Bayreuth as Bioethics Laboratory:

An Appreciation of Baumgarten’s Production of Tannhäuser

Edward A. Bortnichak and Paula M. Bortnichak

On 23 January 1883, Cosima Wagner recorded in her diary that Richard Wagner, after playing her some selections from Tannhäuser, brought the evening to a close with the remark that ‘he still owes the world Tannhäuser’. Soon afterwards, on 5 February 1883 – within days of his death – he stated that he felt more urgency to bring Tannhäuser to the Bayreuth stage than Tristan. The latter opera seemed custom-made for the mystical properties of his specialised theatre, and he stated that if he could produce Tannhäuser there, ‘he will have achieved more than by staging Tristan’. These were not isolated comments, but rather part of a chronically expressed artistic dissatisfaction about this early work. While both Tannhäuser and Lohengrin presented the challenge of an uneasy mixture of history with myth and legend, and the incomplete assimilation of advanced depth psychological drama within the framework of traditional operatic pageantry and set numbers, Wagner seemed relatively immune to the inherent problems of the one and unusually sensitive to those of the other. On 19 October 1881, Cosima reported that ‘as far as Lohengrin is concerned, R. says he is completely satisfied with it, but in Tannhäuser he would criticize some still-remaining traces of operatic tradition’.

Now, with the benefit of a century and a half of performance history behind us, we can see clear evidence of what the composer sensed during his lifetime – Tannhäuser has indeed proven to be his most problematic work in terms of the theatrical realisation of its underlying deep meanings within the framework of a traditional Romantic compositional setting. It is often perceived as an uneasy mix of new ideas forced into an old structure, and the psychosexual dilemma of its hero now, after the sexual revolution, appears dated and less compelling, especially if presented literally as it often is.

Certainly, Wagner believed that a proper stage interpretation of his work, such as he envisioned at Bayreuth had he lived, could have gone a long way to counteract the inherent problems of his early composition. What would constitute such a staging? The director Sebastian Baumgarten, in collaboration with the dramaturg Carl Hegemann, has provided one such viable solution which is firmly rooted in Wagner’s consistently-held beliefs about the nature of humanity. The point that Wagner was ultimately trying to make in Tannhäuser (albeit somewhat clumsily at this early stage of his career) and that the Baumgarten production masterfully illustrates, is that the ideal man is made up of all parts in balance, and that this human harmony is something of great beauty. It is the balance between the rational drive to exist (represented by the heart and the mind) and the emotional need to create (represented by the organs of procreation) that defines health and the highest state of our universal human experience. In Freudian terms, it is the balance of the ego and the id; to a Taoist philosopher it might be expressed as the Yin–Yang; and to an artist it is the often precarious balance between securing the practical essentials for survival and the complementary drive to express the inner realm of the imagination. The character of Tannhäuser is perhaps Wagner's clearest portrait of that defining, universal, struggle of the artist in all cultures and in all times.  

The key to Baumgarten’s production for the 2011 Bayreuth Festival is its integrative dramaturgical concept based on Wagner’s critiques of science, technology, and medical experimentation in his own 19th century. His predictions about how the technological and biomedical ‘progress’ made by his contemporaries might endanger the complete human organism in time to come, if they did not temper these advances with attention to individual human and animal rights, was matched by his belief that it was our moral responsibility to safeguard and celebrate those rights.

In what follows, we shall enlarge upon these topics, taking in Wagner’s 19th-century views. It is telling that the entire field of bioethics had its modern origin as a reaction to the violation of human rights, perversion of science, and outright atrocities of National Socialism. This, too, is touched upon in our account of the posthuman dystopia depicted in Baumgarten’s Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser.

