Hacking Wagner


“My Israeli friend Udi Aloni told me a story of an incident which demonstrates better than anything else the partial character of Wagner's anti-Semitism. A couple of decades ago, he belonged to a group of radical cultural provocateurs who, in order to defy the prohibition on publicly performing Wagner's music in Israel, announced in the daily newspapers that they would show the full video of Wagner's Ring in their club. They, of course, planned the evening as a drinking party with wild dancing, but something strange happened that prevented this. As the hour of the performance approached, increasing numbers of old Jews, both men and women, dressed in the ridiculously old-fashioned, solemn way of pre-Hitler Germany, appeared in the club: for them, a public performance of Wagner was, more fundamentally than the Nazi misuse of his music, a reminder of the good old Weimar Germany where Wagner's operas had once been a crucial part of their cultural experience. It goes without saying that, out of respect for these unexpected guests, the provocateurs renounces their wild partying and allowed the event to turn into an evening of restrained musical appreciation.” Slavoj Zizek

The metaphor embedded in this story, as well as the piece itself, are part of a discussion that goes beyond the Wagner ban, beyond an objection to the ban, and beyond objecting to the objection. The actions of the Holocaust survivors showing up at the club, innocent of the intended irony, has far greater complexity and more layers to it than a simple question of whether there should be a ban on Wagner.

Too many people purport to speak on behalf of Holocaust survivors, to ‘protect them’ from having to listen to Wagner. But it is they who carry the Holocaust inside them, and it is they who embody both the life in Israel after it and yet the lingering connection to the German culture from which they came, in which they were raised, and from which they were violently cast out, injured and orphaned.

The discourse about Holocaust survivors, their needs and their views regarding Wagner is largely absent from the public’s consciousness in Israel. 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 unreflectively and without giving it second thought. It has become ‘obvious’ that Wagner must not be played; 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.

The term ‘hacking’ refers to breaking a code: dismantling and recomposing, reverse-engineering to defeat the original purpose. In today’s internet world, hackers are often individuals who, although apparently have no power against the domination of the large corporations and industries which shape our world, use their hacking skills to interfere with the standard course of events and the social order imposed from above. Hacking and ‘piracy’ represent the ability to break into a powerful cultural code, to infiltrate its mechanisms, influence and alter it from within.

In this piece, Hacking Wagner, we – the cast and the creative team, comprised of both Israeli and German performers and artists – take it on ourselves to hack icons, symbols, phenomena, ideas, social axioms, sacred cows, and all those ‘obvious’ things which have become mental habits, dictated by the powerful and by generations of institutional inertia.

Hacking is not opposition for its own sake, but rather a demand for the right to find out, for ourselves, what this empty space means: this glaring absence of Wagner from our culture; as well as the significance of Wagner, and the chords of sanctity and holiness which it strikes in German culture.

We aim to interact with the Wagnerian monumentalism on both the German side, in which it is conspicuously present, and the Israeli side, in which it is conspicuously kept absent. We take it on ourselves to use ‘hacking’ to become ‘cultural insurgents’, outlaws to the accumulated norms. This is the kind of action appropriate to an asymmetric fight of a powerless group against an overwhelmingly more powerful group: it is how the repressed fight against empires. It is how the weak attack the vulnerabilities of the strong. This ‘cultural insurgency’ intends to demand our right to have this discussion, to withdraw the ‘obviousness’ and self-evidence of attitudes towards Wagner and his music.

The legitimacy for such actions we take for ourselves as a team of Israeli and German artists, in the name of the freedom of exploring thoughts and feelings towards Wagner and the significance and connotations associated with him, without feeling the need to justify this. It is not our intent to either acquit or vindicate, nor to condemn or incriminate Wagner. It is not our intent to pass judgement nor to impose any opinion on our audience.

The piece is a field of personal associations, a strain of a collective subconsciousness as regards to the Wagner issue and the peculiar Jewish – German cultural love affair which took place before the war, before the Holocaust and before all hell broke loose; a tense affair of love and hate that persists to this day.

