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Wagner and the Nazis

In a drive toward openness, Wagner's descendants invite questions into the family's Nazi connections.

British tenor Christopher Ventris, center, performs as "Parsifal" during the rehearsal of the opera "Parsifal" by Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, southern Germany on July 16, 2008. (Julia Kellner/Reuters)

BAYREUTH, Germany — Richard Wagner would no doubt be pleased that music aficionados the world over still flock to the countryside of northern Bavaria to attend performances of “Parsifal,” the only opera he wrote specifically for the theater he built there and the final work he wrote in his lifetime. But it’s another question altogether whether he would approve of the current staging.

The composer’s seven-hour tale of transcendence and redemption — alone among his works, he labeled it not an opera, but a “Buehnenweihfestspiel,” or “a festival play for the consecration of the stage” — was first staged last year as an allegory for Germany’s wayward and yet-to-be resolved modern history. Whatever Wagner would have thought of it, Stephan Herheim’s creative direction is one of several recent correctives to an event that was long overdue for change.

For 130 years, so much has stayed the same at the annual Bayreuth Opera Festival. The audience still comprises a sampling of the world’s elite, who routinely wait more than a decade for festival tickets. The music is still obsessively devoted to Wagner — and only 10 of his operas, at that. The theater, well-maintained but unrenovated, still requires its visitors to endure wooden seats and stifling, uncirculated air. And the proceedings are still organized by the Wagner family: In September 2008, two of the composer’s great-grandchildren, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, were chosen to take over for their father, 90-year-old Wolfgang. But, this year’s festival gave indications that new impulses are finding their way to this small Bavarian city. Indeed, the new festival directors have shown a commitment to change: to experiments with staging, to a wider exposure of the festival’s music to the public and to a challenge of the long-standing taboo against discussing its unsavory relationship with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

“When I was growing up, I was repeatedly confronted with this topic, the Nazis,” Katharina Wagner told a press conference in June. She announced that she had invited independent historians to examine the complete family archives, much of which have previously been under lock-and-key. “No one in the family ever spoke about it. If my sister and I don’t ask the questions, who then will?”

Much of the notorious history is already on the record. The composer himself bears much of the blame for the cloud hanging over his reputation. His aesthetic theories expressed an aversion to Judaism and paved the way for the eventual appropriation of his work by the Nazis for their own ends.

But it was Wagner's daughter-in-law, the British-born Winifred, who in the 1920s cultivated what would become a long-standing friendship with a right-wing firebrand named Adolf Hitler. Even after Hitler came to power as Germany’s dictator, he continued to regularly visit the Wagner family in Bayreuth and patronize their work: He envisioned Wagner’s concert hall eventually serving as the basis for an empyreal Teutonic cultural temple. Some even suggest that Hitler and Winifred were lovers. What’s clear is that she didn’t hesitate to collaborate with the regime. The opera festival was one of the few independent cultural events that were sanctioned by the Third Reich.