Barrie Kosky’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for the famous Wagner Festival in Bayreuth (Germany) is one of the supreme artistic peaks of my long operatic-life. It had its première last year, in the first of five consecutive annual seasons; this year – so some old hands told me – Kosky significantly revised the first part of the second act. Kosky’s achievement has been not only to confront the audience of (mostly) loyal Wagnerians with how deeply anti-Semitic that allegedly comic opera is, but to do it with a magical blend of profound emotional and intellectual depth which provides frequent reminders of the enduring expressive power of theatre, and especially of opera. I cannot recall having been so shaken and engaged in any theatre as by the closing five to ten minutes of Act I.
But, if it seemed so truthful and cleansing for me, what can it have been for the mostly German audience? Yes, there were a few – very few – ‘boos’ at the final fall of the curtain, but the overall response was so loudly and joyously positive that any adverse reaction was simply drowned out.
For an Australian, it was especially wonderful to be there. The historical fact is that Kosky is the first Australian ever to have been invited to direct at Bayreuth – and certainly the first Jew to be asked to stage a new production there – at a theatre which has had some very dark periods in its history (notably during the Third Reich), some of which are impressively acknowledged in the gardens of the theatre, with a comprehensive exhibition of ‘excluded Jews’. Furthermore, Kosky is the first artist who is not member of the Wagner family ever to be invited to direct The Mastersingers in a Bayreuth Festival.