A brief history of Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser was, during Wagner’s lifetime, the most enduringly popular and commercially successful of his ten principal works. Indeed, it even served as the earliest vehicle to seed his reputation in the New World, when it became the first Wagner opera staged in New York in 1859; it was the product that we would now refer to as his ‘cash cow’. By the end of Wagner’s life, professional musicians would appreciate the genius of his late works, but adoration was reserved by general audiences and by fellow artists alike for the early Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, with the former opera often taking pride of place. What was it about Tannhäuser, especially in the face of its enormous, nearly singular, public and professional acceptance, that so disturbed Wagner?

With Tannhäuser, Wagner was inching towards something new. In the 1840s, when he initially conceived the work, he already displayed advanced dramatic and social sensibilities. But, in the form in which it existed at its Dresden premiere in 1845, it was a work whose musical realisation and dramatic impact was out of sync with its intention and potential to express his views on what constitutes the complete human experience. The initial ‘Dresden’ version presented a musically rather tame Act I Venusberg sequence, an exciting but still tradition-encumbered Act II confrontation in the Wartburg, but then leapt forward into the ‘Music of the Future’ with a brilliant ‘mad scene’ at the end of Act III: Tannhäuser’s final Rome Narration, ‘Inbrunst im Herzen’. The tenor hero is, by far, the most completely drawn and interesting character in the opera: unlike the case with any of his other works, no character, in either the ‘Dresden’ or the ‘Paris’ version of this opera, seriously competes for our attention compared to the title role of the alienated minstrel knight torn between two worlds, as representations of the two core components of his own humanity.

Perhaps Wagner’s decision to revise the opera for the 1861 presentation at the Paris Opera, by adding musical complexity to the front end of the work with the re-written Venusberg scene in Act I, should be viewed more as an effort to balance the intensity of the final pages of the work with the opening sequence, rather than as an effort to meet the Parisian audience’s demands for a ballet. In 1861, with Tristan behind him and the Ring half completed, his compositional mastery of the ‘Music of the Future’ was secure, and he may have sensed the musico-dramatic tentativeness of his original composition, as well as more clearly perceived the promise of the great central title role that he had created. The 1861 ‘Paris’ version can thus be seen as his partial attempt to further realise his original material and amplify the inner struggle of his hero, by giving the inducements of Venus and her court more weight and power than they had in Dresden in 1845. Significantly, he left the final Rome Narration of the tenor in Act III alone. It was an attempt to re-adjust the balances without compromising the concentration on the hero and re-writing the entire, by this time increasingly popular, opera. To withdraw and scrap his original work and rewrite it entirely at that point in his life would have been unthinkable as it would have constituted financial and professional suicide.

In the heyday of its appeal, Victorian audiences responded powerfully to the heaven versus hell, love versus lust duality of the opera, seeing it as a morality play that perfectly captured the sensibilities of their age. In our own time, audiences have struggled to recognise it as the strikingly relevant and modern work that it actually is, filled with a wealth of associations, resonances, and lessons for our 21st century that lie just underneath the obvious outer layers of the work. Tannhäuser has survived the test of time less well than any of the other works in the Bayreuth canon, and truly successful productions of it are more unusual to encounter than even those of Tristan und Isolde – a work judged in the composer’s lifetime to be virtually unperformable due to the technical demands made on those both in the pit and on the stage, including a marathon title role for the tenor that is as difficult to cast as that of Wagner’s early wayward minstrel knight.

Performance statistics for Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera in New York represent its general fall from grace in major operatic centres quite well: in the first two decades of that theatre’s history (1883–1903), it was present in all but five seasons for a very respectable total of seventy-six performances (at the ‘home’ theatre, not counting tour performances); whereas in the two decades following the end of the Second World War (1945–1965), it was on the boards in only six of those seasons for a total of just thirty-six performances at the New York theatre. Contrast this with the Metropolitan Opera performance statistics for Tristan, which shows that it has steadily gained in popularity over this same period, showing a total of fifty-one performances in New York over twelve seasons in the first time period, and sixty-one total house performances in twelve seasons in the later time window.

