"Parsifal is an existential drama about the dilemma of our human existence. Under the guise of a religious drama, Wagner's music mercilessly tells of total loneliness, of living in an empty world stripped of all its former meaning. It is a world where everybody is an outsider, where lost souls wander aimlessly through time and space. By joining the world of the Holy Grail, Parsifal breaks a taboo. His entry is an invasion, an impulse of nature into a decadent and dead world, whose rituals have become meaningless and where all missionary consciousness has been lost."

-- Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff

Particularly superb in this production is Lehnhoff's interpretation of the Holy Grail as a radiant blinding light on the other side of the steel wall. Is this powerful glow the aftermath of some recent spectacular nuclear holocaust that has now been accepted as a new god, or is it the light of some older established deity shining on humanity once more in times of trouble? Equally superb is the sequence when the knights meekly exit through the two side doors only to come back through the glowing center opening marching, wearing helmets and carrying spears. The Grail has miraculously metamorphosed them into warriors. This scene, which comments on the link that has historically always existed between religion and war, is one of the most memorable statements of this unforgettable production.
Christopher Ventris (Parsifal) "The wonderful thing for Parsifal is that he makes a journey through the opera and he doesn't come into the opera with knowledge. Parsifal develops through the evening, reacting and listening to the themes and to the words and the expressions from the other characters."
Waltraud Meier (Kundry) "Who is Kundry? Who is she? A lot of it will be explained through the music accompanying her, through the chromatic which is always with her. She is a woman of all possible colors. In every possible form, in every culture. I think she is unfathomable and unlimited."
Thomas Hampson (Amfortas) "He's around people who think that his wound is an earthly, temporal wound, and baths will help, and salts from Arabia will help, and all sorts of things. But, in fact, the only thing that ever can help is to reconcile his God and his actions again."
Amfortas -- Thomas Hampson
Titurel -- Bjarni Thor Kristinsson
Gurnemanz -- Matti Salminen
Parsifal -- Christopher Ventris
Klingsor -- Tom Fox
Kundry -- Waltraud Meier
Musical Direction: Kent Nagano
Production: Nikolaus Lehnhoff
Sets: Raymund Bauer
Choreography: Denni Sayers
Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Lighting: Duane Schuler

One rather sorry aspect of this production was the way that it was advertised to the opera public. The above ad bearing the logo of the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, and reading "Kent Nagano conducts Wagner" was used. I don't believe its intention was to offend, but rather to amuse and make people chuckle at a glance. However, therein lies the problem.

It shows a photoshopped image of the composer manually slanting his eyes in order to make himself look "more Asian." This obviously alludes to a racist European custom of trying to mimic Asian facial characteristics by doing this. The ad comments on Kent Nagano's Japanese-American ethnicity while at the same time reminding us of Richard Wagner's own prejudicial view of the world.

Arguably, though, the ad touches a deeper vein recalling the fact that when Parsifal premiered at Bayreuth in 1882 Wagner asked conductor Hermann Levi to submit to Christian baptism in order to be purified of his "Jewishness" and be ready to properly conduct this Christian work. The ad touches upon German (Christian) supremacy, perhaps saying that someone of Japanese extraction conducting Wagner's most holy work is not only somehow preposterously humorous, but that it soils the true "German-ness" of the work (Wagner's own fears of having a Jewish conductor lead the opera's premiere). As a result the composer's most famous portrait has now metamorphosed into a grotesque mask, itself already having been "soiled."

Needless to say this is the kind of ad that clearly nobody would dare to show in the United States, England or in many other European countries. The fact that it won advertising awards in Berlin, and that nobody protested or even batted an eye when it came out speaks volumes about questions of sensitivity in Baden-Baden and the rest of Germany. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves if our society has become way too tender to questions of race that we are in danger of completely losing our sense of humor, which I believe was the point of departure for this ad. Of course, humor directed at minorities is no humor at all.

The only question that remains in my mind is what did Kent Nagano himself think of the ad?