Lohengrin, Fascism and Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 13 May 2013 | 4:01:00 pm

In his typically erudite manner, Welsh National Opera's David Pountney discusses the process that went into the creation their new production of Lohengrin, Wagner, fascism and the recent events in Dusseldorf.

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. 

Continue reading at his blog at WNO. Recommended