Tannhäuser’s fate at the Met since the mid–1960s has not improved very much, despite a very attractive ‘traditional’ production by the team of Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider-Siemssen, which was new in 1977 and is still in service there, seen in a total of nine seasons out of the past thirty-five to date since its première. As admittedly handsome as that production is, it is Tannhäuser frozen in time in a staging that would have been recognisable to a Victorian audience, and it has generated no new thoughts on the relevance of the opera today or furthered any novel solutions to the problems of the work noted by the composer. It leaves the work still an enigma – no better (or worse) than it found it – its chief interest being in its ability to allow audiences to view the work as a museum piece from a time now long past.

In contrast, the possibility of a posthuman future is at the heart of how Baumgarten frames, interprets, and ‘completes’ Tannhäuser for his 2011 Bayreuth audience.


Wagner and the posthuman of the future

It is our contention that Wagner’s search for natural human harmony and balance was the basis of his critiques of scientific, technological and medical progress, and that his critiques, and those of other intellectuals in the late 19th century, presage the bioethical controversies surrounding our current ‘Transhumanism’ movement, which perceives the threat of a technologically determined definition of ‘personhood’. Moreover, the Bayreuth Tannhäuser production of Baumgarten and his creative team shows us a vision of the transhumanist trajectory, at some unspecified time in the future, veering very close to the ‘posthuman’ negative extreme, as the process of societal transformation nears completion. Such a vision is in line with Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, with its futuristic ‘World State of the Controllers’, or with the direst predictions of the social philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, in his 2002 work on Our Posthuman Future. In the tradition of Huxley and Fukuyama, the Baumgarten Tannhäuser is a dark cautionary view of our future if science and technology are allowed to completely dominate and define ‘personhood’.

Such concerns about the unfettered rule of science and technology are not new – they have been periodically raised by intellectuals beginning with the ‘father of the scientific method’, Sir Francis Bacon, at the dawn of the 17th century, extending through to the Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope, including such artists and social critics as Feodor Dostoyevsky and Richard Wagner in the 19th century, and continuing with the prescient writings of Aldous Huxley in the 20th century. We now understand that human progress through science needs to be constructively nurtured and intelligently guided and regulated – it is the very reason that modern bioethics, born out of the tragic lessons of the human rights abuses of Nazism, exists as a discipline today. Concerns about the potential consequences of an unbridled rule of science and technology are now reaching a climax in an increasingly audible chorus of warning by a phalanx of philosophers and bioethicists of every intellectual persuasion.

Wagner’s bioethical concerns are brilliantly summarised by Joachim Thiery and Ulrich Tröhler in The Wagner Compendium. For Wagner, all sentient beings had a spiritual dimension, and ‘personhood’ was not just a matter of scientifically observable biology. Thiery and Tröhler have summarised Wagner’s thoughts on these subjects best: ‘We are entirely justified in speaking of a Wagnerian “cosmology of compassion”, in graphic contrast to which the composer saw the civilization of his day beset by an unfeeling, technologically orientated utilitarianism increasingly geared to a state that was addicted to militaristic expansionism.’ These concerns were probably lifelong, but are clearly a matter of record in the Wagner literature starting in the late 1850s, as represented by a key letter to Mathilde Wesendonck on 1 October 1858, and are worked up considerably in his opposition to vivisection on practical, ethical and philosophical grounds in his ‘Open Letter’ to Ernst von Weber in the October 1879 edition of the Bayreuther Blätter.

In the ‘Open Letter’ against vivisection, Wagner passionately expressed his opposition to the medical experimentation practices of his day which were, in his opinion, geared to compulsively gathering physiological data and had no bearing on advancing therapy to relieve actual human and animal suffering (‘fellow suffering’). Instead, Wagner advocated a social reform approach to the illnesses of his time – an approach that centred on alleviating poverty, poor housing and hunger, and on improving the standards of public health. From the perspective of the medical historian, the tensions between the experimentalists of the age and the advocates of the ‘hygiene movement’ are perfectly mirrored in Wagner’s biomedical and bioethical writings, with the composer clearly and consistently aligned with the latter of the two positions. He was not ‘anti-physician’, but he was against the collection of data by the medical men of his era in a manner that he viewed as both inhumane and insufficiently concerned with practical solutions to disease.