 

Concept, Choreography and Directing Saar Magal
Space and Objects Amit Drori
Composition Moritz Gagern
Video Benjamin Krieg
Costumes Claudia Gall
Lights Michael Bauer
Dramaturgy Olaf A. Schmitt, Andrea Schönhofer
Creating Performers

Zufit Simon, Lee Meir, Andreas Merk, Eva Svanblom, Ulrike Etzold, Avi Mazliah, Dor Mamalia

 

Produced by  Bayerische Staatsoper Opernfestspiele, July 2012

Photos   Wilfried Hösl

Deutschlandradio, Elisabeth Nehring, 27.07.2012

[...] Deconstructing Wagner as an aesthetic phenomenon and putting him back into context again, reflecting the various facettes of the Wagner ban and the sense of it – this is what Saar Magal’s performance is all about. It touches on questions such as the freedom of art and the right to discussion – and opens up a wide horizon. It can only be hoped that Hacking Wagner will be performed many more times to many audiences in Israel and Germany.

For 20 minutes nothing but emotions, thoughts and arguments put into words – it is a clever beginning which immediately makes it clear what Hacking Wagner is all about and at the same time delivers the intellectual and emotional reason why people should be interested in this topic. For even someone who could not care less about Wagner and his music will know after this introduction that the question „Wagner yes or no?“ is by no means to be attributed to the field of art for art’s sake in Israel but is at the centre of everyday life, both in the past and in the future.

In a long, ecstatic scene towards the end, the ride of the Valkyries gradually fades into a techno party; the dancers slip into old Wagnerian costumes, coats of chain mail and helmets, fur coats and heavy clothes; in this way they remind the audience of characters such as Siegfried and Brünnhilde, yet the clothes do not fit them somehow; these dancers simply do not want to change into Wagnerian characters. And when they have thrown the chairs of all the audience on to a huge pile the memory of the Holocaust is quite obvious. Wagner and the cult around Wagner – and this is a statement – are finally destroyed and deconstructed in this scene. [...]

 

Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Eva-Elisabeth Fischer, 30.07.2012

[...] The first full twenty minutes of Hacking Wagner – probably the most controversial production in the Ring cycle at the Munich Opera Festival – are devoted to the video statement about the radical ban on Wagner still prevailing in the country. Members of the audience stare from individual diagonally placed chairs at the oversized projections on the long sides to the right and left of the square west wing of Hitler’s Haus der Kunst, the heavily symbolic location of this production about the decoding of a socio-political phenomenon with artistic means. One sits until one of the six dancers dressed in white pulls the chair out from beneath one.

Saar Magal, a choreographer from Israel, creates a beautiful final scene. Young men and women dressed in costumes from the Charleston era drive in an old VW Beetle

past slides with views of Eretz Israel such as the tourist board uses in adverts and which are certainly nothing like how refugees saw Palestine at the time: the blue and gold of the beach of Tel Aviv, the white-gold stone of Jerusalem, the rich green of the date palm plantations near the Dead Sea. Those who fled from Hitler’s Germany had their Goethe in their suitcases, the music of Wagner and the emotional sound of the Wagner heroine Lotte Lehmann in their ears all their lives. [...]

 

Welt Kompakt, 30.07.2012

[...] In her search for an answer as to why Wagner is non-existant in her home country and admired particularly in German-speaking countries, Magal dismantles the work of the composer into tiny pieces.

Magal relies on contrasts... Her dancers from Germany, Israel and Sweden march and race up and down between the rows of chairs. They writhe around on the floor in the middle of the audience while the Valkyries roar. They literally drag the members of the audience from their seats, rearrange the chairs, pile them up to make a funeral pyre and dance around it. The dancers are run over by a car only to drive in it later past a background of Israeli beaches. [...]

 

An online review on Times of Israel