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Critic's Notebook: Mike Antonovich vs. Wagner

July 15, 2009 |  8:45 pm

Ring photo

On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for Los Angeles Opera -- which is scheduled to mount Wagner’s four-opera “Ring” cycle next spring as well as coordinate a citywide festival on the “Ring” -- to “delete the focus on Wagner.” He asks this on the grounds that Wagner was a racist and anti-Semite whose music Hitler enjoyed and employed to his own ends. In addition to Wagner, the supervisor suggests we turn to, among others, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann, great composers who never properly mastered opera.

Oy vey!  I hardly know where to begin. The supervisor’s proposition would be a cultural public relations disaster for Los Angeles, since the mounting of any "Ring" is an occasion of civic pride and our provocative $32-million production by German artist Achim Freyer is of international interest. It would bankrupt L.A. Opera, which has been "Ring" obsessed for a decade. It would harm Los Angeles' economy: The tourism industry is banking on a “Ring” windfall, and the "Ring Festival" brings together 50 different arts organizations. And it's even bad for the Jews.

That Wagner contributed to 19th century anti-Semitic literature is hardly news. In 1850, he published an article titled “Jewry in Music.”  It was motivated by many things, not the least of them jealousy of and spite against the likes of Mendelssohn (who converted to Christianity) and Meyerbeer (whose French grand operas were the talk of Paris). 

Wagner was a complicated man and his relationship to Jews was and remains confusing.  This is hardly news either. Wagner is the most written about musician of all time, and the issue of his anti-Semitism (a term that did not exist, by the way, until after his death in 1883) continues to be discussed and analyzed in Wagner literature and at Wagner conferences and symposiums. Jewish conductors, such as James Levine and Daniel Barenboim, are among the cycle's greatest proponents.  And rare is a modern-day presentation of the “Ring” without its anti-Semitism being aired.

The operas themselves do not make specific reference to Jews (unlike, say, Bach’s “St. John Passion” or Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” with their overt anti-Semitism), but the character of Mime can be reasonably understood as a caricature of Jews. This wily little dwarf, who raises Siegfried, intends on using a pure hero to get his hands on a hoard of gold.  Many directors now, however, turn the tables on Wagner and treat Mime as abused by a mean-spirited Siegfried, and there is much in the music and drama to support that as well.

As an epic, spread over four days and a great many hours, “The Ring” is a study of fragile humanity.  Siegfried, whom the Nazis adopted as an Aryan symbol, was not without serious flaws, including arrogance, ignorance and a tendency to slash his sword first and ask questions later. On one of its many levels “The Ring” is the tragic education of a bully.

Hitler’s regard for Wagner is also extremely well documented. In Antonovich’s statement, he notes that Wagner supplied the "de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust." But it is highly debatable that Wagner, who had supported anarchist and anti-Fascist causes of his day, would have approved of Nazi tactics.  Besides, Hitler loved and appropriated many other composers. 

The Nazis did not hesitate, for instance, to pervert Beethoven and his message of brotherhood. The most chilling music video I have ever seen is that of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting an inspired wartime performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Behind the Berlin Philharmonic are banners with giant swastikas.  When the camera pans to the audience, we see, in what can only be described as a kind of spiritual ecstasy, wounded uniformed Nazi soldiers, SS officers and party officials.

Should we not also consider, then, asking the Los Angeles Philharmonic to cancel Gustavo Dudamel’s free performance of the Ninth at the Hollywood Bowl in October?  And what’s with Turner Classics showing all those old Hollywood films Hitler liked so much? 

As a staple of Western civilization, "The Ring," whatever you think of it, is inescapable. This means that we need more attention focused on Wagner, not less, if we are to understand why Seattle is gaga about its “Ring” cycle this summer, and why L.A. Opera, New York's Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera are all going through the extraordinary effort and expense of making new “Ring” productions. 

The idea of including other composers in the conversation is not lunatic. A Wagner festival at Bard College in New York will do just that in August, looking at the composers (some Jewish) who influenced Wagner and the composers (some Jewish) whom Wagner influenced.  Something similar is possible in the Los Angeles “Ring Festival.”  The organizations that care to participate can participate in any way they like. But none of this makes sense unless the “focus” remains on Wagner. 