Likewise, with regard to non-medical scientific pursuits, despite the occasionally sceptical and unorthodox views he expressed on some of the inventions of the day, he cannot be simplistically categorised as ‘anti-science’. But he opposed any science or technology that failed to correlate directly with improvement of the human condition. In 1849, Wagner crystallised his thinking on scientific progress in general with the statement ‘science is the human intellect’s ultimate power, but the enjoyment of that power is art.’ As summarised by Thiery and Tröhler again, there are many documented instances of Wagner’s railing against the questionable (in his opinion) products of the Industrial Revolution, among these his critique of coal mining as an insult to nature and to workers in the mines, his opposition to the rampant destruction of the natural environment by the railways, and his suspicion of electrical power as being incompletely tested and unnatural. He summed up his concern about the early models of the phonograph and about the frenzy to embrace the new technology with the comment that ‘people were turning themselves into machines’.

His particular concerns about both medical and non-medical scientific and technological advances were prophetic, and clearly expressed in his 1880 essay ‘Religion and Art’. He charged that all of this ‘progress’ was fuelled by militarism, and that if not tempered by higher ethical and moral principles, it would not result in the advancement of humankind, but rather in the debasement, devaluation, and ultimately, the senseless destruction of life. In Wagner’s view, the man of the 19th century was deluding himself into thinking that his scientific prowess was enabling him to control nature; instead, man should beware that such ‘progress’ did not someday control him and result in generations of humans that were little more than soulless machines themselves.

A like-minded contemporary of Wagner, Dostoyevsky, expressed his world view in his boldly original novella Notes from the Underground, in which the alienated protagonist attempts to escape the stifling, dehumanising structure of his society by retreating to a private, submerged world of self-imposed isolation in order to retain his individuality and regain his sense of meaningful human identity – a Russian Tannhäuser seeking refuge in a Dostoyevskian Venusberg. The ‘Notes’ on this new production, published by the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, clearly identify this analogy as key to the production concept of the Baumgarten team.

Baumgarten’s 2011 Tannhäuser production: life under the microscope

We are now ready to deconstruct this remarkable production in order to demonstrate how the posthuman vision is created and functions consistent with Wagner’s own philosophy, and to amplify this early but presciently modern drama of the alienated minstrel knight torn between two worlds and two aspects of his own humanity. In the Baumgarten production, society is at a critical juncture, as it is far along the path of transition to full posthumanity: it is a society more technologically advanced than our own, but not completely controlled by that technology yet. Scientists can create chimerical ape-like humans, but their creations are still experimental and confined to their Venusberg laboratories; organised religion has been already perverted into an opiate that controls the citizenry of this evolving ‘brave new world’; spirituality has been replaced by delusional religious behaviours; sexual urges, if not forcibly repressed by chemical means, are expressed by self-destructive and impulsive ‘acting out’ behaviours.

Tensions erupt and the chief protagonist, Tannhäuser, struggles with essential questions: is life in this manufactured and enforced utopia really worth living at all? What is the meaning of human life in this posthuman world? With the character of Tannhäuser, Baumgarten takes Wagner’s 19th-century revolutionary figure and re-presents him to us as the heroic revolutionary of the future who dares to define the nature of man: ‘the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself – by purposely going mad in order to be rid of reason – that he is a man and not a piano key!’

