07/29/2007 07:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Power to Shock

At just about the time that the international press erupted in a frenzy over Katharina Wagner's production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg at Bayreuth, I came upon the following comment, made well over a century ago, about performances at the Imperial Opera House:

"It would be impossible to name a single performance in which ends and means had been in thorough harmony: thus in which the lack of talent, the faulty training, or the unfit employment of individual singers; insufficient preparation, and consequent uncertainty of others; raw and spiritless delivery of the choruses, gross blunders in the staging; an almost total want of balance in the dramatic action, clumsy and senseless byplay on the part of the individuals; and finally, grave faults and negligences in the reading and rendering of the music itself, carelessness in its nuancing, want of harmony between the phrasing of the orchestra and that of the singers - had not made themselves felt somewhere or other in a more or less disturbing, and even an offensive manner."

The author of that comment, of course, was Richard Wagner himself (despite what is indisputably an awkward and stilted translation he gets the point across).

Most of the critics who reviewed the current Bayreuth Meistersinger have trashed it without mercy, and not a few have been downright mean-spirited in their commentary. Particular scorn has been heaped upon conductor Sebastian Weigle and Franz Hawlata's performance as Hans Sachs. But the focus has relentlessly been on Katharina Wagner, Richard Wagner's 29 year old great-granddaughter. Her directorial debut on The Green Hill is apparently seen as somehow crucial to her hopes of succeeding her 87 year old father Wolfgang Wagner as Bayreuth's Supreme Being.

I freely confess that I have no insight whatsoever into the Byzantine doings of The War of Bayreuth Succession, other than to remark that they make the doings of the fifteenth century Spanish Court look like "open covenants openly arrived at." It appears, however, that in order to take the reins at Bayreuth one must have directorial experience, which strikes me as a very odd job qualification indeed. Success as the administrator of an arts organization and success as an opera director depend on very different skills and talents.

All of this fascination with what is essentially a long running soap opera about one of Germany's most dysfunctional families is very curious and, to most of us, utterly inexplicable. Do remember that Richard Wagner has been dead since February 13, 1883. What is remarkable is that 124 years after his death, productions of his operas still have the power to shock, to arouse controversy, and to move audiences in the most profound way. It is quite possible that this whole international dust-up over Katharina Wagner's production is a round-about way of debating the ways in which Wagner productions are or are not:"acceptable." It is also possible that since Anna Nicole Smith is dead and Paris Hilton seems to be on her best behavior these days, the gossip-mongers and professional alarmists have little else to talk about. But I doubt it.