Bayreuth for Beginners III: Where Are the Spear-Toting Ladies in Helmets?

Susan Brodie, Toi Toi Toi
By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!

You’re not going to see anything like a traditional production on the Green Hill. On the contrary, the Festspiel has a reputation for hiring the most forward-looking stage directors in the business. In a mini press conference with critics during the second intermission of Sebastien Baumgarten’s controversial Tannhaüser, Eva Wagner-Pasquier declared, “We should be an example for the world in the interpretation. Of course, tradition is very good, but if you say a ‘new tradition’ it has to be always a little bit further than other places, and that’s what it is…always, since ’51.”

That was the year Bayreuth reopened after the Second World War, and Wolfgang Wagner was eager to renew the Festival’s tarnished reputation by breaking with the previous generation. The groundbreaking 100th anniversary Ring Cycle staged by Patrice Chéreau in 1976 initially shocked and enraged the public, but it is now regarded as the standard for updated productions, and many of its then-revolutionary tropes remain current in the 21st century. According to Katarina Wagner, “When you now see a Chéreau Ring, from the point of view of now it’s…not [as] strong like it was, you know, and that’s the point, of course. Probably if you see something now like Tannhaüser it’s stronger, it seems to be stronger but it isn’t in reality, because you have to compare the times. It’s more or less the same.

In anticipation of the Bayreuth experience, last season I made a point of seeing as many so-called regie (director-driven) productions in Europe as possible. I realize that this is like trying out a few new restaurants as preparation for judging an episode of Top Chef, but the range of contemporary opera productions is too vast to cover all the bases in a single season. Yet as an American opera-goer I found it revealing to experience work by Bayreuth directors Gloger, Herheim, and Warlikowski, among other theater artists working from a post-war sensibility that pervades the European psyche and particularly informs Bayreuth’s artistic vision. And finally the penny dropped: to paraphrase a former president, It’s the War, Stupid.

I can’t stress this enough: the dominant theme in European theater, including opera, since the second half of the 20th century remains World War II. Given the impact and ramifications of such a catastrophic event, it’s hardly surprising that, even almost 70 years after ending, it continues to color the collective European consciousness. Speaking only of Paris, reminders of the Occupation and conflict are everywhere. Seats on public transport are still reserved for mutilés de guerre (disabled veterans), and in every street, buildings carry plaques commemorating the arrest or assassination of a Resistance fighter. School buildings list the names of children deported, and monuments in churches and parks and cemeteries bear witness to the many fallen. Not so in the U.S.  After the bombing of far-off Pearl Harbor, most Americans simply tightened their belts, bought War Bonds, planted Victory Gardens, prayed for the safety of their sons–who tended never to talk about the war afterwards–and otherwise largely waited out the four years of U.S. involvement. As a bonus, the war machine provided a desperately needed economic boost that ended the Great Depression. Today war commemorations are mostly limited to a few holidays, a few monuments. American veterans return to Normandy to remember.

In Europe the was close, personal, and omnipresent. The threat began to emerge before the actual war, in the 1930s, and the conflict and occupation cut a wide and inescapable swath of privation, destruction and death that Americans at home never experienced first hand. Afterwards, while Yanks welcomed home their heroes and enjoyed a generation of unrivaled prosperity and optimism, Europe were suffering an extended and austere period of reconstruction and healing, something of an existential DMZ. In France the first movies about the war (The Last Metro, Lacombe, Lucien) LINKS didn’t come out until the 1970s. Even today the soul searching continues, via literature, exhibits, and the lively arts, including opera. Gunther Krämer’s current Ring and Olivier Py’s recent Mathis der Mahler at Opéra de Paris incorporate Nazi imagery, and at Oper Frankfurt Axel Corti’s Traviata is updated to Paris during the Occupation.

Today, three generations after the end of conflict, younger directors are more likely to address more contemporary ills like the dehumanizing effect of corporate culture, the despoiling of the environment, and the many forms of social injustice. Yet the loss of innocence engendered by an extended war in one’s back yard continues to inform the psychic DNA of Europe, much as the American South still remembers the Civil War. As a New Yorker who who was present on 9/11, I imagine that the pervasive dread experienced in the weeks after the World Trade Center attack gave a taste of life under siege. While the dark mood around 9/11 eventually receded, the experience was a sobering eye-opener for a first-generation American whose mother came of age during the Occupation.

Four of this year’s five Bayreuth productions refer directly or obliquely to World War II. In the next post I’ll begin with The Flying Dutchman, the first seen and the least war-referential.