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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

WINIFRED WAGNER, A reminiscence

Edward Downes was a teacher and critic and the long time host of "Opera Quiz" on the (then) Texaco Metropolitan Opera Radio Network. I have the honor of considering him a mentor. He died in 2002 at 89. In the mid 1990s he dictated about thirty hours of memoirs to me in his apartment in the Dakota in New York, just upstairs from Yoko Ono. I went back through some of my notes recently while reading the new book, "Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Center of Hitler's Bayreuth" by Brigitte Haman. Bayreuth is a town in Central Germany where Richard Wagner established a theatre to perform his works in 1876. The Bayreuth Festival remains today the world's most prestigious, some would say the world's most notorious. Winifred Williams was a British born orphan of 18 when she married Siegfried Wagner, who was over thirty years her senior, in 1915. Siegfried, the only son of Richard Wagner, died in 1930. Four children were born of this marriage. Friedelind escaped to New York during World War II and made anti Nazi propaganda broadcasts. Wieland became one of the most renowned stage directors of the 20th century. Wolfgang, now 87, runs the festival to this day.

Winfred Wagner's devotion to Hitler and the Third Reich is unquestioned, least of all by herself. Here are some of Edward's reminiscences of Bayreuth, and the Wagner family. Edward's father was Olin Downes, critic of the New York Times.

We are in Edward's living room in 1995. He is speaking of 1930:

I got to Bayreuth in 1930. It wasn't difficult to smuggle myself in, because there was a time when all the orchestral players streamed in, but one day I made the mistake of asking where Frau Winifred Wagner was. Then it was clear I did not know her by sight. I was quickly booted out. I found Frau Wagner drinking coffee in the Bayreuth restaurant. This was the year Siegfried died, leaving her a widow with four children. She was English and had been orphaned, and was raised in Germany by acquaintances of her family. She became thoroughly German. She was very gracious to me. My father had given me a letter of introduction to her. She wrote on a slip of paper, "Admit to any rehearsal." I still have the slip. (CP: And he did. He showed it to me. Creepy)

After the war she was in disgrace. She took the whole Nazi era in her stride. I got a message the first year I went back, around 1958, that Frau Wagner knew I was in Bayreuth and would like to see me. Friedelind's book was out (note: Friedelind Wagner, youngest child of Winifred and Siegfried had written "Heritage of Fire" detailing her mother's close ties to the Nazis) And I thought, Oh, Christ, what do I do now? I had never seen Winifred since that day in 1930. And now thirty years later here she was. I sent back the answer, that it was very nice of Frau Wagner, and we only met once thirty years ago, and she couldn't possibly remember me. Back came a message. Oh, no, she remembers you very well and she knows just who you are, and she would like to see you, so I went to Friedelind and said What do I do now?

Friedelind, cool as a cucumber said, Mama receives on performance days. I'll take you over tomorrow.

Frau Wagner came to the door and she and Friedelind kissed and cooed. Then she turned to me: "What do you think of our Wieland's productions? I think he does it just to be different, don't you?"

I tried to be as neutral as possible but I thought his productions were just marvelous..

Frau Wagner was very chirp and urbane and seemed at peace with her life. In a long TV documentary made shortly before her death (1980) she said, "Yes, I was Hitler's friend, certainly. We were very fond of one another. If he came knocking at the door today I would get up to greet him as an old friend." She made these absolutely flat statements that Hitler never knew anything at all about the horrors that went on. And I sat there thinking, does she think I'm really stupid or is she pretending an ignorance she can't have? She seemed a very bright woman. She was playing a role right up to the hilt. I never heard her apologize or repudiate Hitler in any way, and this went on until her death in 1980."

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The book is Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Center of Hitlerism Bayreuth by
Brigitte Hamann. It's a devatstating cultural history.

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