For L.A. Opera to do anything but continue to produce “The Ring” as it is doing would be akin to the self-destructive actions of the gods in Wagner’s drama. I wonder if Antonovich understands that L.A. Opera has already spent or committed the $32 million, even though a lot of it still needs to be raised.  Forfeiting that kind of dough would spell the end of opera in Los Angeles for a very long time. Does the supervisor really believe that hoards with full pockets would be knocking down our doors for a Meyerbeer festival?

So let the Wagner Festival go forth and let the conversation be vigorous.  That’s our best defense against intolerance.  And I recommend Supervisor Antonovich perhaps educate himself about Wagner's operas.  The downfall of Wotan is an object lesson for any politician who takes an indefensible position.  

 -- Mark Swed

Photo: A scene from Los Angeles Opera's production of "Die Walküre," the second opera in Wagner's "Ring" tetraology.  Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (29)

Hi Mark,
You can probably still buy the CD of that performance. My copy is:

CD.653 Music & Arts Berkley CA.

Berlin 1942
It also happens to be Frau Furtwangler's favourite performance. She is still alive in Clarens Switzerland, as far as I know, at about age about 98. His second younger bride. I have a 45 min interview with her, recorded by Radio New Zealand in September 2000.

The DVD, TAKING SIDES is also worth viewing, with Harvey Keitel and Skarsguard as Furtwangler. Based on the play about his de-nazification trial after the war.A Ronald Harwood play.

I have the wartime video clip and numerous other pieces of that world famous/contoversial interpreter of the great classics. He was very definitely very anti Nazi.

Best Regards,
Don Rowberry
New Zealand

Please consider that the issue is the _FOCUS_ of the Ring Festival. The operas should go on as planned - I trust that Antonivich is not suggesting anything be canceled.

And do have a Festival - but as long as it is a public festival make sure the subject includes a fair dose of discussion of the evil done in Wagner's name. He does not deserve forgiveness because his music is popular.

The world has taken many lessons from the Second World War - including how not to react when one country invades another. We should also use the Nazi story to remember how art and music can be a method to manipulate people - and not necessarily for good.

Hi Mark,
Glad to see you're still setting the uninformed straight. Miss your voice in NYC.

I fail to understand where Mark Swed is coming from. He totally misunderstands what Supervisor Antonovich is proposing. Supervisor Antonovich has no intentions of stopping or changing LA Opera's $32 million "Ring" productions. He simply wants to broaden the scope of the arts festival of 70 events at venues around the county so that the focus of the festival is balanced. Wagner was a racist and anti-Semite whose writings set the stage for the Nazi doctrine. Hitler then spent every summer at the festival house in Bayreuth, Germany, which was and still is headed by the Wagner family. He even subsidized many of their productions. During World War II, members of the Wagner family became Nazis. In fact Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred supposedly had an affair with Hitler. Katharina Wagner, Wagner's great-granddaughter, is just now opening up the archives at Bayreuth to finally expose her family's Nazi past. A festival focused on Wagner at this time in history would send the wrong message to the world about the image that the city of Los Angeles should project. By expanding the festival and still performing the "Ring," the Los Angeles image would remain in tact.

In Supervisor Antonovich's letter to LA Opera and in his upcoming motion, he mentions great operatic composers Mozart, Verdi and Puccini along with those listed by Mark Swed. Swed intentionally deleted the big three to make it appear that Supervisor Antonovich was ignorant. The only one who is ignorant is Mark Swed who apparently wrote his commentary before reading Supervisor Antonovich's letter and motion.

Even though the "Ring" performances are part of the festival, the two are being organized separately with separate budgets. Barry Sanders is organizing the festival of 70 events, not the performances. Most of the events are lectures, exhibits and films on the life of Wagner. I fail to understand how changing the focus of these events could be bad for Jews, as Swed implies. Seventy events focused on a racist who wrote essays about his desire for the "destruction" of the Jews only reveals an insensitivity to Jews. The reverse of what Mark Swed has written is true: If this festival is "not" changed, it will be bad for the Jews and for every member of a minority culture who has fought for a substantial place in the multicultural fabric we call L.A.

Dear Wagner Lovers and Wagner Haters, As you probably know 2013 is a big Wagner year and honoring it's "home boy" The Bavarian State Opera, Munich, will also offer a new Ring Cycle. I personally invite all of you to attend. Cheers from Munich via New York.

