Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ Uses the Word ‘Führer.’ Keep It There.

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.

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