I had arranged to meet Mausi at the stage door shortly before Parsifal began, so she could slip me into the auditorium. First, however, I needed some lunch. I rushed into a small Wursthaus and hurriedly ordered my meal. In fragmentary German, I asked for what I thought would be a filling plate of goulash only to discover it was goulash soup, with hardly any meat or vegetables. A small beer ordered to go with it turned out to be a gigantic tankard containing at least a full liter. The proper German words to correct the mistake eluded me. Slurping down soup and beer, I swiftly settled the bill.
The sun slammed down as I raced up the hill to the Festspielhaus and it wasn’t long before I’d sweated through my white dress shirt and blue linen suit. I could feel oceans of beer and soup sloshing around inside me. My head got lighter and lighter and I soon realized that the drink had gone to my head. No time to worry about that, it was nearly three. Mausi would be annoyed.
Mausi, aka Friedelind Wagner, was the “good” Wagner grandchild, the only member of her large immediate family who didn’t cozy up to Adolf Hitler and revel in his patronage. In fact, she was so revolted by her family’s racist friend that she fled Germany in 1939 and became an American citizen. After the war, Mausi’s New York friends assumed that the American Army, which occupied Bayreuth, would take the festival away from her Hitler-loving relatives and present it to her.
Not so fast. Though American officials did indeed remove Mausi’s mother from the festival directorship, they turned it over to her two brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang, even though they were also part of the Nazi elite. Mausi was forced to content herself with running the Bayreuth Master Classes- a free-wheeling program for operatic hopefuls, of which she was the sole organizer and proprietor.
It was probably my parent’s friendship with Mausi that prompted her to invite me to join this project without even an interview. If I arrived a day early, she promised to sneak me into a performance of Parsifal– a production that had made her brother Wieland world-famous. This was another exceptional opportunity. All I had to do was get there in time.
I ran the last stretch of the way and burst into the backstage reception room, panting hard and swimming in sweat. Mausi was standing by the door, a square battleship of a women clearly none too pleased at my lateness. Even from a distance, her resemblance to her grandfather was startling, if not downright eerie- the clear penetrating blue eyes, the prominent hawklike nose, the broad noble forehead, the abundant shoulder length hair. It was hard not to think of her as Richard Wagner in drag.
“You nearly missed the curtain,” she said curtly. “They lock the doors once it goes up and after that, no one can enter, not even me.” I felt suitably chastised as we rushed through the empty lobby and up a few flights of stairs at the front of the theater.
Mausi shouted at an usher just about to lock a broad unmarked door. “Hallo, Leonie, not so fast!” The young woman hastily stood back as Mausi shoved me into a broad box in the exact center of the auditorium. Some of its elderly occupants swiveled around and glared, as if our lateness had been a personal affront. An older gentleman in a gray double-breasted suit recognized my companion and rose stiffly to his feet. He took Mausi’s hand in both of his and bowed his head till his lips hovered just above it. “Ach, Frau Wagner, I’m greatly honored.” Mausi nodded and extracted her hand. Obviously, it took more than old-world charm to impress Bayreuth royalty.
“Just so you know, Herr Metzger, this gentleman is my guest. He’ll be standing at the back of our box.” The old man nodded and, to my amazement, clicked his heels. I was suddenly face to face with the old Germany, the Germany of the Kaiser and steel-tipped helmets. I thought that sort of thing had long since vanished. But obviously not in Bayreuth.
Mausi and I arranged to meet at intermission on the steps in front of the theater. She reminded me not to applaud at the end of the first act. Wagner had prohibited patrons from applauding during Parsifal’s premiere, fearful that anything as raw and vulgar as audience approval would distract from the work’s sacred aura. This patently absurd, if not insultingly arrogant, tradition persisted into the 1960s, most virulently in Bayreuth. Heaven help anyone who applauded at the end of Parsifal there!
With Mausi gone, I finally had a chance to study firsthand the shrine that Richard Wagner had built for himself. The world-famed Festspielhaus was disconcertingly plain. The auditorium lacked any of the charm, color or luxury one expects from an opera house. Austerity ruled, plain-spoken practicality. One searched in vain for bourgeois amenities- the gilt or red plush, the flocks of cherubim prancing across the proscenium. All I saw was a boxy, bland amphitheater, with functional row seating and no padding whatsoever to cushion the public’s derrieres during a lengthy Wagnerian act.
The audience was comparably drab. In 1962, the war was still a vivid memory; the resurgence of the German economy had not yet obliterated its horrors. The public was unusually elderly, dressed in somber outfits recently retrieved from the attic or storage vault. I missed the style and high fashion regularly encountered at the Met. It seemed like a convening of ghosts from decades earlier.