The action for all three acts takes place on a unit set or installation called the ‘Technocrat’, devised by Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout. This installation represents the closed, self-sufficient world of this posthuman future ‘utopia’; it is the perfect laboratory or biogas production plant in which all materials, including human waste, are recycled into the necessities of life. It is a sterile environment which the Controllers of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World would immediately recognise and find conducive to their objectives of population organisation, individual containment and world order. Control of the techno-slave or citizen in the Technocrat is achieved through a daily rationing of an alcoholic beverage, akin to the ‘soma’ tablets used in Huxley’s World State of the Controllers. God, and religion in general, are seen as useful remnants from a distant past, revitalised to exert control in extreme situations where chemical inducements (and, perhaps, psychosurgery – implied but not shown on stage) do not suffice.

The basic human libidinal and sexual urges are represented, as in any faithful Tannhäuser production, by the alternative environment of the Venusberg. In this production, the above ground environment of the Technocrat is the Wartburg, whereas the basement level of the set is the world of the Venusberg. This underground world – reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Underground – is accessed at will and consists of a cage that is raised or lowered out of view, filled with copulating, cannibalistic hybrids resembling ape-men.

Thus, the duality of existence and the two opposing extremes which define personhood and drive human life are clearly demarcated. The Wartburg is posthuman society with all of its constraints and prohibitions – ‘Day’, to use the later imagery which organises the action in Tristan und Isolde, and the Venusberg is ‘Night’, the pull of human desire and passion. The posthuman ideal man, existing in a technological utopia, should no longer succumb to the Venusberg forces, but the Dostoyevskian artist hero of this opera, Tannhäuser, is about to demonstrate the struggle of Everyman in the posthuman world, a human being who still can feel and has not been completely indoctrinated by the overlords of the enforced utopia. This, then, is the powerful physical stage setting for the very modern drama to follow, and it is fully in keeping with Wagner’s own philosophy and his vision of the unconquerable nature and dignity of collective humanity.

As is so often the case in modern operatic production, the action begins with the curtain up during the overture (the ‘Dresden’ version) and we are confronted with cinematic images that clearly alert us to the underlying bioethical arguments of this production. The opera will not be restricted to the nature of love (as the topic of the Act II Song Contest might lead us to believe); instead, it will be about nothing less than the very meaning of human life itself. Projected onto the cinema screen that serves as the backdrop of the Technocrat is a representation of the pulse of life in the human body. First, during the opening orchestral quote from the Pilgrims’ Chorus, representing the Wartburg, we see a fluoroscopic view of a living chest; then, during the ‘Hymn to Venus’ segment of the overture, representing the Venusberg, we move below the belt, as it were, and see fluoroscopic images of blood-flow through the pelvis. During all of this, the self-contained recycling plant of the Technocrat goes about its mundane routine with, at first, the Wartburg techno-slaves and their controllers clearly in view, later replaced by the chimerical figures cavorting in the subterranean cage of the Venusberg that has risen from the depths of the stage in time for the Bacchanale sequence. With the triumphant recurrence of the Pilgrims’ Chorus at the end of the overture, a gigantic surreal image of the suffering Madonna dominates the cinema screen. Human passion has not been vanquished, but it has literally been forced back underground as the Venusberg momentarily descends out of view.

Notwithstanding the gyrations of the hybrid ape-forms in the Venusberg cage, the Bacchanale is dominated by dancers costumed as giant spermatozoa, complete with tails, whose activity levels coincide with and graphically represent the ebb and flow of Tannhäuser’s sexual desire. With this aspect of the staging, the creative team was very obviously giving the audience the biologic ‘keys’ to the production concept. Especially with such an overt pointer to the conceptual core of the production, it was disconcerting to read in numerous blogs as well as in reviews in the established media that many reviewers completely missed this signal, and mistook these human sperm to be ‘tadpoles’ or ‘amoebae’. Likewise, the fluoroscopic images of the human body above and below the diaphragm, representing the dichotomy between the need to exist (as represented by the beating heart) and the drive to create (as represented by the organs of procreation) went completely unrecognised for what they so obviously were.

