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Exhibition puts spotlight on anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Bayreuth

Actors perform during the rehearsal of Richard Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman in Bayreuth, Germany, earlier this month.

Michaela Rehle/Reuters

Few people today will have heard of Lucian Horwitz, an Austrian cellist from the early 20th century who played in Europe's top orchestras and appeared frequently as a soloist.

But Horwitz and dozens of other musicians are the focus of an exhibition, which coincides with Bayreuth's annual Richard Wagner Festival, on the anti-Semitic and Nazi history that still haunts the world-famous event.

Horwitz, born in Vienna in 1879, played in the Berlin Philharmonic and some of Austria's best orchestras.

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So it was only natural that his name should appear on the lists for the Bayreuth Festival orchestra, for the oldest and most famous of summer music festivals.

But Horwitz never actually got to play in the fabled covered pit that makes Wagner's Festspielhaus one of the wonders of the musical world, even though his name appears on the list of possible substitutes in 1924.

Horwitz was Jewish and was consequently blacklisted from playing by Bayreuth's conductor at the time, Karl Muck.

The cellist continued to perform regularly in his home city at least until 1927, but after Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938, he found himself persecuted by the Nazis.

In the end, Horwitz was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and then to the Auschwitz concentration camp two years later, where he died.

Horwitz's story and those of many other Jewish artists are the subject of the exhibition Silenced Voices being staged in a park in front of the Festspielhaus until Oct. 14.

It is organised separately from the festival itself, even though co-chiefs Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier have pledged to open up festival archives to historians to allow them to fully explore Bayreuth's Nazi past.

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Wagner was Adolf Hitler's favourite composer. The dictator was a regular guest at the Bayreuth Festival and entertained close personal ties with Winifred Wagner, the widow of the composer's son Siegfried.

Historian Hannes Heer – who was behind a controversial Wehrmacht exhibition on German soldiers during the Second World War a few years ago – seeks to show that anti-Semitism in Bayreuth dates back much further and can in fact be traced back to the very beginnings of the festival.

His premise is that Wagner's widow Cosima – a fervent anti-Semite, like the composer himself, and who took over the running of the festival after his death in 1883 – would only hire Jewish talent if no non-Jewish Germans could be found, or if their fame and reputation made their appearance unavoidable.

Lilli Lehmann, who sang Bruennhilde in the world premiere of Wagner's mammoth Ring cycle and returned to Bayreuth as a living legend in 1896 – 36 years before the Nazis seized power – was blasted as an "old Jewish grandmother without any talent for acting and not an ounce of feeling."

Hermann Levi, who conducted Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, in 1882, complained: "I'm a Jew. And whatever I do is judged from that standpoint. They find something objectionable or at the very least a foreign element in everything I do."

Of the dozens of artists featured in the exhibition, orchestral players, chorus members and soloists, 12 were eventually murdered by the Nazis.

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The Silenced Voices exhibition is particular pertinent since this year's festival, which opened on Wednesday, was overshadowed by a scandal surrounding Russian opera star Yevgeny Nikitin.

The bass-baritone, who was to have sung the title role in a new production of The Flying Dutchman, pulled out just days before the curtain went up after a television program revealed he has Nazi tattoos emblazoned across his chest.

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