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LONDON (Reuters) - The founder of Britain's Glyndebourne festival loved Wagner and performed excerpts from "Die Meistersinger" on the organ, but that was before the Nazis adopted the composer's longest opera as their signature piece.
On Saturday, in its first production of "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" and only second Wagner opera, Glyndebourne will attempt to show that a work used to stir up nationalism and anti-Semitism by the Third Reich is fitting musical fare for its well-heeled patrons, fortified for the seven-hour journey with lobster tail and rack of lamb during a long interval.
"I don't think Wagner was imparting ideas which were outspokenly fascist," conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who will lead the performance, said, confronting the issue head on.
"The fact that they (Wagner's operas) have been abused by the Nazis later on only says something about the ambiguity of Wagner's ideas," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Everyone associated with the production, staged by the world-renowned director David McVicar, is aware that a lot is riding on the artistic, as well as financial, success of what is probably the most expensive and ambitious opera produced at Glyndebourne since it was founded in 1934 by wealthy landowner John Christie and his opera-singer wife.
Although details of the staging, as is usual in these affairs, have been kept under wraps, it is known that the historical period of Wagner's tale about a song contest sponsored by an opera guild in 16th-century Nuremberg has been moved to Wagner's time, the 19th century.
In addition to the soloists, there will be some 140 people on stage, including circus performers, a full orchestra in the pit and a chorus of about 90.
These are big -- and costly -- forces for the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, which gets all its funding from sponsors and ticket sales, but the fact that all 10 performances of an opera which begins just before 3 p.m. and, with two intervals, ends almost seven hours later, are sold out is music to the ears of general director David Pickard.
To accommodate those who can't get in for love or money, the opera will be streamed on the Guardian newspaper's website for its final performance on June 26.
"This gives truth to the myth that this place is about nice, light entertainment with a picnic attached," Pickard told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Serious operas are wonderfully suited to the sort of overall experience here at Glyndebourne, especially spending a day immersed in music and a beautiful garden."
"Honor YOUR GERMAN MASTERS"
Harder to shake are the opera's Nazi associations. It was Hitler's favorite and he was a regular visitor, before and during World War Two, to see it performed at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the hall in northern Bavaria that Wagner purpose-built to showcase his works.
At the end of the opera, the main character, cobbler and poet Hans Sachs, sings the line that endeared it to the Nazis and has caused trouble ever since: "Honor your German masters."
Jurowski, for one, thinks the words, and the whole opera, have been taken out of context.
"He (Wagner) ...was trying to give his support to (Chancellor Otto von) Bismarck's reunified Germany and ...the idea of national identity in the 19th century in the time when Wagner was growing up was a highly liberal idea...
"But of course we know the consequences of this idea in the 20th century, and we also know about the popularity of this opera in the Third Reich. It was a piece that enjoyed greater popularity than any other work by Wagner."
Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, singing the role of Sachs, is less worried about the political and historical overtones than he is with managing what someone has figured to be 6,000 words of German -- the biggest baritone role in the repertoire.
It is the first time Finley, 51, has sung the part -- a huge departure from his recent appearance as radio personality Howard Stern in the premiere at the Royal Opera House of "Anna Nicole," based on the life of the celebrity playgirl.
"It's been one of the fuller years of my career," Finley said, adding that while it may seem like a huge leap from Stern to Sachs, the first was a supporting role while the second requires him to be on stage almost the entire time.
"But in fact it's one of those things where hopefully one gets into a groove and they're paced nicely with four days between shows," he said. "So there's enough recovery time and, one hopes, rejuvenation time, too."
(Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" in rotation at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival from May 21 through June 26. www.glyndebourne.com)
Editing by Paul Casciato