In the first act, and indeed until the very end of the evening, the character of Venus is portrayed as a pregnant earth or mother figure: she represents the promise of new, as yet uncontrolled, life. Appropriately, she appears among the citizens of the Wartburg in Act II, and it is logical that she is ousted as an unwelcome guest when she attempts to join the celebrants of the Song Contest, as the new life she nurtures in her womb is not yet socially programmed and therefore represents a potential threat to the order of this Technocrat society. Also obvious in this production is the obsessive ‘acting out’ of Tannhäuser’s sexual desires, by the putting on and pulling off of his trousers; he is only in briefs for the Venusberg sequence, but ritualistically washes and dresses his lower torso and legs after he dispels Venus and turns his attention to the Wartburg at the conclusion of the first act. This is a simple yet powerful image that again points to the sanitation of human behaviour and the sexual repression of the Wartburg utopia.

For the audience, immersion in the technologically controlled and controlling environment of the Technocrat is made palpable by the fact that the activities of daily life in the compound do not stop during the intervals when the house lights come on. At the end of the intervals we can catch glimpses of Wartburgian scientists and workers scurrying about taking notes and busily analysing data, while video screens show children in classrooms robotically repeating slogans of their teacher–controllers.

Another way in which Baumgarten ‘completes’ Wagner’s Tannhäuser is in his development of all the characters. In our opinion, Tannhäuser cuts such a striking profile, in part, because all of the other characters populating his world are so simply drawn: as sketched by Wagner in his original text and as characterised by their music, all the other figures are rather one-dimensional in comparison to the tenor hero. Not so in the stage world created by the Baumgarten team – strength plays off strength in this production, as the characterisations of all are sharply etched and memorable. Baumgarten has made a major contribution in giving motivation and three-dimensionality to all the characters, both major and minor: a remarkable accomplishment and key to the success of the opera as drama

We have already described the principal features of the characterisation of Tannhäuser. His drive to escape the ant-hill society of the Wartburg is most strikingly characterised by his frenetic sexual ‘acting out’ behaviour, but it is essential to recognise that the conflict around the sexual expression of his individuality is just one overt sign of his deeper alienation from the sociocultural ‘norm’ of the Wartburg posthuman utopia. He is the man of the future in search of complete human balance in a repressive society which has ignored the sensual, emotional and spiritual needs of its citizens. The minstrel knight colleagues of Tannhäuser are all model posthumans; they serve as role models for the controlled and sublimated human beings of the future. Contrast them to the incompletely indoctrinated young shepherd, already introduced in the final scene of Act I as a slightly tipsy and out-of-control adolescent under the influence of a bit too much alcohol, and who will become so drunk in Act II as to be expelled from ‘polite’ society. Unlike Tannhäuser but like all the rest, he has taken his mind control drug, only too much of it. Indeed, extra alcoholic rations are brought out for the Hall of Song Festival Day Celebration, as the entire chorus seems to have had more than its usual share.

Wolfram is generally seen in most productions as a stock operatic friend-of-the-hero baritone of very limited dramatic interest, who uncomplainingly pines away of unrequited love for the heroine. However, under Baumgarten’s inspired direction, he gains real motivational stature and dynamic purpose in the drama as a frustrated and angry man who can only just control his rage by compulsively whittling a stick and taking extra doses of the anaesthetising alcohol rations as his rival woos Elisabeth. At last, the figure of Wolfram comes out of the shadows and earns the centre stage warranted by this plum baritone role.

Herrmann, Landgrave of Thuringia, is the Chief Controller, a cold and aloof figure who, we sense, poses some threat to his niece – she takes care to maintain some distance from him on stage at all times. Hermann is accompanied on stage by a priest who serves as his partner in exerting control over the Wartburg congregation, especially in the case of the inebriated young shepherd, and it is also this priest who sternly bars Venus from joining the celebrants in the Song Contest.

