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Zev Yaroslavsky, James Conlon stand up to 'Ring' festival heckler

April 16, 2010 | 11:11 am

Zev1 A public lecture at the Museum of Tolerance on Thursday evening turned into a shouting match when a heckler challenged the premise of the "Ring Festival L.A." and voiced insults to those associated with it.

The verbal attacks were directed at James Conlon, the music director of the L.A. Opera, who was the primary speaker. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was in the audience and got into a verbal altercation with the lone protester, threatening to physically remove the man from the auditorium.

Conlon's speech, titled "Music, Memory and Morality: How and Why Wagner Matters," was a free event held as part of the "Ring" Festival, a county-wide celebration of the arts tied to the production of the first complete production of Wagner's cycle in Los Angeles.

In his speech, Conlon discussed the composer's well-known anti-Semitic personal beliefs and argued that audiences could appreciate Wagner's music even if they despised his racism.

Near the end of Conlon's speech, protester Peter Gimpel stood up from his seat in the back row of the auditorium and blasted the conductor with a rambling list of accusations. He claimed that the conductor and the festival are glorifying an anti-Semite and revising history.

He also singled out Barry Sanders, the leader of the festival, whom he compared to Adolf Hitler by calling him "Mein Führer."

Gimpel refused repeated requests from the museum's director, Liebe Geft, to sit down, and continued to harangue the conductor for several minutes. At one point, Yaroslavsky, who was sitting two rows away, stood up and shouted back at the protester.

"You've had your say," Yaroslavsky said, adding that he would personally eject Gimpel from the auditorium if he didn't stop speaking.

When Gimpel refused to acquiesce, Yaroslavsky angrily left his seat and approached the heckler.

The threat of removal appeared to quiet Gimpel but the protester resumed his tirade a few minutes later.

Zev2 The museum then called in security guards, who then positioned themselves near Gimpel. During the question and answer portion of the evening, Gimpel stood up and left the auditorium followed by a guard. Upon leaving the auditorium, he attempted to shout something at Conlon but was pushed out of the room by the guard.

Throughout the confrontation, Conlon appeared calm and did not raise his voice to the protester. He took issue with the accusation that he is a representative of the festival. "I'm here to represent myself," he said.

Gimpel, who is an L.A.-based Jewish American writer, is a familiar face to organizers of the "Ring" festival. In 2009, he testified at a meeting of the county board of supervisors during which he accused the festival of "historic revisionism" and "Orwellian tactics."

At the 2009 meeting, the board rejected a proposal by county Supervisor Mike Antonovich that the festival broaden its scope to include composers other than Wagner.

Representatives of Yaroslavsky did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on Friday.

Sanders said Friday that he "can't take seriously personal attacks by someone who doesn't know me." He added: "Without the 'Ring' festival, this man would not have been able to say the things he said last night. So he should thank the festival for making that possible."

-- David Ng

Top photo: L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Zev Yaroslavsky, center, with James Conlon, left, and Plácido Domingo earlier this month. Credit: Steve Cohn Photography


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Comments () | Archives (8)

I, for one, would like to clarify the somewhat negative reaction or acceptance of the Freyer "Ring," currently being performed by the L.A Opera. I have listened to a number of discussions and read a great many reviews and am puzzled by the general tone of the pros and cons that have formed. I think it is a mistake to cast the arguments, as they frequently are, in terms of one side's wish for a "traditional," e.g., a realistic production, vis a vis a rethought or "concept" interpretation, e.g., Mr. Freyer's. If there has to be a re-vision or revised view of Wagner's epic, I have no complaint and, back in my younger days, enjoyed very much the designs of Wieland Wagner and those directors whom he influenced. But even among those with whom I have spoken who like the current production, few, even after "Gotterdamerung, can explain some of its many confusing conceits. Even one expert who lectured at the DCP several months ago noted that Feyer did not tell the story of the "Ring" with all the clarity that might be wished. Non-opera going personal friends that went with me last year to hear "Rheingold" and "Die Walkure" complained that, even with my coaching, they couldn't tell what was going on. Many felt lost and left early. And, frankly, I couldn't argue. I, too, felt bewildered and at sea. So for whom, then, was this production designed: for the young who might enjoy the visuals but who can ill-afford to attend an event that might cost them more than a few days salary or older opera goers who are no longer willing to make the leap of faith that the director asks of them. Then, there are those of us in middle, those willing to accept a new view but who rightly insist on one that after 18 hours of listening provides some sense of enlightenment. I couldn't help but wonder if Freyer was satirizing the "Ring" or was unwilling to accept the tale of gods and heroes on its own terms. Surely the tawdry images on display during the magic fire music, the airplane that circled over the gods in "Rheingold" or a sign pointing "East" indicated that the director did not hold Wagner's libretto in high esteem. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future we are stuck with his view. Given the controversy, does the LAO really feel that revivals will be in demand?

I truly hope that this incident does not deter Mr. Zaralovsky from his much needed advocacy of the Performing Arts.

