Staging the Past: Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle in Divided Germany during the 1970s and 1980s

Alexander Karl Rothe

Staging the Past: Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle in Divided Germany during the 1970s and 1980s
Rothe, Alexander Karl
Thesis Advisor(s):
Frisch, Walter
Ph.D., Columbia University
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The staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen provides an ideal site to examine representations of the German past in the opera house and the broader cultural world surrounding it, in particular how these representations reveal different conceptions of the past in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). By looking at three different productions of the Ring cycle in divided Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, I will show how Wagner stagings both reflected and contributed to historical debates about the Nazi past and discussions about cultural and national identity. The introduction considers why stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle are so important for understanding national identity and the process of coming to terms with the Nazi past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) in the two German states. Along with describing my own methodology, I give an overview of the different approaches to opera staging in recent musicological scholarship. Chapter One provides contextual information on divided Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, and it also introduces three historical debates that appear in the case studies. Chapter Two begins by looking at the Leipzig Ring (1973-1976), directed by Joachim Herz, as a parable about nineteenth-century class conflict. I then consider what the Leipzig production has to say about the relationship between the GDR and the Nazi past, particularly with respect to Herz’s depiction of the Gibichung court as a fascist state. Chapters Three and Four investigate the Bayreuth centennial Ring (1976), staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez, each of whom had a different vision of Wagner. In spite of their differences, both Chéreau and Boulez treat Wagner’s work as an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences of the 1968 student protest movement. Both artists articulate a sense of unease about revolutionary activity, which mirrors the growing anxiety in both West Germany and France about the radical left. Chapter Five examines the multiple views of Wagner in Ruth Berghaus’s Frankfurt Ring (1985-1987). While the director Berghaus interprets the work in terms of a tradition of epic theater and historical materialism, the dramaturge Klaus Zehelein focuses on aspects of language, textuality, and representation. I also discuss how the reception of the Frankfurt Ring in West German newspapers reflects the re-intensification of the Cold War in the 1980s.
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Suggested Citation:
Alexander Karl Rothe, , Staging the Past: Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle in Divided Germany during the 1970s and 1980s, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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