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Music

Nixed 'Tannhäuser' - a blow to artistic freedom?

The latest production of Richard Wagner's opera "Tannhäuser" in Dusseldorf's Deutsche Oper am Rhein has unleashed a scandal. The opera's violent scenes led to its cancellation - and to questions about artistic freedom.

A scene from Düsseldorf's Tannhäuser production
(c) Hans Jörg Michel

A scene from Düsseldorf's "Tannhäuser" production

Emotions boiled with boos resounding at the premiere on Saturday (04.05.2013). Director Burkhard Kosminski surely knew his take on Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" would provoke audiences, but even he seemed taken aback by the outrage at his production, which sets the story during the Third Reich and depicts on stage horrors committed by Nazis, including the use of gas chambers and pistol executions.

In light of the scandal, the directors at Dusseldorf's Deutsche Oper am Rhein opera house cancelled further productions of Ksominski's take on "Tannhäuser." Thursday's performance was concertante, without set, scene or action.

Brutality on stage

Theater scandals are nearly as old as theater itself, and audiences seldom welcome representations of cruelty and brutality. One may think of the scandal unleashed at the debut of Igor Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" a century ago in Paris. The stage aesthetics then - more insinuated than explicit - have long since been replaced by realism and graphic violence. Tilman Knabe's production of Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah" in 2009 at the Cologne Opera included execution and rape scenes.

A stage scene in Cologne from a 2009 production of Samson et Dalila
(c) Klaus Lefebvre

Sex and violence were also on stage in Cologne in a 2009 production of "Samson et Dalila"

Coping strategies

At the time, members of the opera's choir and some soloists also protested the production, citing the psychological strain of taking in the scenes involving huge masses of people.

The reaction among some audience members in Dusseldorf was similar. Following the "Tannhäuser" premiere, some sought medical treatment.

While it would be impractical to contact doctors and pharmacists or opera organizers and directors before each production one attends, guests can get a feel for a certain show in advance by attending introductory sessions or reading program brochures. After all, favorite operas seldom make it to stage these days in the same fashion in which one got to know them in the first place.

'A kind of censorship'

Given that 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth, many seem to be taking up the topic of his anti-Semitism and the appropriation of his work after 1933. It is unsurprising, then, that provocative works like Kosminski's "Tannhäuser" production are the result.

The director was dismayed by the production's cancellation, issuing a pointed statement about his intentions.

"I want to make it clear that I have never sought to use the horrible crimes under National Socialism as an end in itself nor as a cheap means of provocation," he said, adding criticism of Dusseldorf's opera management for committing "a kind of censorship."

A scene from Patrice Chereau's Ring production
(c) ullstein bild

A scandal at the time, but today a legend: Patrice Chereau's "Ring" production

The stuff of legends?

Dusseldorf's "Tannhäuser" scandal shows once again how problematic the relationship between artistic freedom and the reception by audiences or opera managers can be. In recent years, only one other controversial production has been cancelled outright. In 2006, Berlin's Deutsche Oper put an end to Hans Neuenfels' production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" due to fears of Muslim protests over the depiction of the prophet Mohammed's severed head.

But in the past, scandal-filled productions have also gone on to become classics, including Patrice Chereau's staging of Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" at Bayreuth in 1976. Whether Kosminski's "Tannhäuser" in Dusseldorf can live up to that standard is an open question. And as it stands now, further audiences won't have the chance to find out.

A scene from a Berlin production of Mozart's Idomeneo in 2006
(c) Claudia Esch-Kenkel dpa/lbn

Berlin's Deutsche Oper cancelled a controversial production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" in 2006

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