Strikingly evident, and greatly appreciated, was the public’s respect for the occasion, its deep and genuine devotion. Old though they were, drab though they were, those present wanted, needed to be there; they were worshippers at the shrine. And exceptionally well behaved. I heard no jittery laughs, no mindless chitchat, only a quiet, steady hum of dedicated engagement. Opera as experience, not entertainment.
The lights slowly dimmed. Since the pit is covered and tucked beneath the stage, we were unable to know when (or even if) the conductor had arrived. This spared us the usual formalities at the start of an opera- the conductor enters; the public applauds; the orchestra rises; the conductor bows, shakes the hand of the concertmaster and so on and so forth until at long, long last the music finally begins. At Bayreuth, the public is engulfed in darkness and sinks into a deep, anticipatory silence. It has no idea when or how the music will begin.
On this occasion, the prelude to Parsifal crept up on us so softly, so tenderly, we hardly were aware that it had started. The anguished opening bars, under the probing guidance of Hans Knappersbusch, emanated from the void, the all-enveloping darkness of the hall. We sensed it before we actually experienced it as actual notes. There seemed to be no one specific point from which the music flowed. It was everywhere and nowhere. The hall had become a giant wooden megaphone. The walls, the chairs, the floor, everything resounded with Wagner. As the sound surged and subsided, the darkened room itself seemed to expand and contract along with it. The space was subsumed in music, the music in space. It was thrilling.
My exaltation didn’t last. After the prelude ended and the curtains parted, I was confronted by one of the more arid stretches of Wagner’s score. In the first ten or fifteen minutes of the first act, nothing much happens, either musically or theatrically. To compound the problem, Wieland Wagner’s production was so static that I wondered why people had called it pathfinding. The only path it found was dull and gloomy. All I could make out were a few morose shapes hovering near the front of the stage, waiting for some Teutonic Godot.
As the grim grip of the opera’s opening tightened, the giant beer I’d guzzled back at the inn started taking its revenge. My forehead pulsed ominously; my sense of balance floundered. I did my best to stay upright without disturbing my neighbors, all of whom seemed entranced by the dreariness onstage. It was an uphill battle. I listed dangerously to the right and pushed hard against the back wall of the box to steady myself. In time, I regained my equilibrium and returned my attention to the stage.
Nothing much had changed. Despite the superb cast, including great artists like Hans Hotter, George London, Irene Dalis and Jess Thomas, the dreariness persisted. Yes, the voices were excellent, yes, the acoustics were memorable, but there was no excitement. The production felt bland and lifeless. I searched in vain for traces of Wieland Wagner’s creativity, his much-heralded modernity.
At long last, after an hour of plodding exposition, the first scene limped to a close. The orchestra took over and described the walk of Parsifal and his new mentor Gurnemanz to the shrine of the Sacred Grail. At the Bayreuth premiere in 1883, a large landscape painting had unscrolled at the back of the stage as the singers made their way through the woods to the chapel. At this performance, the curtains remained closed while the scenery was changed. There was no walk and no painting. I assumed that Wieland Wagner found the idea of a moving landscape excessively literal-minded. The Metropolitan had used that device in its decades-old production and I have to confess I rather liked it.
When the curtains opened on the second scene, Wieland’s brilliance announced itself. There was no scenery as such, no literal representation of a church with arches, stained glass and pews; there was only space, vast, brooding space, with unimaginable depths lurking just out of sight in the darkness. The effect was magnified by the famous Bayreuth bells, installed on the sides of the stage to Wagner’s specifications expressly for use in this scene. What an effect they made- like the quaking of the earth itself. Their dark resonance set the floor and walls buzzing. Their impact, combined with Wieland’s astonishing conception of theatrical space, overwhelmed me. I had encountered the operatic sublime.
I also encountered the full effects of that giant tankard of beer. I violently lurched to my right and hit my elbow on the side of the box. It made a tiny sound, barely audible, but my neighbor heard it- the dignitary in the front row, the man who had so gallantly kissed Mausi’s hand. He spun around and glared, his face twisted in outrage. He jabbed his finger to his lips and let out a savage “zittt!”
I straightened up as best I could and shot him a bland smile. He shook his head dismissively, then returned his attention to the stage.
His harshness shouldn’t have surprised me. I was standing in the central box at the Bayreuth Festival, where Adolf Hitler had often sat as guest of honor, flanked by his hostess, Winifred, the composer’s daughter-in-law, and her four children, among them my friend Friedelind and her younger brother Wieland, the director of today’s production. Hitler was an ardent Wagnerian, after all. For him, the Bayreuth Festival was Germany’s purest, proudest cultural artifact. It brought to life Wagner’s dreams, and his, of Teutonic supremacy.
