A banner above the main entrance to the Semperoper opera house in Dresden bears a quote from Fritz Busch, who during his life was a prominent conductor and musical director of the Saxon State Opera: “Decent behavior is even more important than making good music.”
Busch was not a Jew, but he was opposed to Nazi ideology. This attitude resulted in his dismissal in 1933, five weeks after Hitler’s rise to power. His story is one of the most well-known among 50 others that make up the current exhibition “Silenced Voices,” which deals with the expulsion of Jews from the opera between 1933 and 1945. For the last five years, historian Hannes Heer and music scholar Jürgen Kesting have been dedicated to researching the project. On the request of the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper and the Hamburg State Opera, they are investigating the stories of Jewish and “politically untouchable” artists that worked in German operas in the Third Reich. One of the sources of information they are using is biographies of prominent composers, conductors, directors and singers, as well as the stories of expulsion from various opera houses.
Hannes Heer discovered that prisoners of war worked at the opera house
The exhibition consists of two parts. In the national section, the fate of 44 prominent composers, directors and singers – the victims of racist Nazi politics – is documented. The regional section specifically deals with the topic of the expulsion of Semperoper members. A labyrinth of columns and billboards in the foyer helps to emphasize the dismal nature of these people’s fates. Descriptions and photos present well-known and not-so-well-known artists, choir and orchestra members, artisans and stagehands. Visitors can also listen to musical extracts.
In a detailed catalog, Hannes Heer discusses the source of anti-Jewish sentiments in Germany after 1918. The German Empire had gone through a political change following World War 1, when it became a federal republic. At this time, German culture – described by some as the best and the most beautiful of all – was seen as the only unifying aspect that could be used to forge a new national identity. This automatically excluded all modern artistic movements, which in turn forced theaters to give up on artistic experiments and contemporary works. The new, compulsory focus was on the canons of culture.
One of the goals of this national stance was to convey the message that it was Jews who were to blame for the revolution, for the defeat in World War II and for economic troubles. A “security scale” was devised with regard to theaters and operas, indicating which institutions had the most subversive tendencies. Berlin was at the top of the list, as it was traditionally open to all modern influences, but avant-garde theaters such as those in Leipzig and Darmstadt were also being monitored.
The propaganda was spread in a very direct manner, including methods like stink bombs and chanting to prevent certain performances from taking place. There were also press campaigns against specific individuals, as well as those that called for the resignation of certain directors and those that aimed to influence operatic and theatrical repertoires.