Finally a writer who knows (and points out) that the very term "Anti Semitism" (Treitschke) wasn't coined until after Wagner's death (or at least late in his life).

It's interesting that the whole "WagnerTheJewHater" still comes up every so often... unabated vigor. Much more so than "We should never again drive a [Mercedes / Ford]" or "Aspiring is a Nazi-Medicine", these days, though those were once popular, too. And more often than not, it comes from the class of the professionally aggrieved, not the alleged victims on whose behalf they are unsolicitedly posturing.

What Ms. Delmar and Supervisor Antonovich fail to understand (and I realize that is a big category in and of itself) is that it is not a Festival examining Wagner and his Ring cycle that will make LA look foolish, but the fact that this city would have this “debate” at all in this day and age that does so. Wagner, like all humans, was a complicated person with both good and bad qualities. Some of them, like his anti-Semitism are sadly quite common in people. Others, like his artistic achievements, are among the most rare in our species. To suggest that we should not discuss and focus on the life and work of a single person who did great things because some of his opinions from over a century ago don’t jibe with our modern day sense of fairness or that he shared opinions with others who much later on did unspeakable things is so myopic it begs reason. We celebrate “great” individuals every day who were anti-Semities, racists, and frankly worse for far less than Wagner achieved. (Lincoln and Washington were not the nicest of guys at times either, believe you me.) To sort out only those historical figures who said and believed all of the things we feel most comfortable with today would leave us very little to talk about.

On the plus side though, all this does get Supervisor Antonovich and Ms. Delmar’s name in the paper during a slow news cycle, which was probably the goal to begin with. It will probably also generate greater attention, ticket sales, and financial support for LA Opera. The city’s image may be a little worse for the wear, but Los Angeles has always suffered from an anti-intellectual reputation.

In reply to Ms. Delmar's comments:

It does seem that Mr. Swed has intentionally focused on Meyerbeer rather than Mozart and the great Italians, and it also seems that he didn't fully explain his "bad for Jews" comment. That said, a "Ring" festival must focus on Wagner, otherwise it would simply be a generic opera festival. Wagner was a great artist whose deplorable personal views find no home in this cycle (or for that matter, any but perhaps one of his works). But you should be sure not to overlook certain things yourself when playing a race card in an essential a-racial production/festival.

I will simply provide this link to the original story I found on this issue, and mention a few things about it.


First, Antonovich's word choice was to "delete" the focus on Wagner. He is not suggesting that the Ring cycle be supplemented by Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi (composers with very little direct connection to Wagner, by the way), but that it in fact be replaced by those composers. The use of the term "Nazi composer" to describe Wagner is also clearly ignorant, as the Nazi Party came into existence well after Wagner's death.

Also, consider the statement from LA Opera which mentions that it will directly address Wagner's anti-Semitism. This is not a festival ignorant of the flaws of the man it is honoring, and it appears they will place Wagner in context, rather than either extreme of brazenly attacking or ignorantly accepting who he was and what he thought.

Finally, consider the writings of the great conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim on this very subject. He points out a few salient points (all quotations from Barenboim's "Music Quickens Time". Brooklyn: Verso, 2008.)

-"At the time, it was part of the psychological make-up of a European nationalist (not only of a German one) to be anti-Semitic...Wagner was not exceptional in his anti-Semitism, he was simply exceptionally thorough and precise in articulating his racist sentiments" (61).

-"There are only a handful of composers who summarize, and encapsulate, the entire period of composition until their time, while at the same time showing the path to the future, and Richard Wagner is certainly one of these" (62-3).

-on rehearsing Wagner with his Arab-Israeli youth orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: "When [German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier] heard the opening of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde she was visibly moved; and although the rehearsal room was full of visitors interested in the program and a few journalists - an audience of sorts - she stood with her back to them, facing the orchestra, as she began to sing the Liebestod. All of us - Waltraud, the orchestra and I - were moved by the experience. To hear this wonderful German singer communicate with Arabs and Israelis through the music of Wagner was to release the grip of so many oppressive spirits, so many taboos at once. Music...is not simply a common activity that brings people together so that they might forget their differences; rather, it guides them to understand these very differences. It is an existential process that encourages reflection and understanding, helping us to delve beneath the surface and connect us to the source of our being" (63).