I, a New York Jew whose father had escaped Hitler’s Germany by the skin of his teeth, was repulsed by the thought that the demon of our century had been honored and glorified not far from where I was currently standing. No doubt many of my fellow audience members had leapt to their feet and gleefully raised their right arms when they discovered the great man sitting in their midst. And that officious guy who barked at me, that self-appointed custodian of social propriety, what crimes did he commit under the cover of the Nazi plague?
Then Wagner’s music rose up and swept away the nightmarish past.
The next day Mausi picked me up in her moo-car, a low-slung Citroen sedan, which she had bought a few years back, partly because it ran well and partly because it drove the villagers crazy. They were outraged that a granddaughter of the great Richard Wagner had the effrontery to drive a French automobile on Bavarian roads. The car’s raucous horn, which resembled the lowing of a demented cow, delighted her enormously.
“I always use it when I pass the older villagers. They’re usually quite brown.”
“Unregenerate. They long for the good old days when Hitler was in charge and everything was nice and orderly.”
“For them it was very nice.”
“It wasn’t so nice for my Dad- or millions of others.”
“Of course, but we’re talking about Bayreuth, a little farming village. The people here were very pleased with U.S.A.”
“What does America have to do with it?”
“It’s my mother’s expression- U.S.A., unser seliger Adolf, our blessed Adolf.”
“She actually says that?”
“Not to the press, of course, not to me or my brothers, but she says it all the time to her friends. And to the cleaning staff. The poor girls keep coming to me, saying, ‘Frau Wagner, your mother tells me how nice Herr Hitler was, how everyone misunderstands him, how he worked for the good of Germany. We know that’s not right, but what are we supposed to say?’ I tell them to just forget it. My mother’s never going to change. She’s still angry with the Americans for using the festival theater as a canteen for the troops after the war. She found it a desecration. How dare American soldiers sing and dance on the stage that Richard Wagner built.”
“She must really have hated the pop music.”
“She hated the black soldiers even more.” Mausi could tell I was deeply shocked. “Oh, yes, my Mama’s quite the racist. She went apoplectic when my brothers cast Grace Bumbry last year. A black woman singing in the Bayreuth Festival! There was nothing she could do, of course. Wieland and Wolfgang run the festival now, not her. She just gets to make her nasty little comments.”
“They sound pretty disgusting.”
“Yes, but she also can be quite charming.”
“You’ll see for yourself this Friday. She’s invited the entire master class to a violin-piano recital at Haus Wahnfried. It’s a lovely program- Beethoven and Brahms.”
“Isidore and Edith Lateiner.”
She had shocked me once again. “Your mother actually invited a pair of Jewish musicians?”
“No, silly, I did.”
“Did she make any objections?”
“Heavens, no. Some of her best friends are Jews.” Mausi tilted back her grand Wagnerian head and roared with laughter.
Haus Wahnfried, Richard Wagner’s luxurious villa, lies at the base of the hill on which the Festspielhaus is built. I was greeted on the front steps by Frau Winifred herself, all two hundred pounds of her. After Mausi’s extensive complaints about her mother, I was startled by how friendly and welcoming the old lady was. It was as if there had never been a Hitler or a Holocaust or a devastating world war.
Broad-beamed and strikingly hearty, Winifred Wagner energetically pumped my hand. “Welcome to Haus Wahnfried, junger Mann,” she said. “I really am looking forward to the program my daughter has arranged. Aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes, Frau Wagner, absolutely.”
“I’m sure it will be quite exceptional. Mausi knows all the best musicians in America. I’m very much looking forward to this Lateiner couple. I’ve heard nothing but good about them.” She said this without a trace of irony or condescension. I suddenly had the feeling that mother and daughter got on far better than I had supposed.
I was struck by her crisp and jaunty English. To me, it sounded like the fancy talk of Great Britain’s ruling classes, the horsey set that owns sprawling rural estates and London townhouses. In fact, Frau Wagner was born Winifred Williams, whose lower-class parents had died not long after her arrival. She was adopted from an orphanage by the elderly Karl Klindworth, a distant relative, and his wife. Klindworth had created all the piano reductions of Wagner’s operas and long been an intimate of the great composer. Winifred’s repeated visits to Bayreuth in the company of her adoptive parents led to her unlikely marriage to Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s only son, in 1915, when she was eighteen and he forty-six. They had four children in rapid succession, another unlikely occurrence, since Siegfried was predominantly homosexual.
Despite her lowly beginnings and strange, disjointed past, Winifred Wagner radiated a commanding self-assurance. There could be no doubt that she, and only she, was the chatelaine of the home of Richard Wagner. She pointed me in the direction of the music room where the concert would be held. “You’ll find my daughter waiting for you over there. She’s been pressed into service as a traffic cop.”
Mausi stood in the middle of the large music room surrounded by a milling crowd of guests. She was handing out programs and directing people to the rows of folding chairs that had been set up for the concert. She waved for me to join her.
“We’ve got quite a turnout,” she said. “I’m actually quite surprised.”