The chorus of pilgrims is an especially powerfully drawn element in the drama. For Baumgarten, the pilgrims are wayward posthumans who have strayed from the true path, and they are seen as reluctant in their compulsory ‘pilgrimage’ to renew their indoctrination. At the conclusion of Act II, they appear frightened and confused as they are herded off the stage, presumably to an ‘intervention’ involving mind control; for when they return in Act III, they are robotic in their motions and are obsessively cleaning themselves in the manner that Tannhäuser did in Act I when he re-entered the Wartburg. It leaves the audience to wonder if they have been psycho-surgically altered during the interval.

Last but not least, we come to the remaining principal character – the heroine of the tale, Elisabeth. Wagner drew her rather simply as the symbol of womanly virtue and ‘pure’ love, as represented by the Christian ideal of the Virgin Mother, and as the socially preferred alternative to the carnal pleasures of the Venusberg. She is the saint Elisabeth to be contrasted with the whore Venus. It is left to Elisabeth to spend large portions of Act II and III first pleading with the knights to spare the sinner Tannhäuser’s life, and later praying for his divine redemption. Little space is allotted in either the text or the music to present her as a fully developed woman in her own right, and her relationship with the three men in her life – Wolfram, Hermann and Tannhäuser – is left enigmatic.

In Baumgarten’s interpretation, she is a flesh-and-blood rebel who has her own struggles with life in the Wartburg compound and who retreats into extreme religiosity as she attempts to cope; we care about her as a fully formed participant in the drama, and not just an object to trigger the hero’s dilemma. She is Tannhäuser’s kindred spirit, in that she shares his alienation from the posthuman experience. After her entrance in a flame-red gown and her ecstatic greeting to the Hall of Song, she takes her cue from the briefly sensual music that accompanies her first sight of Tannhäuser to accompany him immediately on a brief sojourn into the Venusberg cage. Elisabeth is soon understood as having forced herself to stay within the Wartburg fold not through anaesthetisation by excessive alcohol, but rather through the sublimation of her sexual passion by extreme religious fervour. She too ‘acts out’, after Tannhäuser’s admission of betrayal, by piercing her hands, and with the resulting cruciform stigmata she assumes the identity of the suffering Madonna. This self-mutilating behaviour may also provide us with a clue about why she appears to keep her distance from her uncle, Hermann: religious delusions and ritualistic self-mutilation can sometimes be the result of severe childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse. All is not perfect in the posthuman Wartburg.

In literal stagings of Tannhäuser, the dramatic arc of Act III often seems overly simplistic and especially dated to modern audiences. Virtue and sin engage in a final struggle for the soul of the hero, and the entreaties to heaven of the self-sacrificing saint-like heroine are at last answered as the orchestra and chorus reprise the Pilgrims’ Chorus, making for a somewhat forced musical conclusion. Tannhäuser may be divinely redeemed, but nothing is resolved for any of the other principal characters in the opera, and the world of the Wartburg is much as it was at the beginning of the work. However, Wagner intended all of his works, including Tannhäuser, to be bold and socially provocative statements about the nature and perils of modern humanity – they were not intended to be comfortable entertainments. In this Bayreuth Tannhäuser, the relevance of the work is restored for modern audiences with the presentation of a dramatically taut and intellectually satisfying concluding act that elevates the entire opera to consistently compelling theatre.

The prelude to the third act provides perhaps the most arresting stage images of the entire production, as further projections are used to illustrate that Tannhäuser’s quest for salvation is nothing less than the essential struggle in the posthuman future to find balance and meaning in life. We are shown projections of the fertilisation of the ovum, cells dividing, life beginning at the microscopic level. The 1861 Paris audience had hoped for a ballet, but could never have imagined this perfect choreography of conception and mitosis. The symmetry and beauty of these natural biological processes are awe-inspiring, especially accompanied by Wagner’s majestic prelude, the man-made technological precision of the biogas installation pales in comparison to this natural wonder.

