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Supervisors vote against changing Ring Festival

July 21, 2009 |  1:43 pm

Supervisors1 It's not often that city politicians take the time to publicly debate the merits of a classical music composer, but that's exactly what happened today when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted on a motion concerning the fate of the 2010 Ring Festival L.A., a citywide arts celebration focused on Richard Wagner's epic cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung."

And when the votes were cast this morning, the victory went to the festival and its chief backer, the Los Angeles Opera. The board voted down a motion written by Supervisor Mike Antonovich asking the opera company to shift the focus of the festival away from Wagner, the renowned 19th century composer who is widely admired for his operas and detested for his virulently anti-Semitic personal views.

Instead, the board voted to approve a substitute motion from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in support of L.A. Opera and the Ring Festival. In his motion, Yaroslavsky wrote that "it’s clear that the festival is not envisioned as simply a celebration of Wagner’s life; but rather, as an examination of his influence on Western culture and society -- for better and for worse."

The two politicians engaged in spirited debate during today's board meeting. "We should keep our sticky fingers out of this," Yaroslavsky said. "There is no reason for politicians to meddle in artistic undertakings."

He went on to describe Antonovich's motion as "an insult to L.A. Opera" and added that the motion had failed to gain the support of a single civil rights organization.

Antonovich argued that the festival's inclusion of a handful of symposiums dedicated to discussing Wagner's anti-Semitism "is not balanced" and that the festival should include other composers, including Beethoven, Puccini, Verdi and others.

Last week, Antonovich had proposed a motion urging L.A. Opera to broaden the scope of the festival as a way of achieving "balance, historical perspective and a true sampling of operatic and musical talent." In the motion, he criticized festival organizers for celebrating the work of "a racist whose anti-Semitic writings were the inspiration for Hitler and the Holocaust."

Today's board meeting brought out a number of individuals who objected to what they see as a festival that will glorify Wagner and his anti-Semitic politics. "People make festivals for people they admire," said Peter Gimpel, a lawyer and classical scholar. "I'm horrified by the Orwellian tactics of L.A. Opera. What they are doing borders on historic revisionism, which is worse than anti-Semitism."

Carie Delmar, who runs a website that has protested the festival, said that the "festival is an affront to everything this city stands for."

Those who came to speak in favor of the festival emphasized the symposiums that will be held to discuss Wagner's racism. "It's because of his anti-Semitism that a festival like this should delve into the very issues that are important," said Seth Brisk, a director of the American Jewish Committee.

In the end, supervisors Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Don Knabe voted in favor of the substitute motion, while Antonovich was the lone vote against Yaroslavsky's measure. (Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was not present during the meeting.)

Following the vote, Stephen Rountree, the chief operating officer of L.A. Opera, said that he "couldn't be more pleased" with Yaroslavsky's motion. "We will continue to pursue partners for the festival and continue our efforts to achieve a level of introspection about Wagner's life," he said.

A spokesman for Antonovich said that "we were hoping L.A. Opera would be open to create a more balanced event. But we're pleased we were able to raise the issues in the minds of the people."

-- David Ng

Related stories:

Critic's Notebook: Mike Antonovich vs. Wagner

County supervisor revives debate over Wagner's 'Ring'

Photo:Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, left, and Mike Antonovich on Monday. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

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