Wagner's 'Lohengrin' uses the word 'Führer.' Keep it there.

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Wagner's 'Lohengrin' uses the word 'Führer.' Keep it there.
A performance of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in 1998. Robert Wilson’s staging of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” opened to a wall of boos in 1998 — but it brought new theatrical possibilities to the Met. (Winnie Klotz via The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- There are some 10,000 words in the libretto of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” which the Metropolitan Opera is presenting in a new production starting Feb. 26. But the most inflammatory one comes at the end.

The title character, a mystical knight who arrived in the first act to defend the honor of a woman accused of killing her brother, points to a handsome youth in shining silver armor who has magically appeared out of the water. He is the lost brother.

“Here is the Duke of Brabant,” Lohengrin declares. “He shall be your leader.” In German, Wagner’s text is: “Zum Führer sei er euch ernannt.”

Piotr Beczala will sing that line at the Met, as will tenors at the vast majority of other opera houses in the world when they put on “Lohengrin,” a repertory staple for more than 170 years.

But at a smattering of companies, particularly in Germany, and most prominently at the Bayreuth Festival — founded by Wagner and still run by one of his descendants — the text has quietly been changed because of the association of “Führer” with Hitler, who was a treasured guest at the festival.

“Especially we in Bayreuth should be particularly sensitive there,” Katharina Wagner, the festival’s director and the composer’s great-granddaughter, said in a statement, “because we have a special political background and therefore also a special responsibility.”

Wagner, who is also a stage director, added that she preferred to make the change — from “Führer” (“leader” or “commander”) to “Schützer” (“protector”) — in her productions of the opera.

“Führer” is certainly arresting today. But when Wagner was writing the opera, in the 1840s, it was an unassuming, somewhat vague military title that referred, depending on the word to which it was connected in a compound, to varying degrees of operational command.

The word got a new charge toward the end of the 19th century, when Georg Ritter von Schönerer, an Austrian antisemite who agitated for pan-Germanic nationalism and harbored fantasies of ancient Roman revival, took it on as the name his followers would address him by. (They also embraced “heil” and the rigidly outstretched, so-called Roman salute as a greeting.)

Von Schönerer’s ideas and his gift for propaganda were inspirations for Hitler, who in the early 1920s began to use “Führer” as his title, along the lines of the success of Mussolini’s self-styling as “Il Duce.”

As with Mussolini, the word became central to what was soon the fully cultlike worship of a charismatic would-be national savior, and “Führer” was the foundation of Hitler’s official title starting after the death of Germany’s president, Paul von Hindenburg, in 1934. One of the Nazis’ omnipresent slogans was “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”: “One Nation, One Realm, One Leader.”

Somewhat surprisingly for non-German speakers, the word is still found all over that language as part of compounds. A train conductor is a “Zugführer”; a driver’s license is a “Führerschein.” At Bayreuth, Katharina Wagner herself carries the title of “Geschäftsführer,” or managing director.

But for the term to stand alone, especially as a military or political title, is basically verboten.

And it’s not exactly neutral in the context of Wagner. Even if he wrote long before the rise of the Nazis, his works were tainted by his notorious antisemitism and, decades after his death, by Hitler’s enormous affection for his music and the dictator’s friendship with the Wagner family.

Hence the “special political background” that Katharina Wagner referred to, the source of the sensitivities that she has worked to address. Some years ago, the festival unveiled a large display on its grounds about artists killed, imprisoned, exiled or otherwise affected by the Nazis. Several stagings — including Stefan Herheim’s “Parsifal” and Barrie Kosky’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” — have dealt explicitly with Wagner’s and the festival’s political legacy.

The change of a single word seems like it could hardly be a subtler interpolation. At Bayreuth, which lacks supertitles, it is likely that almost no one would have noticed had there not been a small flurry of coverage of the issue last summer. And deference toward sensitivity might make sense, given the festival’s history.

Yet the erasure of “Führer” is a missed opportunity. It also doesn’t quite make sense, with the unintended consequence of seeming not to take Wagner’s text and his careful word choices seriously. “Schützer” is used elsewhere in the libretto to describe Lohengrin’s role within the plot as a kind of transitional figure after Gottfried, the lost brother, has disappeared. The energizing question of the story is, in a leadership vacuum, what comes next? It’s therefore misleading, after Gottfried’s deus ex machina reappearance, to refer to him as “Schützer,” since he, unlike Lohengrin, is entitled to actually take political and military command.

And if we’re rooting out Nazi associations in “Lohengrin,” why stop at “Führer”? Early in the opera, ominous reference is made to armed action against the German “Reich,” and stentorian choral “heils” proliferate, like something out of the propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” In “Meistersinger,” why then preserve the ending, when the kindly cobbler Hans Sachs suddenly, grimly warns of foreign encroachments on the country and its “holy German art,” a call taken up with rally-style fervor by the crowd?

Any of these changes might be made out of respect, but they also let us in the audience off the hook. Wagner’s works are as ambiguous and ambivalent as we are, pulled between the desire for freedom and the desire to be led and commanded. This should not be something to erase, but rather something to explore — for us watching and for the stage directors who shape Wagner’s vision for us.

Yuval Sharon, who directed the latest Bayreuth “Lohengrin” but had no part in the decision to change the text, said in an interview: “I feel like it’s part of your responsibility every time you restage this opera, the same responsibility you have with any opera that has fraught language or fraught ideas. The visual aspect gives you an opportunity to offer a counterpoint to that original.”

In other words, how should a staging represent Gottfried if we are to take in the nuances of what might be meant by him returning as Führer? Presumably, in 2023, it’s not as an unironically perfect Aryan boy in gleaming armor, an unquestioned savior. Sharon depicted him symbolically, as a verdant flowering of nature; Hans Neuenfels, whose “Lohengrin” preceded Sharon’s at Bayreuth, had an adult-size bloody newborn emerge imperiously from an egg.

There are as many options as there are productions. But simply taking out “Führer,” with all its connotations, softens the complexity of the society depicted in the opera — a restive, angry one willing to submit to a leader who will quickly and easily solve its problems. The libretto’s medieval Antwerp is not so different from the Germany that blindly followed its own Führer.

It is often said that we shouldn’t anachronistically import into Wagner’s works the ways in which they were heard and used long after his death. In the case of “Lohengrin,” later history actually illuminates this unsettling opera; changing a word out of an excess of sensitivity distorts it.

“I think editing it feels a little bit like a whitewash,” Sharon said. “It can dull the edge of what makes the piece so potentially dangerous and disturbing. The opera carries in it the DNA of so many utopian visions, and simultaneously the very beginning of totalitarian thinking. Both coexist in his works, and you can’t have one without the other. Part of what’s amazing about Wagner is engaging with those impulses, in both directions.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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