A 75-minute crunch version of Wagner’s epic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, was recently performed at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, as this year’s edition of ‘Wagner for Kids’. Joshua Barone writes about this PG-rated Wagnerian show.
I received more than a few suspicious looks on a recent Friday morning as I waited in line for a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg here.
Maybe it’s because I was the only adult.
The only adult, at least, who wasn’t a chaperone for one of the large group of children eager for the doors to open at a rehearsal stage tucked behind the Bayreuth Festival Theater. One parent, holding the hand of a girl in lederhosen, squinted at my notebook, as if confused not only by my presence but also by why I was taking a show designed for kids so seriously.
But the colorful 75-minute adaptation of Meistersinger —presented by the Bayreuth Festival as this year’s edition of Wagner für Kinder, an ongoing series of productions of the composer’s operas made for children—was well worth taking seriously. Ostensibly designed for audiences between ages 8 and 12, this would have been an ideal entry point for a newcomer or a fresh perspective for a seasoned fan. (Alas, adults aren’t allowed unless they’re chaperones—or journalists.)
Die-hard Wagnerians may bristle at the thought of the master’s notoriously sprawling operas reduced to roughly an hour—in the case of the mighty Ring cycle, 15 hours of the original are delivered in a tight two. But the productions I saw, in Bayreuth and on DVD, were lucid and loyal, taking liberties yet revealing the kinds of universal truths you can only find in fairy tales and fables.
Wagner für Kinder productions tend to concede complexity in favor of a single, central meaning and plotline. So, where Barrie Kosky’s Meistersinger at the Festival Theater interrogates Wagner’s life in Bayreuth and how his art became ensnared in the rhetoric of Nazi Germany, ending with Hans Sachs—presented as a Wagner double—giving testimony at the Nuremberg trials, the children’s version retains only a portion of that problematic finale, focusing on the opera’s love story.
When you’re a young director, you want to put all your ideas into it, but then you realise no one will get it and children will get bored, Dirk Girschik, who staged the production, said in an interview. So we’re telling a fairy tale.
That the children’s Meistersinger will be a lighthearted romance is clear from the start: Ivan Ivanov’s storybook sets have the look of a high school musical, and the costumes, based on the winning drawings from a contest among students at a local school, are fit for a Renaissance fair.
Girschik and Marko Zdralek, who adapted Wagner’s score, began their work on the production with a rough cut made by Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter and the director of the Bayreuth Festival, who founded Wagner für Kinder a decade ago. But it was 2 1/2 hours long, so they trimmed it further based on what, they said, was essential: In addition to Walther and Eva’s romance, that included Wagner’s moral about the need for art to evolve.
What I didn’t realise until later is that this Meistersinger is tame—even a little conservative—compared with other Wagner für Kinder productions.
Last year, even, the festival presented a two-act Ring that could have worked on any professional stage. Directed by David Merz, and arranged by Zdralek, its sole set piece is a cabinet—covered in a painting of the World Ash Tree’s winding branches—with throbbing doors, its contents ready to burst out with the epic tale.
When the doors do open, the three Rhinemaidens let out a billowing sheet that, with the help of children in the front row, ripples to conjure the churning Rhine, which Alberich crosses to steal their gold and forge the ring. The audience later participates again by being asked whether Wotan should give that ring to the giants Fasolt and Fafner. (Imagine what would happen if they said no!)
At the end of this Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde doesn’t destroy the ring; she simply takes it from a sleeping Hagen (who killed Siegfried for it) and returns it to the Rhinemaidens. This is a gentle ending for a Ring with barely a body count— but then, as the cabinet doors close on the Rhinemaidens waving their treasure, Alberich, too, steps inside. In a bleak send-off for the children, Merz’s production suggests that the greed at the heart of the Ring is a cycle, indeed.
I suspect, though, that children have connected most with the Wagner für Kinder Tannhäuser of 2017. It’s not an opera that would seem to lend itself to young audiences, with its story of a medieval troubadour who, having had a taste of a lustful life in the realm of Venus, is banished by his fellow knights and sent to seek forgiveness from the pope in Rome. But, if the Bayreuth Festival’s new production by Tobias Kratzer — an inventively updated telling presented as a virtually new story about the nature of art — is any indication, Tannhäuser is more malleable than it’s sometimes been treated.
Zsofia Gereb’s Wagner für Kinder staging—with an impressively versatile set, wrapped around the orchestra, by Jule Saworski—rivals Kratzer’s in its ingenuity. Tannhäuser, in her revelatory read of the opera, is torn between dangerous new adventures with Venus and the more conventionally boyish playtime he has always known with his group of friends. He thinks there may be room for both; peer pressure would say otherwise. What child hasn’t experienced this?
The singing contest of Act 2, in which Tannhäuser’s profane desires are revealed and his beloved Elisabeth shields him from retribution and sets him on his way to Rome, is presented here as a flippant game of make-believe among friends: a singing contest in which the prize, little Elisabeth says, is her hand in marriage.
Tannhäuser, nicknamed Tanni, sings about Venus and is immediately ostracised by the other boys; his confession even gets him punished by adults. But Elisabeth saves him by pleading for their forgiveness—in the form of her Act 3 prayer, which survives in Zdralek’s musical adaptation, while nearly the entire overture, Pilgrim’s Chorus and Song to the Evening Star do not.
The tragedy of Tannhäuser, traditionally, is that his redemption comes at the cost of Elisabeth’s life, as well as his own. Gereb, however, offers us a world in which forgiveness can come with a happy ending, at last.
© 2019 The New York Times