I have a little confession to make. One of the very first operas I ever went to see was Richard Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” (The Flying Dutchman). This was way back in the 1980s, when the unofficial ban on the performing of Wagner’s music was much more strictly adhered to in Israel. I was in London that summer and I saw the opera davka on a Friday night, thus enhancing the feeling that I was enjoying forbidden fruit. It was an English National Opera performance, sung in English. I remember arriving minutes before curtain-up and having to decide between having a drink and using the bathroom. I can’t remember which of the two I chose, but I do remember that I told myself that whichever it was, I’d be able to do the other during the intermission. Alas! By the time I realised that this was the one-act, no-intermissions version, it was too late. About half way through, I felt myself nodding off. I had to fight to keep my eyes open. And then, suddenly, the music turned to thunder and the stage was lit by a red light as the Dutchman’s ship was revealed, with its ghostly crew of dead men hanging from the yardarms. It scared me out of my wits! Jolted awake, I sat bolt upright, mesmerised, for the rest of the performance.
I never again saw a Wagner opera to rival that first experience and, frankly, I haven’t been much of a Wagner fan since then. The orchestral parts of his operas I have always quite enjoyed, but not the singing. In short, Wagner’s operas tend to bore me – possibly because of the horrendous staging which typifies post-war Wagner productions. German productions are particularly awful. In an effort (a) to distance themselves from any hint of Nazi associations and (b) to make the operas seem “relevant” to modern audiences, they have been set in the most peculiar places. “The Ring” is commonly reduced to an allegory against capitalism, and the gods of Valhalla are presented as some kind of dysfunctional family of neocons.
Does this make Wagner more “accessible” to modern audiences? Not to me, I can tell you. Frankly, the extraordinarily perverse behaviour of the characters in all Wagner’s operas is only explicable against the background of Nordic legend and mythology against which they are set. I do not want to see leather-jacketed Valkyries whizzing about on motor-bikes. I do not want to see Wotan and Fricka portrayed as a modern suburban couple whose marriage is breaking down. If I wanted to see kitchen sink drama (which I most emphatically do not), I would watch “EastEnders“.
Another reason for my avoidance of Wagner has been the fact that Wagnerian singers have tended to be exactly the kind of singers that non-opera buffs associate with opera in general – and mock. Stout middle-aged tenors portraying larger-than-life heroes. Even stouter middle-aged sopranos portraying innocent young girls. All this besides a general impression of Wagner having been pretentious and megalomaniac (which shows in his music) – not to mention the fact of his antisemitism.
Last Motzei Shabbat, however, I had an epiphany. The French TV channel Mezzo broadcast “Lohengrin” and I suddenly had a vision of how Wagner could be. Not because I enjoyed the production – in fact, it was particularly horrendous. This was the Bavarian State Opera production from 2009, with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Anja Harteros as his bride, Elsa. I hated the staging, the scenery and the costumes. Why was the Princess of Brabant dressed in a pair of dungarees? Why was her knight in shining armour wearing a teeshirt and what looked like flannel pyjama trousers? Why was their bridal chamber a wooden hut which we had previously watched being constructed to the strains of the orchestral prelude to the third act?
All this, however, paled into insignificance (or, at least, dwindled into minor irritations at the most) in the joy of discovering that here, at last, were a Wagnerian hero and heroine who not only sang beautifully but looked the part. A Wagnerian soprano who is young and beautiful and slim. A tenor who not only sounds both lyrical and heroic but actually looks – dare I say it –sexy!
It made all the difference. I stayed up watching till the very end, at one o’clock in the morning. Not just watching. Listening. I understood what Wagner fans mean when they talk about “shimmering” music. The orchestra does “shimmer” in Lohengrin’s great aria (though Wagner would have hated to hear it called an aria) In fernem Land.
So, all this brings me to the question of the “ban” on Wagner here in Israel. As I said, it is no longer so strongly adhered to. You can hear Wagner on Israel Radio – not complete operas, but quite a lot of his music. However, as recently as ten years ago, when Daniel Barenboim played some Wagner as an encore, he almost provoked a riot. I personally think he should not have done so, after promising he would not. It was not right to confront the audience with a fait accompli, even though, before the orchestra started playing, those who didn’t wish to hear it were given the opportunity to leave. I think Wagner should be played in Israel for those who want to hear his music. But those for whom the Nazi associations are unacceptable should not be forced to listen to it. Thus, it should not be part of the programme in a subscription concert, when the subscribers have to pay for an entire series of concerts. I, personally, am able to separate the man from his music, but then, I am not a Holocaust survivor. Many of the subscribers of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, are.
When I went to see “The Flying Dutchman” all those years ago in London, it was, I think, a kind of youthful rebellion – as was going on a Friday night. Today, I think I must say the jury is still out on the question of whether Wagner should be played in Israel. It is not just that he was the favourite composer of the Nazis. It is also the fact that the bombastic German nationalistic ideology, as well as many of the antisemitic ideas about Jewish influence on German life and art, which were the fore-runners of Nazi ideology, are most prominently formulated in the very operas which are most accessible to modern audiences – “Lohengrin” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”.
So – I’m opening the debate. Wagner – yes or no?
What do you think?
Post Scriptum: And while we’re about it – is Jonas Kaufmann a true heldentenor or “merely” a spinto?