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Bernd Weikl And Why You Should Simply Not Take It Anymore

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 7 October 2014 | 8:55:00 pm

Sarcasm and satire - dangerous tools. Not for the power their use may have when used well (although this too has its dangers), but if they are misunderstood by their audience. No more so then in 'Wagner studies' where, if one didn't know better, it is easy to assume that certain interpretations of Wagner's work and characters must surely be the work of a mischievous mind - or sometimes just a very strange one. After all, how else are we to accept interpretations by those that insist that Wagner meant Klingsor to represent a negative Jewish stereotype because, somehow, we are to equate Klingsor's self castration with Jewish circumcision!1

Indeed, so familiar are many of us with these bizarre interpretations being placed upon Wagner and his work that when world famous Wagner baritone Bernd Weikl recently published a book titled 'Why Richard Wagner needs to be banned in Germany', it was difficult for us not to sigh in exasperation and conclude the inevitable. This is especially so when, during a quick scan, he presents evidence from many commentators on Wagner's work - including opera directors and the media as well as Wagner academics - that 'prove' that Wagner's work is littered with antisemitic messages; using this to call for Wagner and his work to be banned in Germany under articles 130. and 131 of the German Criminal Code. And this despite the fact that Weikl had published a book just a year or so earlier 'acquitting' Wagner and his work from being responsible for the Third Reich and the Holocaust. After all, flip-flopping around ones assumptions about Wagner and his work is not unusual. Take Joachim Köhler, for example who has shifted his views from Wagner somehow influencing Hitler from beyond the grave to "Wagner was only joking all along. Of course he didn't mean it", "What a funny guy he really was".

And let us never forget that Wagner as the creator of Hitler; Wagner as antisemitic; Wagner as womanizer; Wagner as cross dresser; Wagner and his "terrible beliefs" - this Wagner sells and sells well. Indeed it always has. 'Good copy' in Wagner literature means controversy and more controversy. Wagner the self proclaimed, unembarrassed, social Utopian; Wagner the animal lover; Wagner who called for social equality; Wagner who called for freedom for all "men" (of any race); Wagner who called for the integration of the Jews into German society; Wagner who was generous - often overly and frequently disastrously so to his own finances; Wagner who formed the Wagner societies so that, in part, they would fund the attendance by some of the poorest in society to visit Bayreuth - sadly this (if sometimes inconsistent) Wagner 'doesn't sell' (oddly appropriate from a man whose most terrible political thought, to some minds, was a damning critique of capitalism). Indeed, and at the risk of sounding paranoid (and yet I have been presented with strong evidence over the years that would suggest just so), there are certain powerful forces within Wagnerism that would seem to be much happier for 'their' Wagner to be of the 'right' of the political spectrum than probably a truer place on the 'left'. And of course all of this controversy and reconstruction of Wagner's music and librettos, which adds to the casual label of "this terrible man and his wonderful art", means that his critique of capitalism and social inequalities can be dismissed along with everything else. But should this come as a surprise in a society in which our 'Wagnerian' Chancellor of the Exchequer today called charities "anti-business" and told business leaders to raise their heads “above the parapet” and fight back against those very charities? (What happened to your leader's "Big Society", George? Shouldn't everything be run by charities by now?). But I digress - and rant to be honest. I take a deep breath, wait for the usual -whenever things like this are mentioned- unliking on facebook and unfollowing on Twitter -  by followers of Ayn Rand and those that feel they really understand Nietzsche's thought. Oh and there goes another Tea Party member. Oh, well. Hang on a minute. A few more deep breaths and a nice cup of tea are needed...

Right. Back. Ignore the last few sentences - they have little, if anything, to do with our recent conversation with the more than sane and rational Bernd Weikl, to which we shall now return with haste. So, given Weikls's book, its title, its content, the reaction of many reviewers in Germany and the general trend in Wagner literature, we were more than pleased when Bernd got in contact with us to set the record straight. You see, a little like Peter Finch's character Howard Beale, in Sidney Lumet's satirical 'Network News', Bernd is "as mad as hell and isn't taking it anymore." (Click the link if you are unfamiliar with the reference). In brief, his argument is this:

Many, many Wagner academics - and many more 'pseudo-academics' - have analyzed Wagner's work and found, they tell us, his thought to be proto-Nazi, as too is his work. Worse, he litters his work with his fascist and antisemitic messages. The Ring, Parsifal and Meistersinger are filled with antisemitic caricatures - clear to his audience at the time and there for all to see. His message is clear in his work: Jews are evil, not to be trusted, responsible for all of the worlds ills and must be 'dealt with'. None of this can be doubted, It is 'proven fact'. In turn, this 'fact' is taken up by the media, who repeat it, ad nauseum. (Something I discussed last year)

Further directors, in Germany especially, of Wagner's work leap upon this interpretation with a rather unhealthy enthusiasm. There may be, Bernds points out, more Nazi symbolism in a typical German Wagner production today than one would have found at a Nazi rally during the 1940s. As he told us, "There is not a single day without Hitler and Nazi symbols on Germany's stages [in Wagner productions]. Its criminal". If you want to make a career in opera in Germany, he tells us, then make sure your Wagner production is littered with swastikas.