“Where do all the old folks come from?”
“That’s Mama’s contingent. Many of them have been coming here since the 1920s, when she was introducing her protégé to anyone who might be of assistance.”
“You mean, U.S.A.?”
“Who else? He was always dropping by to raise funds and spread the poison. When the meetings were over, he’d come into the nursery and play with us. Very sweetly, I must say.” Her attention suddenly shifted. “Oh, look, there’s a nice place for you, right in the back. Hurry, before someone grabs it.”
I swiftly made my way towards the last row, greeting a few colleagues along the way. The masterclasses consisted of a motley bunch of ambitious young singers, conductors and directors, personally selected by Mausi from some of America’s best conservatories and universities. Our bright, informal clothing and lively chatter starkly contrasted with the somber attire and reverential behavior of Winifred’s fan club.
Wagner’s once ornate nineteenth-century villa had been hit by a stray bomb late in the war and hastily repaired in a functional modernist manner. The concert was being held in his study, an impressive space with a high ceiling and three walls of newly installed built-in bookcases, which faced a row of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the master’s private park. Wagner’s own Steinway had been placed in front of them as if to afford the master an excellent view while creating his deathless masterpieces.
Even with the modernizing touches, the study indisputably remained the room where Richard Wagner had finished Parsifal, where he and his father-in-law, the great composer and virtuoso Franz Liszt, had regularly conversed and performed, where decisions of the utmost artistic importance to the fate of his works had been made by Wagner himself in consultation with his trusted deputies, among them, the distinguished conductors Hermann Levi and Hans Richter. In other words, this place was hallowed ground in the annals of Western classical music.
Once the public finally got seated, and it took a startlingly long time, Frau Winifred launched into an elegant speech of welcome, first in flawless German, then in her distinctive, crisp English. She depicted the brief concert as the sort of entertainment the great man himself might have planned nearly a century ago to amuse friends and neighbors during a long summer afternoon. “Of course,” Frau Winifred added, smiling wryly, “I rather doubt he would have programmed his arch-rival Brahms.” There was a knowing titter from the audience. “That’s all behind us now,” she added. “Haus Wahnfried welcomes greatness no matter who created it, in whatever form it takes. It is entirely devoted to the preservation and presentation of art and beauty.”
“Hear, hear,” shouted one of her admirers from his seat near the front of the room.
Today, what I most recall about the concert, beyond the fluency and engagement of the performance, is the intentness of the audience. Much like the crowd at Parsifal a few days earlier, everyone truly listened. There was no shifting in seats, no wandering glances, no whispered commentary. Everyone was lost in the sacred grove of music.
Of course, all things must end, even beautiful concerts. As the audience applauded and I tumbled back down to earth, Frau Wagner rose and shook each player’s hand. “That was beautifully done. I am sure my father-in-law would have approved. Especially the Beethoven. For him, Beethoven was the master of all masters- his one true rival and one true inspiration.” I knew this wasn’t strictly true, but it did seem to fit the occasion. “As for the Brahms,” she added, “I’m happy to say that my resistance is weakening.” The audience chuckled and started gathering up its things.
Before joining my fellow students, I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the family’s impressive book collection. It covered three walls of the room from floor to ceiling and featured elegant volumes in multiple languages on history, philosophy, poetry, the sciences and the arts. Clearly, the people who lived at Haus Wahnfried were exceptionally cultivated.
And then I saw it in the place of honor- the exact center of the middle shelf, where no one could possibly miss it.
I took the book down and opened it. Sure enough, it was an inscribed copy: “Fuer Wini, Wolf” Wolf had been Hitler’s code name during his years in the political wilderness.
I still clearly remember my physical revulsion. I was literally shaking with suppressed fury. How dare she own such a thing and display it so prominently? Had she no shame? Had she no sense? How could any civilized person give pride of place to a work of such unrelieved hatred? The book at that time could still not be published in Germany for what I and most everyone else thought were perfectly obvious reasons. Winifred clearly felt otherwise. What Hitler did, what people said he did, was unimportant to her. He was her friend. Case closed.
Suddenly, the elegant surroundings, the charming welcome, the beautiful music, the witty, knowing repartee, nauseated me. It was all a lie, an insult, an affront. Even Mausi’s spirited sniping at her bigoted old mother seemed ridiculous and beside the point. The whole family was sick, the whole festival, the whole world.
At that exact moment Frau Winifred, the household’s matriarch, rose up in all her bourgeois splendor and told her guests that they could greet the artists in the first-floor dining room where tea and cakes were being served.
I mumbled my apologies to Mausi and rushed back down the hill to the safety and sanity of my little hotel room.
Ian Strasfogel, an internationally renowned opera director born into a distinguished musical family, has plumbed the depths of his personal experience to portray the dazzle, drama and delight of a life on stage.