Performer on stage (illustrative)
Performer on stage (illustrative) Reuters

The German theater director, whose controversial staging of a Richard Wagner opera to a Nazi-era theme was cancelled after the premiere, hit back Monday at what he saw as "censorship," AFP reports.

"What happened in Duesseldorf is the censorship of art. That is the real scandal," Burkhard Kosminski was quoted as having told the weekly magazine Der Spiegel.

Kosminski's new reading of Wagner's opera "Tannhaeuser" -- which set the composer's story of the mediaeval knight-minstrel in the Nazi era and contained the graphic portrayal of the gassing and execution of Jews – was loudly booed at its May 4 premiere in Duesseldorf.

After much heated debate in the local press, with the city's Jewish community describing the staging as being in "bad taste," management announced that the remaining four performances in the short run would not be staged, but would be given as concert performances instead.

The opera house said it had been fully aware that the director's concept and staging would likely cause controversy.

"But it is with great consternation that we ascertain that some scenes, including the very realistic execution scenes, caused such physical and psychological distress to some audience members that they sought medical help afterwards," the house said in a statement quoted by AFP.

In "intensive talks with the director, we discussed possible changes to individual scenes," the statement said.

"But he rejected this on artistic grounds. We have therefore decided that 'Tannhaeuser' will be in concert performance only," the statement said.

Kosminski was quoted as having told Der Spiegel that he was left "shocked and speechless" by the decision.

"We were put under extreme pressure by the local press and ignorant know-alls, most of whom didn't even see the staging," the director complained.

Kosminksi defended his concept, saying that Wagner's libretto as it stood was no longer understandable to modern-day audiences.

In Wagner's version of the story, the knight-minstrel Tannhaeuser is cast out of society because he loves the goddess Venus.

"What interests me is the great, archaic theme of guilt. Why shouldn't we cast Tannhaeuser as a perpetrator, a war criminal? In my staging, Tannhaeuser is forced by members of the Wehrmacht to shoot a family. The staging is about individual guilt during the Nazi era" and in the reconstruction of Germany after World War II, said Kosminski.

Wagner is frequently referred to as the favorite composer of Adolf Hitler. The composer penned the viciously anti-Semitic pamphlet "Judaism in Music" in 1850 and his descendants entertained close ties with Hitler and the Nazi leadership during World War II.

The director of Düsseldorf's Jewish Community, Michael Szentei-Heiser, called Kosminski’s dramatization "tasteless," but said he would not ask for the show to be cancelled.

Szentei-Heise said that while Wagner was an “ardent anti-Semite,” he had nothing to do with the Holocaust, since his music was adopted and used by the Nazis 50 years after the musician's death.

Wagner’s music is still banned from being performed in Israel, but the Tel Aviv University nevertheless last year scheduled a concert featuring his works.

The university subsequently cancelled the concert, after it sparked vehement public protests.

In 2011, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra decided to participate in a concert at the Bayreuth Opera Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, where it performed Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.

Israelis protested that decision as well.

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