Hopefully these ideas can shed some light on this issue. It is true that Wagner is a controversial figure, but his music need not be so. Ultimately, the aim of music, and all art, is to enhance our understanding of ourselves and each other, of society and culture, of the human and the divine. That Wagner was a repulsive bigot need not diminish the fact that his music does these things on the highest level. To say that his anti-Semitism influenced Hitler is simply not relevant - the dictator hardly needed Wagner's influence to become the monster he was, and even so, the music itself has no relation to his prose writings on the subject, save for being written by the same hand.

-Colin Davin

This is ridiculous, Ms. Delmar and Mr. Antonovich - please enter the 21st century. I am sure that in the entire festival there is not a single event that glorifies Wagner's anti-semitism. The music he wrote has ZERO political meaning. Your posturing and need for attention does, and is far closer to book-burning than a single note of Wagner's is to fascism. If you dislike Wagner, feel free to stay home. I wish I could be in LA to witness a festival dedicated to one of the world's most complex artistic figures.

Ms. Delmar:

"Wagner was a racist and anti-Semite whose writings set the stage for the Nazi doctrine." A racist, yes, but hard to believe that his writings set the stage for the Nazi doctrine when Wagner was a socialist and the Nazis were facists. Many of Hitler's higher-ups disliked The Ring because it was so contrary to their political and social views.

"Hitler then spent every summer at the festival house in Bayreuth, Germany," That's because he was having an affair with Winifred.

"Seventy events focused on a racist who wrote essays about his desire for the 'destruction' of the Jews only reveals an insensitivity to Jews." You placed "destruction" in quotation marks. From where are you quoting this? I'd like to see the citation. Wagner was in favor of the destruction of his most-favored conductor?

As a Jew, I, too, am troubled by Wagner's personality and writings but not at all troubled by his music. You could say that his anti-Jewish views seeped into his operatic creations, but there's no real proof of that, is there…unless, of course, you view Alberich and Mime as Jewish caricatures, which only an anti-Semite would do.

I would, in addition to Mark's comments, refer reader to an article that appeared in the Daily Breeze titled "Can a Jew Love Wagner?" by Jim Farber, in which LA Opera music director James Conlon and a local Rabbi debate this very question.

You don't know where to begin, Mark? Why don't you begin here: with your own remark from your Apr. 5, 2009 review:

"Wagner’s world is highly provocative, shockingly banal, morally offensive, emotionally transcendental, astonishingly wise and, when wrong-headed, dangerously so. Accept it all on face value, and you may want to keep company with Hitler."

You wonder where Antonovich got his asinine idea, Herr Kritic?

As a Jew and an opera fan, I am more offended by the thinly disguised censorship than with concerns about Wagner's personal views. Politicians should stay out of cultural issues.

To credit Richard Wagner's MUSIC and THEATER WORKS as being bad for the Jews is as ridiculous as calling Michael Jackson an anti-Semite because he used derogatory terms about Jews in his music. Liking or disliking Jews doesn't make Wagner a lesser or better composer. The man was gifted and gave the world some of the most exquisite music to be found. It is wrong to confuse Wagner with Nazi culture. A culture monster perhaps, but a man of great taste. A little kitsch, but still llived and surrounded himself with great elegance and probably even a Jew or two. Afterall, Cosima's mother was Jewish. And it's a well known fact that Hitler's favorite theater was Gaertnerplatz in Munich, a house which neve playe Wagner, and he probably preferred listening to Viennese waltzes and Lehar's "Merry Widow" more than if not equal to Wagner. The music? Puh...small potatoes. You can start to worry when they decorate the Dorothy Chandler Paviillion with German flags and swastikas.

Maybe Mad Mike is reacting to the godawful costumes in the photograph? What is with the fellow wearing a baby-buggy?

Bravo to Carie Delmar and Supervisor Antonovich for speaking out to broaden the repertory!!

I urge those who know little of Wagner to actually read "Jews and Music". Nothing wrong in listening to the music -- if you like it -- but there is a thing or two you should know about the composer. And leave room in your heart for the many millions of music lovers who actually dislike Wagner's music and opera.

Meyerbeer Fan Club, New York
Stephen A. Agus

It was said above that "He does not deserve forgiveness because his music is popular."

I would counter that he does not deserve hatred because a group of fascists born well after his time decided to use his music to their own ends. Wagner died long before the Nazis came along, and he had no love for Fascists.

