In 1838 Richard Wagner wrote his opera Rienzi, set in 14th-century Rome. When it premiered in Dresden in 1842, it became his first big success. Seventy or so years later, 17-year-old Adolf Hitler saw it and was struck dumb. His boyhood friend August Kubizek later claimed that an exultant Hitler had said: “At that hour it all began!” Though Kubizek’s testimony has been questioned, Hitler did have a copy of the manuscript of the opera, which he requested.

Justin Fleming is best known for his hugely successful Australian adaptations of Molière plays such as Tartuffe, The School for Wives, The Literati and The Misanthrope, which Bell Shakespeare and Griffin Theatre Company are staging in August/September. He has also written many new plays including The Cobra and Burnt Piano. In his new play Dresden, Justin Fleming uses Rienzi, Wagner and Hitler in a story about creativity, destruction and the dark side of human inspiration. Dresden is directed for bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company by Suzanne Millar, who has previously directed six of Fleming’s plays including Coup d’Etat in 2011 and Mother’s Voice in 2014. Justin Fleming spoke to Limelight about Dresden, which stars Yalin Ozucelik as Adolf, Jeremy Waters as Richard, and Renee Lim as Cosima Wagner, the woman who connected them across time.

DresdenYalin Ozucelik, who plays Hitler, Jeremy Waters, who plays Wagner, and Renee Lim, who plays Cosima Wagner, in Dresden. Photograph: supplied

When did you begin work on Dresden?

I started thinking about doing something for it for Wagner’s [200th birthday] anniversary, which was 2013, so that’s five years ago. I followed up then by writing it, and Suzanne was immediately interested in it. We’ve worked together for 10 years and we work very well together, so I thought well I’d run by it her and she responded very strongly so here we are.

Can you tell us about the thinking behind the play?

I think the way into it was going back to the young Adolf Hitler at the age of 17 seeing a performance of Rienzi. So, Adolf becomes obsessed with it because it’s the story of Rienzi who is a Roman leader in the 14th century who whipped up the crowds of Rome to restore it to its former glory. But, of course, in the end they all became disenchanted with him and they burnt the Capitol down with him inside it with a few of his loyal supporters. What was disturbing is not so much that Adolf was obsessed with the opera, but that his whole career followed that [of Rienzi] – he also whipped people up into a frenzy, and then they became horrified by him and burnt him down.

I this the essence of it too is comparing Wagner and Hitler and how there is great danger in passion without love. Adolf of course has passion galore but he is absolutely incapable of love, and that is the excursion we go on. We see that Wagner especially through Cosima Wagner his wife, who was the daughter of Franz Liszt. She understood music, and we see the power of love. Wagner says he couldn’t have written the Ring cycle but for Cosima. So, we do look at love in action, and we look at passion without love, and that’s at the centre of the drama. Also, the two men both have the same source material, Rienzi, and one of the comes up with an act of great creation and the other with an act of terrible destruction. So, there’s that enigma at the centre of the work as well.

DresdenJustin Fleming. Photograph: supplied

Does the play move between times?

Yes we do. Fortunately, Cosima Wagner lived a long time, so Adolf comes to her in 1923, and begs her to give him the original manuscript of the score of Rienzi which is in the Opera House Dresden. She refuses to do that, and gives him a copy, which he’s not very happy with. But what he wanted was the sanction of the German people and he believed that if he had that manuscript in the Nazi headquarters of Berlin, he would have legitimacy because he’d use that music for his marching tunes, and he could say “look, I’ve got the Bible here, I’ve got the sanction of the German people, the greatest artist is in my hands”. At the same time we look at the young Bavarian King Ludwig in Wagner’s time, who was 18 and a real boy. He also lacked legitimacy and so he heaps money and time and eventually a theatre into Wagner. Wagner’s on the run from creditors and Ludwig pays all his debts, saying, “well here’s an opportunity for me”, so Adolf does that as well. They both need legitimacy. But across time there is Cosima Wagner. She’s the woman that links these two time periods. She’s with us all the way through.

Do you explore the fact that because of Hitler, Wagner became associated in many minds with Nazism? 

We do. The best way I think of explaining the angle on it is, I went to an evening Stephen Fry hosted, and he’s Jewish and a passionate Wagner supporter – loves it. And he made a very good point. He said, “look, anti-Semitism before the Holocaust is different from after the Holocaust”. He said, “for example, if I complained about American influence in England, in our culture, that would be fine. But if a hundred years later six million Americans are gassed in a chamber, am I, a hundred years ago, complicit in mass murder?” And so, I think coming from Fry, it’s a very interesting, persuasive point. Anti-Semitism is never a good thing, but we’ve all put up with Shakespeare because we know that it was really long ago with no Holocaust, and it was money lending. Now that we see Jewish people in the arts, the sciences, we know that there’s an unfair portrait. You would never draw that now. You have to take it in its time. Having said that, Meyerbeer got Rienzi on in Dresden. Wagner couldn’t have done it without him. Also Wagner asked Levi, the Jewish conductor, to conduct Parsifal, and Levi wanted to be a pallbearer at Wagner’s funeral. So, there’s a lot of stuff in there that needs to be unpacked.

Meyerbeer was later hurt by Wagner though? 

He was. Well, people say no one likes to acknowledge the person that gave them their big shot. They like to think they did it themselves. But few of us ever do it ourselves.

Do you play Wagner’s music in Dresden?

We have, thank heavens, Max Lambert who is head of the sound design, and the music is all Rienzi and it is a voice in the play. It doesn’t just come between scenes, it actually underscores a lot of the action. Of course, it’s before Wagner’s big operas. This is big, but very Italianate in a way, and tuneful. I think he had to do that, he had to have beautiful tunes to launch himself. I think it’s hauntingly beautiful music to listen to and at times very hard-hitting music, depending on the moment explored.

Dresden plays at KXT (Kings Cross Theatre), Sydney, June 15 – 30