October 18, 2018

Wagner: Kosher or Treif?

The very first complete presentation in Los Angeles of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” is being staged by LA Opera through the end of June, and more than 120 events comprising Ring Festival LA are being held around the city in conjunction with the production. As part of this festival, a symposium titled “Richard Wagner’s Music and His Anti-Semitism” took place June 6 in the Gindi Auditorium of American Jewish University (AJU) under the sponsorship of the Sigi Ziering Institute, named in memory of the respected scientist and writer who was also a Holocaust survivor.

Given the divisive nature of the subject, the daylong conference was surprisingly uneventful, with no outbursts from the spectators over LA Opera’s decision to produce this work by the controversial composer. 

However, some in the community apparently had strong feelings about matters involving Wagner, according to University President Robert Wexler.

“I got a call from a rabbinic colleague who was upset that the American Jewish University was planning an event in conjunction with the opera and the performance of Richard Wagner’s music,” Wexler said. “Now, I have to admit, at that time I had no idea that we had planned such an event. But, nevertheless, the rabbi told me that ‘even if you don’t know about it, find out about it. It’s your job to investigate, and then to cancel it.’

“We recognize, of course, that Richard Wagner was a controversial figure,” he continued, “because of his own personally expressed anti-Semitism, but also because of the role that his music played in the cultural pretensions of the Third Reich. And, of course, for those of us who are Jews, this subject can never be approached without a great deal of emotion. Nevertheless, here at AJU, our job is to provide you with a range of informed points of view, and then to trust you to make up your own mind.”

Wexler continued, “Can the art produced by an anti-Semite like Wagner stand apart from his or her personal actions or beliefs?” 

Prior to the day’s discussions, there was a brief screen clip from the first performance of Wagner’s music in Israel by an official Israeli orchestra on October 27, 2000, with the attendant demonstration as well as the enthusiastic applause. Among the statements voiced in the clip is the following:

“Bayreuth [site of an annual festival showcasing Wagnerian operas] was established by Wagner, not only as a place of music, but as a shrine. And he had this idea of putting together art and politics, music as a messenger and as a fomenter of more than [the] purely aesthetic, and including political and social passion. This is how Bayreuth developed and degenerated into a musical shrine of politics.”

That sentiment appeared to be shared by the composer’s great-grandson, multimedia director and writer Gottfried Wagner, one of the symposium participants. In a speech that was sometimes rambling, off-microphone and difficult to follow, this particular Wagner, who does a great deal of work in Israel, denounced most of his family, which has disowned him, as prominent Nazis. He talked of documents that revealed the family’s collaboration with the Third Reich, which were hidden and falsified and that would have made it impossible for the Wagners to run the Bayreuth Festival after 1948, when their de-Nazification process ended.

His suggestion that Richard Wagner may actually have had a Jewish father and, in an effort to hide his ancestry so as not to be lumped with outcasts, became more violently anti-Semitic, sparked the only real controversy of the day. During the roundtable that concluded the symposium, fellow panelist Sander Gilman, professor of the liberal arts and sciences and of psychiatry at Emory University, charged that the premise implies the Jews are at fault.

“I’m really anxious about that kind of an argument,” Gilman said, “because it’s crypto-anti-Semitic.”

Gilman’s earlier presentation had been about “The Jews of Wagner’s Time/The Jews of Wagner’s Imagination.” Steven Lowenstein, retired professor of modern Jewish history at AJU, had followed, speaking on the topic “Ordinary Jews and German Culture in Wagner’s Time.”

LA Opera Music Director James Conlon put in a brief appearance but had to leave to give a pre-opera talk at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Conlon said the festival looks at many different aspects of the “Ring.”

“It’s a huge subject that required many kinds of expertise — musical, historical, artistic, scholarly, the whole bit. At the same time, there is no secret about the deep blemishes on the character of the individual, Richard Wagner, and that is why today is so important, that that be put right out there with everything else.”

If a consensus of opinion can be identified, it might be summarized in the words of the day’s keynote speaker, Marc A. Weiner, professor of Germanic studies at Indiana University, who said we need to forge a path between “disavowal and tunnel vision, between disregarding what one scholar has called ‘the darker side of Wagner’s genius’ in order to enjoy his works pain-free, and seeing the music dramas solely as the products of a proto-Nazi, which, I believe, is historically unfounded.”