Parsifal’s Open Wound: The Controversial History of Wagner’s Last Opera

(Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)

Richard Wagner is one of the most controversial figures in all of history, his antisemitic statements often creating staunch adversaries to his art. And just as the man was condemned for his abject racism, some of his operas have been at the heat of controversy.

Take the “Ring,” for example, with many seeing Mime and Alberich as anti-semitic symbols.

But perhaps no opera has been mired in as much controversy as his final one, “Parsifal.”

Premiering on July 26, 1882, the opera has been mired with a number of controversial situations throughout its history. Here are some of them.

Protesting a Jewish Conductor

Wagner’s first major controversy surrounding this opera happened prior to its premiere. Wagner was said to be incensed at the idea of Jewish conductor Hermann Levi taking the baton for the first major performance of the work. There are even stories that Wagner demanded that the conductor be baptized before conducting the opera, so great was his anti-Semitism. However, Levi did eventually lead the first performance of the opera.

Ban Outside Bayreuth

Wagner thought so highly of his work and its seriousness that he demanded it not be performed outside of Bayreuth. This was upheld for the first 20 years of the opera’s existence. After Wagner’s death, unstaged performances were permitted but eventually, a court ruled that the work could be performed fully staged in New York. Eventually, Bayreuth lifted its monopoly on the work in 1914.

Nietzsche’s Attack

Friedrich Nietzche, who so vehemently attacked Christianity in his writing, pulled no punches against Wagner in his depiction of Christian symbols. “’Parsifal’ is a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presuppositions of life – a bad work. The preaching of chastity remains an incitement to anti-nature: I despise everyone who does not experience ‘Parsifal’ as an attempted assassination of basic ethics,” he wrote in his essay, “What Is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?”

Racism in the Opera

Many take issue with the depictions of “pure-bloods,” and suggest that the opera is written to support the writings of Arthur de Gobineau, who backed Aryan dominance. The villain Klingsor is often referred to as a Jewish stereotype since he is opposed to the Knights of the Holy Grail, who are quite Christian in their depiction. Though there is no evidence to fully support this claim, it remains the opinion on some regarding the work.

Nazi Ban

The opera itself became the subject of abuse by the Nazi regime, as it was seen as being “ideologically unacceptable” to the Third Reich. As such it was banned and not performed at Bayreuth during World War II.


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About the Author

David Salazar
Prior to creating OperaWire, DAVID SALAZAR, (Editor-in-Chief) worked as a reporter for Latin Post where he interviewed major opera stars including Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Vittorio Grigolo, Diana Damrau and Rolando Villazon among others. His 2014 interview with opera star Kristine Opolais was cited in a New York Times Review. He also had the opportunity of interviewing numerous Oscar nominees, Golden Globe winners and film industry giants such as Guillermo del Toro, Oscar Isaac and John Leguizamo among others. David holds a Masters in Media Management from Fordham University. During his time at Fordham, he studied abroad at the Jagiellonian University in Poland. He also holds a dual bachelor’s from Hofstra University in Film Production and Journalism.

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