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Nazi-themed Tannhauser ignites controversy in Germany

A production of Tannhauser that incorporates Nazi officers, swastikas and what appears to be a gas chamber into the mythical Richard Wagner opera has sparked outrage in Germany.

Provocative staging of Wagner opera blasted by audience, critics and community members

Elena Zhidkova appears as Venus, interpreted as an SS officer, in a scene from a controversial staging of Richard Wagner's opera Tannhauser in Duesseldorf. (Hans Joerg Michel/Deutsche Oper am Rhein/Associated Press)

A production of Tannhauser that incorporates Nazi officers, swastikas and what appears to be a gas chamber into the mythical Richard Wagner opera has sparked outrage in Germany.

The controversial staging of the opera — which traditionally explores the themes of love and salvation — opened at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duesseldorf on Saturday. According to German media, the debut drew jeers, complaints and sparked audience members to storm out mid-performance.

The company is contemplating whether to make changes to the provocative interpretation by director Burkhard Kosminski, opera house spokeswoman Monika Doll said on Tuesday.

She confirmed that audience members "booed and were shocked" by Saturday's opening performance of the modernized staging of Wagner's opera.

Modernized version set against Nazism

Inspired by a German legend, Wagner's Tannhauser tells the story of courtier-singer who, after being seduced into a life of sensual pleasures and hedonism by the goddess Venus, seeks to return home and find redemption with his Earthly love, Elisabeth.

In Kosminski's version, the overture reportedly features performers trapped in a transparent gas chamber and Venus as a Nazi officer. At one point, the titular main character, depicted as one of her SS henchman, is forced to murder a family. Even the soldiers' stage costumes are controversial, since displaying the swastika remains illegal in Germany.

According to the opera company's notes, the production "tells a nightmarish story about guilt and repression, an attempt at atonement and final capitulation."

In addition to the flood of negative audience reaction at the weekend debut, some critics have lambasted the production, while angry patrons confronted Kosminski at an opening night after-party, according to German newspaper Der Spiegel.

Community leaders have also expressed horror and outrage.

Describing it as "tasteless," Michael Szentei-Heise, the head of Dusseldorf's Jewish community, said he's now found himself in the odd position of defending Wagner. The 19th century Germany composer was a noted anti-Semite and the favourite composer of Adolf Hitler.

However, neither Wagner's music nor his libretto for Tannhauser include his anti-Semitic beliefs, Szentei-Heise told Germany's Die Zeit weekly.

"Wagner had nothing to do with the Holocaust."

With files from The Associated Press