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GERMAN OF THE WEEK

OPERA

‘I hate Wagner but I hate him on my knees’

Germany is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner on Wednesday. Probably the country's most revered and reviled composer, the man considered both a musical genius and an anti-Semite is The Local's German of the Week.

'I hate Wagner but I hate him on my knees'
Photo: DPA

Opera houses the world over are paying tribute to Wagner, who is often referred to as Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer, in his bicentennial year. The Met in New York, Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, the Bastille in Paris and Vienna State Opera have unveiled new stagings of Wagner’s opus magnum, the 16-hour-long, four-opera “Ring” cycle.

But for true Wagnerians, perhaps the main highlights of the year take place in Bayreuth, the small, sleepy town in Franconia where Wagner designed and built his Festspielhaus, and which remains the centre of the ardent cult around him.

The hallowed theatre with its incomparable acoustics usually only opens its doors for four weeks in the summer. On May 22nd, however, it will host Wagner’s 200th birthday concert, with German maestro Christian Thielemann conducting excerpts from his best-known operas.

As always with Wagner, the bicentenary celebrations are never far from controversy.

Wagner was born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813 and died in Venice on February 13, 1883, long before the rise of Nazism. But Hitler was an ardent admirer of his music, as well as a regular visitor to Bayreuth. And he became a close friend of the Wagner family, who affectionately called him “Uncle Wolf”.

Hitler claimed that it was one of Wagner’s early operas, about the Roman tribune “Rienzi”, which inspired him to begin thinking about a political career. The Nazis made prodigious use of Wagner’s music in their propaganda films and rallies, so much so that the composer’s works are still banned for performance in Israel.

Music scholars, historians, musicians and conductors still fiercely debate the extent to which Wagner’s musical and artistic legacy is impregnated with anti-Semitism, misogyny and proto-Nazi ideas of racial purity. In addition to his 13 completed operas, Wagner was a prolific writer and theorist, and among his most infamous publications is a virulently anti-Semitic pamphlet entitled “Judaism in Music.”

“I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees,” the legendary Jewish maestro Leonard Bernstein once said of Wagner, succinctly summing up the deep ambivalence many people tend to harbour towards him.

The bone of contention for his supporters and detractors alike is whether Wagner’s “Gesamtkunstwerk“, or total work of art, is innately apolitical, or whether he uses it to propagate his racist, anti-Semitic and nihilistic worldview.

In purely musical terms, Wagner’s achievements are undeniable.

His medieval love epic, “Tristan and Isolde” and his final stage work “Parsifal” broke the boundaries of tonality, influencing the work of a wealth of later composers including Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg. Wagner’s use of the orchestra, with exotic new instruments specially designed to his own demands, was similarly revolutionary.

But critics, such as the composer’s great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner, said the flawed man cannot and should not be separated from his art.

“There are terrific sides and dark sides” to Wagner, he said recently.

AFP/The Local/mry

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MUSIC

Dancing like there’s no Covid: first German nightclub reopens in Leipzig

For techno enthusiast Philipp Koegler, it almost felt like a normal Saturday night again as he joined 200 fellow revellers at "Distillery", the first German nightclub to reopen since the start of the pandemic.

Dancing like there's no Covid: first German nightclub reopens in Leipzig
A file photo of a disco ball in a night club. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Britta Pedersen

“Tonight, there are no rules,” the almost 30-year-old told AFP, whipping off his mask on his way to the dance floor.

Despite more than a year of closures forced by the coronavirus, it didn’t take long for the thumping beats, low lights and buzzing crowds to reawaken the much-missed club atmosphere.

“It feels like I’ve come back after being away on vacation for a week,” Koegler beamed.

But of course there are some rules to restarting the party, even in Germany where coronavirus infections have declined steadily in recent weeks as the pace of vaccinations has picked up.

The Distillery club in the eastern city of Leipzig, which bills itself as the oldest techno venue in Germany’s former Communist east, is taking part in a pilot project supported by scientists from the Max Planck institute and the local university hospital.

Just 200 club-goers are allowed in instead of the usual 600 and each person must take two different kinds of coronavirus tests earlier in the day, with entry granted only if they test negative both times.

Once inside, the masks can come off and revellers don’t have to socially distance.

Each participant also agrees to being re-tested a week later, to uncover potential infections despite the precautions taken.

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Organisers hope the project can serve as a blueprint for further club re-openings to help the hard-hit sector back on its feet after a devastating year.

Although several venues in Germany experimented with open-air parties, club-goer Konny said it “just isn’t the same”.

“In the club, you’re in a different world,” she said.

Growing influence

Distillery manager Steffen Kache expressed pride at being the first club in the country to reopen indoors.

“Everyone is jealous,” he told AFP.

Kache said that if there has been an upside to the pandemic closures, it was that politicians had woken up to the social and economic importance of Germany’s vibrant club culture.

Lawmakers last month agreed to reclassify nightclubs as cultural institutions rather than entertainment venues, putting them on a par with
theatres and museums to provide more protection and tax benefits.

Germany’s nightlife capital Berlin alone – home to iconic clubs Berghain, KitKat and Tresor – usually attracts tens of thousands of foreign visitors each year who generate over a billion euros in revenues.   

Many observers fear that when the pandemic dust has settled, not all of Germany’s clubs will have survived the lengthy shutdowns.

The collaboration with local authorities that made Distillery’s pilot project possible was “unthinkable before the crisis”, Kache said, and evidence of a “reconciliation” between underground club culture and the political establishment.

He said he hoped the next step would be “the nationwide reopening of cultural spots and clubs, without Covid restrictions”.

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