Graffiti on Germany’s elite and its Mona Lisa
BAYREUTH, GERMANY — Privileged Richard Wagner fans converge here every summer to hear his operas and this year was the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. But the celebratory operas known as “The Ring” were turned into a political diatribe by a director who knew nothing about opera.
Why should anyone care about a controversy at this iconic event attended by Germany’s elite and outsiders? It’s interesting because it illustrates why Germany remains the world’s most reluctant superpower. Second in importance to the United States and China, the nation plays a background role in Europe and geopolitically. This is because it remains preoccupied with its past, its angst and its divisions.
In this respect, Germany may be like Wagner himself, talented but flawed, with a family decades after his death that collaborated with Hitler and allowed this Festival to become a propaganda tool for his evil ends.
To address the Wagner family’s misdeeds, this year organizers mounted a moving display about the firings and demotions of 23 Jewish artists and musicians during this era by the Festival management. Some died in death camps, but most escaped Germany.
But the biggest “political” statement was made by Frank Castorf who managed to say nothing new but to say nothing by sabotaging Wagner’s masterpiece “The Ring” at the Festival.
Strangely, he was hired despite having no opera experience. This was, in artistic terms, equivalent to letting loose a child with crayons and magic markers into a gallery full of masterpieces. Art critics internationally have pilloried Castorf’s version and in my hotel 20% of the guests checked out mid-way through the “Ring”, vowing to never return to Bayreuth’s Festival. And every performance has been aggressively booed.
Whatever his motivations, Castorf failed to add anything to Wagner’s already damning indictment in his operas about the flaws of human nature, danger of greed and power and how this will eventually bring the world to an end. It must be remembered that Wagner was an iconoclast and revolutionary who disdained capitalism and monarchies.
Castorf could not succeed because he is from the theater which is two-dimensional, embodying words and visual effects. Opera is three-dimensional and is about words (ideas and emotions), visual effects and, most importantly in Wagner’s case, the language of music.
The greatness of Wagner’s body of work — and the reason for his global stature — is that he elevated the musical scores from mere orchestral accompaniments to stories to complex tonal and rhythmic creations that evoke emotions and carry then enhance his narratives.
Unforgiveably, Castorf managed to subsume every important and dramatic musical highlight by introducing distractions, videos, sleazy characters or gratuitous violence and sexuality. He also altered plots and actions by characters.
Clearly, the 200th anniversary has missed the mark. This new “Ring” did not advance or resolve the German national conversation. Castorf simply snubbed his nose at German culture and Wagner fans, then damaged one of the world’s greatest works of art by turning its allegory into a soap opera series and reducing its music to background noise.