As previously described, the recently reprogrammed robotic pilgrims return to the Technocrat. Elisabeth’s despair at not finding her hero among the returning pilgrims leads to her final religious gesture – her prayer monologue, ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’ – and then to her suicide by entering one of the biogas cylinders, assisted by the ever-frustrated Wolfram. When Tannhäuser arrives on stage for his Rome Narration, he describes himself as ‘accursed’, and warns Wolfram to keep his distance. This moment is all the more striking and visceral in Baumgarten’s interpretation, as the tenor has now developed the skin lesions of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a sign of advanced AIDS. Death in this society is not sanitised by miraculous transformations – it is all very real, the heroine’s acceptance of her fate in the gas chamber of the repressive State, and the hero’s fatal disease acquired through sexual behaviour or intravenous drug use.

The end brings no comforting closure, as the Wartburg and the Venusberg are still physically distinct spaces within the Technocrat installation, with Elisabeth’s spirit ascending to the upper level of the set as Tannhäuser’s remains are consigned to the lower floor. Hope and promise, though, are signified by new life, as the pregnant Venus has delivered her baby and now presents it to us. The ultimate question, for her child and for all of future mankind, will be the quality and meaning of that life. It is the essential question for us all, and it remains before us to ponder as the curtain closes on this remarkable theatrical journey into what might well be our tomorrow if we do not heed the warnings of today.

Tannhäuser’s new dualities: past and future, science and art

Like Christoph Schlingensief before him, Sebastian Baumgarten has reported that he believes in the ‘Bayreuth als Werkstatt’ (‘Bayreuth as Workshop’) principle that defines this unique performance venue, and in subsequent years this production will doubtlessly evolve in ways that will sharpen its focus even more. Baumgarten, in 2011 and again at the 2012 Bayreuth Festival, has not so much completed the Tannhäuser that Wagner noted he ‘still owes the world’, as he has provided a viable and powerful interpretation that coheres its disparate elements into a frame which carries the philosophy of Richard Wagner forward through this work into our own time. Baumgarten uses the opera as a platform to advance a social commentary that would have been both recognisable to Wagner and is urgently relevant for us today. Furthermore, the present Tannhäuser, like other recent Bayreuth productions, make specific and painful references to the not-so-distant German past of National Socialism. Baumgarten and his team constructively work through that uniquely German pain. Elisabeth’s suicide in the biogas cylinder of the controlling Technocrat is an obvious reference to the gas chambers of the Nazi state, but simultaneously Baumgarten is making a wider societal point: her identification with her posthuman society is so complete that she recycles herself to become truly part of the system.

Baumgarten and his Regietheater colleagues in these recent years at Bayreuth not only understand history, politics and social psychology, but they are also willing to engage in the promise and perils of contemporary technology and science. From the evidence offered by this production, Baumgarten would seem to fit the description provided by the bioethicist James Hughes, and shared by many modern German intellectuals: ‘After World War II, reactions against the horrors of fascism tarred any consideration of a genetic approach to public health for progressives and became the first of many factors to make progressives more skeptical about technology.’ Hughes and other leaders of the progressive bioethics camp do not deny the validity of warnings about the unbridled expression of scientific and technological prowess; instead they directly confront the threat by offering constructive solutions and safeguards to help ensure appropriate application of those advances to enhance, rather than diminish, life and personhood. It is not the purpose of this dramaturgical analysis to make a judgment about attitudes to biotechnology, or to categorise the theatre artists as progressives or conservatives. The aim of this article has been to show that the biotechnology debate is the serious underlying premise of this production, and to identify this premise as the source for much of the power of this staging.

As has been argued above, the power of the staging also derives from the point that the future Master of Bayreuth was ultimately trying to make in Tannhäuser. The complete human organism is made up of all its parts and drives in balance: the balance between the physical need to exist, and the emotional urge to create, defines health and the highest state of our human experience. It was Wagner’s consistent and fervently held belief that it is only when science is coupled with art that our individual lives may be enhanced and our society will be enriched. Our predecessors in the 19th and 20th centuries did not really understand this; we can only hope that we do.



Return to Archive