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A ‘Gay Jewish Kangaroo’ Takes on Wagner at Bayreuth

“I felt I had done enough Wagner,” Mr. Kosky said in a recent interview in his office here, “and I’d always found it exhausting to work on Wagner. It unnerves me too much.” “Meistersinger,” a medieval fantasy about a guild of singing masters that is arguably its composer’s most nationalistic work, struck Mr. Kosky as particularly daunting.


A scene from Mr. Kosky’s “Die Zauberflöte.”

Iko Freese

“Of all the pieces, I felt ‘Meistersinger’ was difficult for me to deal with because of the nature of the investigation of German culture and German identity and the history of the piece,” he said. The work’s finale is a monologue delivered by the opera’s hero, the cobbler Hans Sachs, that is a rousing defense of “holy German art,” and a warning that it must be safeguarded against foreign incursions.

The opera was a favorite of Hitler’s and its rousing prelude was a staple at Nazi rallies. (Nuremberg, the setting of the opera and near Bayreuth, was a popular rally site, as well as the location of the postwar trials of German war criminals.)

Ms. Wagner asked Mr. Kosky to take his time to reconsider. A half-year later, he accepted the challenge.

“I discovered that this opera is not about German culture or ideology, because Wagner’s idea about German historical time and fact is pure fantasy,” he said. “Once I made the decision that I didn’t have to have the weight of German history, identity and culture on my shoulders, and that I could look at everything through Wagner’s eyes and Wagner’s distorted, contradictory, frustratingly complex genius, it opened up all these possibilities.”

Mr. Kosky’s early career was based in Australia, including at the Gilgul Theater in Melbourne, the country’s first professional Jewish theater company, which he founded in 1990. During the past two decades, he has spent the bulk of his time in Europe, bringing his analytical and frequently eccentric sensibility to everything from tragedies by Euripides to Cole Porter musicals. His clever silent-film-inspired production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” a collaboration with Suzanne Andrade, Paul Barritt and the troupe 1927, brought him his first success in the United States, in 2013.

He is contractually forbidden from revealing details of what his “Meistersinger” will look like, but he was at liberty to discuss his process and his thoughts on the work.

“We started, for example, with the end,” he said. “We made sure very early on that we had found a very strong solution to the monologue and the last chorus, and what that meant for how it played backwards, or how that led to that moment. Because in almost every production of ‘Meistersinger’ I’ve seen, that’s always the problem moment, where either the director has run out of ideas or doesn’t know what to do with the monologue or somehow it’s tacked on at the end.” His solution to that climactic moment remains to be seen, though his comments emphasizing the theatricalized uses of Nuremberg by both Nazis and Allies may provide a hint.

Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism is another topic that cannot be brushed aside. Some have viewed Sixtus Beckmesser, a pedantic mediocrity who is the closest thing that “Meistersinger” has to a villain, as a veiled Jewish caricature. And the embrace of the Nazis by some Wagner descendants has cast a shadow over the Bayreuth Festival that continues to this day.

“Wagner did not put Jews onstage,” said Mr. Kosky, the first Jewish director to work at Bayreuth in the festival’s 141-year history. “Beckmesser is not a Jew. Wagner’s too clever for that.” But along with Mime and Alberich, hated figures from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, Beckmesser is, Mr. Kosky added, a figure who is “marinated in the juices of 19th-century anti-Semitism, and consciously and unconsciously Wagner and his audience knew that.”

Beckmesser, viewed through Mr. Kosky’s eyes, is a sort of “Frankenstein monster” who combines aspects of Eduard Hanslick, the conservative music critic whom Wagner despised (and mistakenly thought was Jewish), as well as assimilated 19th-century Jews in Germany, who Wagner considered threats to the nation’s culture.

“It’s ridiculous to say that it’s not anti-Semitic,” he said. “We’re not just dealing with the abstract nature of musical sound. We’re dealing with text, character, narrative, history, psychology and the fact that he wrote a huge amount of essays that articulated his ideas about theater and German culture and Jews.”

Mr. Kosky said that Ms. Wagner, who directed a rowdy “Meistersinger” at Bayreuth in 2007 featuring life-size bobblehead versions of Dürer, Bach, Goethe and other German cultural luminaries, has been unstintingly supportive of his vision. He even admitted that a gig he once had feared has turned out to be unexpectedly fun.

“If anyone had said to me 10 years ago that you’ll find working for three years on ‘Meistersinger’ enjoyable,” he said, “I would have laughed.”

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