Moreover, the Ring is a tragedy, full of flawed people who meet terrible fates. Any group that would use it as a "de facto soundtrack" is oblivious to the irony of their decision. I believe Wagner would have laughed bitterly at such fools.

"...unlike, say, Bach’s “St. John Passion” or Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” with their overt anti-Semitism"

I disagree that "The Merchant of Venice" is anti-Semitic. While Shylock is not a likeable character in many ways, the same is true (although for different reasons) regarding the Christians in the play. And in some ways, Shylock is sympathetic and has an intelligence and honesty that his Christian antagonists lack. Furthermore, even if one totally dislikes him, simply portraying a Jewish character unfavorably does not automatically make one anti-Semitic.

Mr. Swed -
I wanted to congratulate you on your excellent response to Mr. Antonovich's thoroughly aggravating statement. Having just performed two complete Wagner Ring Cycles in Valencia, Spain under the direction of Zubin Mehta, I have to say that I was absolutely outraged by this dictum, which demonstrates a deep and inexcusable ignorance of the message of the Cycle, and, more importantly, the huge international cultural appeal and demand commanded by the Ring. I encountered audience members at the Valencia Cycle from all over the world, the Ring-philes who are committed to traveling all over the world (from places like New Zealand, South America, South Africa, Asia, etc.) to attend performances of the complete Ring; Los Angeles is on their list! It would be an outrageous tragedy if we lost those international audience members, as well our own vast audiences coming in from all over Southern California.

Those people would be coming to hear the Ring Festival, and not operatic works by any other composer, not even other Wagnerian operas. To call on the LA Opera to now expand its repertory, which is already stretched in its courageous attempt to put on a Ring, demonstrates a tragic ignorance of the musical process, with respect to the dedication of services by musicians, administrators of the LA Opera, and all the various artists and personnel involved. In my opinion, to perform a Ring cycle is a complete triumph of society; to coordinate the multifarious facets of instrumental and vocal musical performance, direction, production, set design, costume design, staging, lighting, etc. is something to be admired, appreciated, attended, and applauded. It demands such virtuosity and virtuosity of coordination on each level that the end product can only be overwhelmingly positive artistic and cultural experience. Ring cycles will always be internationally performed and appreciated; to remove that experience from any international cultural scene, especially our own home city, is criminal. We should be proud to perform a Ring Cycle, and to have artists such as Placido Domingo, Achim Freyer, and James Conlon at its helm.

The expressive content of a musical or artistic message can never be changed by those who appreciate it, and more importantly by those who mold or mutate it to fit a perverted and thoroughly horrifying message. The impact the Ring had on musical composers after Wagner is akin to that most famous 9th Symphony of Beethoven; it radically changed, influenced, and inspired an entire musical culture, as it will continue to do, regardless of Wagner's opponents. The message of the Ring is a potent part of our cultural consciousness, as it will always be with great works of Art. Personally, the Ring cycle has shaped and influenced me as a human being and artist, and I am greatly looking forward to sharing a deeply moving experience with my colleagues and fellow audience members in Los Angeles. For LA to be home to a Ring Cycle is reason to be proud, on an international cultural level.To be ignorant of the power of this expression, to disregard its potent, tragic message, and to attempt to butcher a Cycle with no knowledge of the emotional musical and artistic content, deeply saddens me, especially when it only serves to benefit an educated, vibrant, and artistic community, as we are so proud to have in Los Angeles.

I support your response wholeheartedly; as a musician, a performer, and lover of Art.

Robert Vijay Gupta
Los Angeles Philharmonic
MM '07, Yale University
BS '05, Marist College

Mr. Antonovich has embarrassed himself and the community he represents with his self-serving attempt to score political points by jumping into a discussion for which he is clearly woefully underprepared. It would surprise me if he has read more than what Ms.Delmar has provided him. I also believe it would surprise Mr. Antonovich to learn that literally dozens of volumes have been written by notable scholars on the issue of Wagner and the Jews.

His feeble attempt to become an arbiter of art in his community suggests that he is precisely the type of undereducated, party-line-toeing petty bureaucrat that so effectively managed the machinery of the National Socialist propaganda machine of the 1930s and 1940s.

Mr. Antonovich, they would have loved you. You were just born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Schade.

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