Mr. Gimpel's immature and zealous behavior is misdirected.

In a society where we should be allowed numerous freedoms (artistic, religious, etc.) we should have a tolerance and respect for those individuals with differing opinions and utilize this moments as a means for challenging and exploring our beliefs as as opposed to dramatically and irresponsibly promoting our personal beliefs without regard for the social impacts.

Wrong venue; wrong approach Mr. Gimpel. You have set your cause back irresponsibly.

Agreed about being lost many times during the cycle. I'm new to opera but in my 50's. I've never seen a "traditional" version of the Ring operas and so this is my only exposure. I've picked up some of the symbols being used during the productions from program notes and from the pre-opera talks, but I often have no idea what the director intends for us to glean from the images put forth. I can tell they are meant to convey something, but since I'm not in on the joke so to speak, I can't tell what is meant. I CAN appreciate the opera nevertheless, but I know I'm also missing out on things that are being lost between symbol and meaning. Without a key to unlock the symbols, they are mere abstractions.

Bravo to Mr. Gimpel for confronting James Conlon with the erroneous information he was disseminating at the Wiesenthal Center. I do not advocate heckling, but this city has been deaf to the cries of those of us in the Jewish community who protest the "Ring" festival on moral grounds. Wagner's racist views are documented in many of his essays, and most Wagner scholars connect his descriptions of Jews to the characters he created. Wagner called for the annihilation of the Jews. If it took some heckling to make people wake up -- so be it. Bravo to Mr. Gimpel for having the courage to stand up and be heard!

sit down and shut up Mr. Gimpel

Thank you, Mr. Ng, for your coverage of my protest. However, your reporting was in some respects hampered by the "shouting match" you refer to in your good article.
First of all, I did not call Mr. Sanders "Mein Fuehrer," as you seem to have understood. What I said, in that connection, was that the promoters of the Ring Festival must bear the responsibility for the Nazi rally now taking place in Los Angeles (owing to the fact that Wagner remains to this day an emblematic icon of the Nazis); and in refering to the promoters of the festival, I mentioned Mr. Conlon, Mr. Domingo, Mr. Yaroslavsky, and "That person with the bow tie who calls himself 'The Leader of the Festival--i.e., 'der Fuehrer of the Festival.'" My intention was not to insult anyone but on the contrary to call attention to Mr. Sanders' impolitic choice of the title "leader" (= Fuehrer in German), a choice which, given the context, was inherently insulting not only to every Survivor, but to every Jew who heard it or read it. The natural choice would have been "Marshal", as in "band marshal", but the animus of this festival of shame has been, from the beginning, to ridicule Jewish sensitivities re Wagner and to intimidate those of us who harbor such sensitivities from protesting or expressing our legitimate views.
What I said to Mr. Conlon, to Mr. Yaroslavsky, and to the President of the Museum as I left the hall was "This is historical revisionism." They heard it, and so did many people in the audience.
Regarding Mr. Yaroslavsky's conduct or that of the security guard, I cannot comment except to say that the matter will be dealt with in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time. I insulted no one, I threatened no one, and no one could reasonably have regarded me as dangerous. The whole incident would have been unnecessary had the event been structured to allow for democratic, open discussion. Instead, we were instructed from the beginning that audience participation would be limited to questions at the end. My outburst was provoked by an unchallenged stream of preposterous distortions, misrepresentations, miscomparisons and insinuations sanctioned by an imposing display of official and governmental approval and support.
It is scandalous beyond belief that the Museum of Tolerance, of all places, should have become a podium for the dissemination of revisionist Wagnerite propaganda and the scene for the physical abuse and forcible ejection of the one Jew in the audience who stood up for Jewish honor and historical integrity.

To Larry Verdugo: i am with you in terms of being dissatisfied with Achim Freyer's production not because it is not "traditional" but because it is simply not very good. However, my main problem with it is different from yours. In my opinion, this production is very much a representation of Freyer's reading of the text which is the weakest part of the Ring, while the music which is by far its strongest part is virtually ignored and, in fact, is often compromised and cheapened by many of his rather sophomoric visual tricks.
To Carie Delmar and Peter (Gimpel?): i was not there, so i can't comment on the incident described in the article. But you are referring to "erroneous information" as well as "preposterous distortions, misrepresentations, miscomparisons and insinuations", without giving a single example of what it is you are describing in such negative terms. Did anyone deny that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite? Did anyone deny that Nazis used his music? What exactly were those "lies" that you heard from James Conlon and others? Just wondering...

This is a country that encourages debate and disesent but it does need to be rational and appropriate. And having attended/enjoyed many of Conlon's lectures/critiques before I know full well that his talk was informational and directed to all aspects of the historical/musical significances and nuances of the music/composer. I am certain too that there was ample opportunity for sparked dissent from audience participiants as well. It is too bad that one hot head must endeavor to ruin an evening for everyone. I am also certain that his opinion would have been recieved with consideration had it beed directed to the audience in a more leveled tone.


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