Hacking Richard Wagner

A new Israeli-German dance co-production attempts to delve into the sacred and profane surrounding the emblematic anti-Semitic composer

A scene from 'Hacking Wagner.' (Photo credit: © Wilfried Hösl)
A scene from 'Hacking Wagner.' (Photo credit: © Wilfried Hösl)

While Richard Wagner’s music remains banned from Israeli concert halls, Bayreuth, Germany, is celebrating another edition of its monumental Wagner festival to honor its prodigal, and anti-Semitic, son.

In the midst of this, Israeli choreographer Saar Magal is presenting to the world her personal attempt to unpack Israel’s ambivalence, and Germany’s obsession, with the composer: “Hacking Wagner.”

The dance performance is being staged in one of Munich’s most historically charged edifices, during the city’s renowned Opera Festival. This year, the Opera festival focuses on Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The axiomatic norm in Israel is that the composer’s openly declared anti-Semitic views, and Holocaust survivors’ need to be shielded from his emblematic melodies, lie at the very core of the Wagner controversy. The ban itself can be traced back to 1938 when all Wagner pieces were officially removed from concert programs for the first time in Tel Aviv as an immediate reaction to Kristallnacht.

The story of Wagner in Israel is a long and winding one, often serving astoundingly differing political agendas and interests. Yet the ongoing public debate mainly relies on emotional arguments, thereby rendering it quite untouchable. A probing question arises, however, of why this musical protection of survivors is of such utmost concern while their physical and medical needs are often neglected? Moreover, one might ask, why ban Wagner’s music but not other historically charged German products such as the Volkswagen beetle?

‘It has become increasingly clear to me that the “Wagner ban” is not quite about Holocaust survivors, but a kind of social norm which the public enforces without giving it a second thought’

“It has become increasingly clear to me that the ‘Wagner ban’ is not quite about Holocaust survivors, but a kind of social norm which the public enforces without giving it a second thought,” says  Magal, a choreographer and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

In her performance, she includes an astounding true story that was originally related by filmmaker Udi Aloni to illustrate the ambiguity of the ban: A group of radical cultural provocateurs had once publicly announced a screening of the full video of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Israel. To their utter surprise, they were joined by a group of elderly German Jews in festive evening dress truly eager to watch the tetralogy. To these people Wagner’s music was reminiscence of their long-lost pre-WWII German home and culture.

Death scene from 'Hacking Wagner.' (Photo credit: © Wilfried Hösl)
Death scene from ‘Hacking Wagner.’ (Photo credit: © Wilfried Hösl)

“It has become ‘obvious’ that Wagner must not be played,” observes Magal. “But the question is not asked, ‘Why this is the case?’ or whether it is time to revisit the question, let alone whether there should have been such a ban to begin with. The norm became a habit, and habits slip by us unnoticed.”

To showcase the vastness of very personal opinions on Wagner, Magal confronts the audience with a pointed selection of interview excerpts which portray the profound and bewildering complexity of the case, as well as allow the audience to reflect on and reconsider their own stand point.

Together with a team of Israeli and German performers and artists, Magal and German composer Moritz Gagern undertook the experiment that is “Hacking Wagner.” In essence the duo is hacking into the sacred positions on the Wagner ban in Israel and the Wagner glorification in Germany.

‘In this piece, we take it on ourselves to hack icons, symbols, phenomena, ideas, social axioms, sacred cows, and all those ‘obvious’ things which have become mental habits’

“In this piece, we take it on ourselves to hack icons, symbols, phenomena, ideas, social axioms, sacred cows, and all those ‘obvious’ things which have become mental habits,” explains Magal.

A group of six performers function as main hackers, alluding with their movements and interactions to various frames of reference, such as the ritualized Nazi cult of physicality or the Israeli hora. Particularly thought provoking are the creeping transitions between different spheres, e.g. the reenactment of Hitler’s notorious poses during a photo shoot that develop into the motions of a musical conductor.

The venue appears to be a deliberate choice: Munich’s “Haus der Kunst” (House of Art) is a rather pompous building at the edge of the lush and peaceful Englischer Garten that opened its gates in 1937. Back then named “House of German Art,” it was an exhibition hall of utmost concern to Hitler with the sole purpose of showcasing “only true German art,” while ridiculing so-called “degenerate” modernist artists.

Shortly after the collapse of the regime, the museum was reopened to fill the gap caused by Hitler’s horrific artistic cleansing. In fact, it soon turned into one of the leading venues for contemporary art, hosting important exhibitions such the Picasso retrospective in 1955 or Ai Weiwei’s brilliantly provocative show “So sorry” in more recent years. While the artistic de-Nazification had taken place quite immediately, the original architectural structure was kept or even restored deliberately as a reminder of the difficult legacy, presented also in an exhibition entitled “Histories in Conflict” currently on display.

Performing “Hacking Wagner” in the haunting rooms of the “Haus der Kunst” becomes an eerie experiment for Wagner enthusiasts as much as his opponents. The performance relishes this uneasiness with a grotesque cat walk with stereotypical Wagner accessories such as blond wigs, chain shirts, swords and helmets, then culminates in a liberating wild techno party of sampled Wagner sounds.

Intense conversations on the terrace after the premiere clearly proved that Magal managed to make her point to this audience. The question is, Will the performance have a wider impact on the discussion in both Israel and Germany?

A VW bug in 'Hacking Wagner.' (Photo credit: © Wilfried Hösl)
A VW bug in ‘Hacking Wagner.’ (Photo credit: © Wilfried Hösl)

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