Who Thought A Nazi Opera Was A Good Idea?

STORY BY Candace Bryan

Published: May 13, 2013

In a story I can only believe because I generally trust the news reported on BBC, a Nazi-themed opera playing in Dusseldorf has officially been cancelled. The real news is that anyone ever thought it was a good idea.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of famed German-opera composer Wagner, the Rheinoper company decided to put on one of his most acclaimed operas, Tannhauser. However, the interpretation of the opera went in a very different direction from its original romantic roots. Whereas the opera (written in the 1840s) is originally based on German folk legends from the 13th century, and features Venus the goddess of love with a cast of other characters, this modern Tannhauser rendition was all about Nazis.
Not only did it feature Nazis, but the staging was extremely graphic. At one point in the opera, a Jewish family was shown having their heads shaved and then getting shot. One scene showed a group of singers falling behind glass while getting enveloped in a “fog” (that was a clear allusion to the horrifying gas chambers of the Holocaust). There were also many rapes and executions.
Since its opening last Saturday, the production of Tannhauser has been less than a hit. The whole affair has been described as “tasteless and unnecessarily provocative.” The public outrage has manifested itself in more than one way, including leaving early, loud booing, and shock so great that medical assistance was required (on more than one occasion). Despite complaints and protests, the show and its artistic director refused to alter its vision. So instead, it has been cancelled.
The leaders of the Rheinoper were not so naïve as to think their show wouldn’t be controversial, but they do claim that the level of reaction was far worse than they could have imagined. And I almost don’t blame them: movies much more horrifying and graphic than a stage production could be have been made about Nazi Germany. However,  Tannhauser is already a famous opera that has nothing at all to do with the Holocaust. And whereas movies usually manage to seem more realistic than plays, perhaps because the subject matter is so real to the German people, seeing the violence acted before their eyes was more horrific than the opera’s directors imagined. It can’t help that the composer Wagner was Hitler’s favorite, and that he was a known anti-Semite.
Whatever the exact reason for people’s outrage may be, I think everyone can agree it’s probably for the best that the production was closed. Freedom of artistic expression is one thing, but when what you depict hospitalizes people with shock, you might want to rethink what you’re doing.
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