Spiegel online: 'The Decision To Play Wagner in Bayreuth Was Unanimous'

'The Decision To Play Wagner in Bayreuth Was Unanimous'

The Israel Chamber Orchestra plans to play music by Richard Wagner, the composer revered by Hitler, during the annual Wagner Festival in Bayreuth next year. The move is controversial in Israel, where the composer's work has been shunned for decades.

The music of Richard Wagner, Hitler's favorite composer, is hated in Israel and has been unofficially banned there for decades. But the Jewish Austrian conductor Roberto Paternostro, the musical director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, is breaking new ground with a plan to perform Wagner's Siegfried Idyll along with works by the Jewish composers Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn and a contemporary Israeli composer next year in a public hall in Bayreuth on July 26, 2011, one day after the annual Wagner opera festival opens there.

"I realize that parts of Richard Wagner's weltanschauung and Bayreuth's relationship to the Nazi regime can neither be justified nor whitewashed," Paternostro said in a statement. "Yet I am convinced that it is possible to convey the musical significance of Wagner in a new and sophisticated way to the generation which is now coming of age without having to ignore the burdens or historic responsibility."

Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-grandaughter who is co-director of the annual festival, said Paternostro had approached her and the city of Bayreuth with the idea and that she had agreed to be its patron. "I think it is an important and forward-looking signal that this venerable and excellent orchestra will hold a concert so near the opening of the Bayreuth Festival," she said in a statement on Tuesday.

'Attempts to Play Wagner in Israel Have Failed'

Katharina Wagner cancelled a trip to Israel scheduled for this week to announce the concert following criticism of the plan in the Israeli media. Many Israelis associate Wagner and his works with Germany's murder of 6 million Jews during World War II.

"I come from a family which was not spared painful suffering in the Holocaust and thus realize the sensitivity of the issue, particularly in Israel," Paternostro said in his statement. "I respect the attitude of those who still associate Wagner's music with horrible memories and therefore reject it."

"The few attempts previously made to play Wagner's music in Israel have failed," he said. "But the mission must be to forge new paths -- carefully -- and perhaps in the near future it will be possible to break the ice."

The mayor of Bayreuth, Michael Hohl, said on Tuesday that the Bavarian city had faced up to its past association with Hitler and that the Israeli orchestra's decision to play a work by Wagner was a "late, symbolic victory of tolerance, art and culture over barbarism and dictatorship."

"The special role Bayreuth and Wagner played in the ideology of the Nazi dictatorship is unforgotten to this day and cannot remain unmentioned with a view to such a cultural event. The city liked to be celebrated as 'power center' of National Socialism and welcomed the leaders and their close circle as regular festival visitors."

SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Paternostro on Tuesday. He said that contrary to some media reports, there had never been a plan for the orchestra to play as part of the Bayreuth Festival. Although the performance will coincide with the popular German opera festival, it will not officially take place as part of it. Nevertheless, the timing and support offered by both Wagner and the city is symbolic.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are members of the orchestra free to choose whether they will take part in the concert?
Paternostro: Of course. If someone has a problem with this for personal reasons, no problem, they don't have to do it and can stay at home. But the whole orchestra was in favor of going ahead with this. Unanimously.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Isn't it too early for an Israeli orchestra to be playing Wagner when Holocaust survivors are still alive? Shouldn't you avoid playing out of respect for them?
Paternostro: This discussion has been going on for many years, but I think there are three aspects of decisive importance. Firstly, we're not playing it in Israel -- I respect that. Secondly, I am aware of what I am doing because in my family too there are Holocaust surviviors. My mother, grandparents and many surviving relatives went through it, some of them came back from Auschwitz alive, thank God. The third point is that I think this debate can have a positive effect. I want to focus on the new generation. In our orchestra we have many young musicians and I had many individual conversations with them. They said they want to play it, that Wagner is a big part of music history and that they want to deal with this issue.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Were you surprised by the reaction to your plan in Israel?
Paternostro: I was surprised by the strength of the reaction. But some of the Israeli media reaction was positive. I myself come from a family that lost 80 percent of its members in the Holocaust. There is a debate in Israel about this of course, and there are many people who are against this for personal reasons and I respect and accept that. But there also are many people who think this is a good thing.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will you go ahead with the concert even if criticism of it intensifies?
Paternostro: All I can say that as of today, Oct. 12, the orchestra, the management and I believe that this concert will go ahead.

Interview conducted by David Crossland
  • Spiegel online