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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

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