And thus we get to the point of his book: Weikl does not accept the 'evidence' that Alberich is a negative Jewish stereotype, or indeed any other character in any of Wagner's works. Equally, there is no underlying antisemitism in Wagner's work says Weikl, and as he discusses in his previous work. More importantly there is no evidence for it.  To use an example we, not Weikl, provided recently, Antonio Pappano and Keith Warner may happily say with confidence that there is simply no denying the antisemitic messages in the Ring and that this has been 'proven beyond doubt' - which can be happily broadcast on national television with no alternative viewpoints - but this, says Weikl is "nonsense" and indeed "criminal".

Indeed, the evidence is nothing more than poor academic reasoning - and worse - fantasy, or at best wild conjecture. If it was presented in a court of law, he argues, for example under articles 130. and 131 of the German Criminal Code as he calls for in his book, there would be no alternative but for the case to be dismissed. And if it was dismissed then advocates would have little alternative to admit it was simple theorizing. And for Weikl even more importantly it might finally put an end to the proliferation of what he describes as - and with which it is difficult to argue - filthy Nazi symbolism found on German stages using Wagner's work as an excuse. As he says, it would seem that due to this interpretation of Wagner's work, Hitler is more alive and well on Germany's opera stages then he ever was during his life. And to support this he sent us many newspaper cuttings of recent Wagner productions that prove his point. "There is not a single day without Hitler," he told us, "Should we laugh, or should we cry?" he asks, "Or should we get angry?", echoing Peter Finch's character. And angry he is. Publish a book, he tells us, with evidence that puts forward an alternative to what one writer on Wagner calls "The Wagner Nazi Conspiracy theory" and it is ignored, Not only by the media but often by many Wagner Societies and other such organisations and groups. Alternatively, publish a book within the existing Wagner paradigm and it is lauded as a 'masterpiece' and promoted without hesitation - no mater how bizarre its conclusions or clearly weak its 'evidence'.

And consider how many opera directors claim to dislike Wagner he told us, sending a number of interviews with high profile directors whose productions are indeed nazified deconstructions and reinventions of Wagner's thoughts. "Some state they even dislike Wagner's music" he notes pointing to an interview with the director of last year's Bayreuth Ring.

There is only one answer left to him, present all of the evidence of the 'prosecution' - from Theodor W. Adorno to Marc A. Weiner and everyone in between - to the courts. If they are correct then there can only be one outcome, to ban Wagner's work in Germany. This is the only logical conclusion he argues. But if they are deemed wrong or the evidence is insubstantial? Then there is little alternative but for authors to finally admit so. The case, he tells us, is far from proven. But even more importantly, he insists that the incidents of Nazi material and what he considers propaganda must be prevented from being given time on German opera stages.

He does regret perhaps, not adding a clearer introduction to his book to clarify his intent and the satirical nature of his work - something that will be rectified in a new English translation to be released shortly. Here he will suggest to readers it is not he who wishes to ban Wagner but that this will be done eventually by the  result of littering his stage work with Nazi symbols and unfounded allegations about the nature of his work.

While I was writing this, he sent us a mail regarding the scandal caused in Germany last year around the Düsseldorf Tannhäuser; the so called 'Nazi themed' Tannhauser that was forced to cancel, so upset and outraged were audience members. Something that we reported at the time. It brought back memories to Bernd of productions he had taken part in during a career that started in 1972. He loves Wagner, he reminded us. Try and think, he asked, what it felt like to perform Han Sachs when he knew certain people believed he was putting forward Nazi propaganda. He recalled one production of Tannhauser wherein he was forced to perform the Lied an den Abendstern while wearing a Nazi armband. A professional he may be, but a cold and distanced performer he isn't and cannot be. Can you imagine how that felt, he asked? And what about the audience?

As he had told us earlier, "There has to be an end to this horrible devastation being done upon our composer and his work. When we destroy all of  our culture we will end up with a right-wing waiting eagerly to fill this vacuum."

Ban Wagner in Germany? No! Ban productions that use Wagner as an excuse to saturate German stages with Nazi paraphernalia and propaganda? Yes! And Now! As Howard Beale told his audience, "Go out there and tell them, I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"


1 - It should also be noted that one of the earliest people to  make this link between castration and circumcision was Freud in 1919, adding it to the Oedipus complex and using it, in part, towards a psychoanalytical theory to explain antisemitism - long after Wagner was dead, never mind after writing Parsifal. There are nodoubt all sorts of reasons that Klingsor self castrated. For example, this vain attempt to circumnavigate the 'will' would be a familiar criticism of anyone from a Buddhist perspective.Even more interestingly, it could have its origins in Wagner's detailed knowledge of the early Church where self castration was used by some due to a miss-reading of Mathew. Indeed, it is interesting that one of the most famous figures of the yearly Church, Origen, was thought to have  castrated himself for this very reason. What is ironic is that his writings are considered to have lead to  the rise antisemitism in the early Church. However, in the odd world of Wagner studies such, more reasonable,  links are never considered.