Who’s Afraid of Wagner?

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?

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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29 Responses to Who’s Afraid of Wagner?

  1. Pat says:

    Yes, as long as it is well publicized beforehand so people will know – let them decide whether to listen…and continue to educate the people about the man he was all those years ago…

  2. Turandot says:

    I love opera – but I can’t stand Wagner. You had it spot on – besides being a sorry excuse for a human being, his operas are terribly pretentious. And with very few exceptions, it’s impossible to sympathise with his characters. I much prefer Puccini. Puccini’s music is cantabile. Wagner’s music encapsulates all that repels non-opera buffs.

  3. Phil E Stein says:

    I thought Lohengrin was a brand of lager 😉

  4. Neil says:

    I think Turandot should declare an interest before saying things like “I can’t stand Wagner” and then praising Puccini. That’s like Hercule Poirot saying “I can’t stand Arthur Conan-Doyle” before going on to praise Agatha Christie.

  5. Ellen May says:

    Not being a Holocaust survivor myself, or even Jewish, it’s hard for me to say what a Jewish person – especially one who survived the Holocaust – should do, but I definitely think the decision should be theirs to make and Wagner shouldn’t be played as part of some subscription series where they have no choice other than to go to the concert or not go and lose out on the price of the ticket. Perhaps there could be a special Wagner series for those who have no problems with the man or his music.

  6. bert kay says:

    You have it spot on – and I am Jewish as well as a second generation holocaust survivor. Even if I understood music and especially opera as well as you, I could not have presented the case as brilliantly as you. Soooooh………yishaer kochachech

  7. David says:

    Is the problem with Wagner the repugnant nature of the man himself or the fact that hearing his music is liable to bring back painful memories to holocaust survivors? If the former let’s not forget that he is dead and so won’t be making any money from royalties. If the latter, then couldn’t the same be said about the music of Beethoven? Didn’t the Nazis play his music on the radio a lot too? Wouldn’t that bring back the same memory flashbacks?

    Having said that I agree that it would be wrong to play Wagner without fair warning – and that means before the concert or even before the subscriptions are sold, not merely before the piece is played. Just telling the audience and giving them the chance to leave reminds me of the case (if indeed it really happened) of Herbert von Karajan asking the Jews in the audience to leave.

    • It’s much more complicated than that. It’s a combination of the two, I think, plus something more. Wagner’s operas were very symbolic for the Nazis, they used the Bayreuth festival to showcase their ideology. (Funnily enough, while they seemed to realise that Ayn Rand’s “We, the Living” was a double-edged sword and could be used against Fascism as well as against Communism, they did not seem to realise that the same was true also of The Ring”.)
      Also, Wagner was not “merely” an antisemite. He wrote influential articles and treatises about the destructive alien Jewish influence on pure German Art. His whole world view was that Jews could never be true Germans and were some kind of alien presence, to be got rid of. In this, his ideology was one of the bases of Nazi ideology.
      BTW – I heard that Hitler actually preferred Mozart to Wagner.

      • David says:

        It’s interesting that you mention the Nazis and Rand’s We the Living, because while the Germans realized immediately, the Italian authorities missed it completely. Could this have been because their fascism was less ideological? Or was it simply a sign of the disorganized nature of Italian bureaucracy?

        Another interesting side-note is that Nietzsche, whom the Nazis also exploited for propaganda purposes, fell out with Wagner both philosophically (over Wagner’s antisemitism) and musically (to the limited extent that he ever admired Wagner’s music).

      • Gurnemanz says:

        Ayn Rand was Jewish, therefore verboten beforehand in nazi Germany, regardless of what she had written.

      • I was not aware that Ayn Rand was Jewish. However, that isn’t relevant to the point I was making which was, that they evidently didn’t realise how easily “The Ring” lends itself to an anti-Nazi interpretation. It’s a clear condemnation of totalitarianism and the abuse of power.

  8. Michael Janowsky says:

    According to William Berger (“Wagner without Fear“), when a popular antisemitic Lutheran preacher by the name of Pastor Stroecker, circulated a petition calling for the abolition of Jewish emancipation laws recently enacted, Wagner publicly refused to have anything to do with it. The man was certainly an enigma.

  9. Gurnemanz says:

    When one says that Israel boycotts Wagner because he was Hitler’s favourite composer(not Nazi’s favourite because other Nazi henchmen literally had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a Wagner performance, like in Bayreuth 1934) he or she recieves a reply that it is much more complicated then that followed by a littany of Wagner’s alleged transgressions, out of which some are true, much more only partially true and most simply misconceptions and legends.

    Imagine, howewer, that Hitler had not liked Wagner then ask yourself would discussions such as this one had ever taken place? The answer is obviously “no”. “Das Judentum in der Musik” as well as Wanger’s other anti-Jewish diatribes would be dismissed as ramblings of a krank or delusions or at worst a personal failing. So, to borrow a phrase from Obi Wan Kenobi, the assertion that Wagner is banned in Israel just because he was Hitler’s favourite composer is true – from a certain point of view.

    • I didn’t say it wasn’t true – I said that it was only part of the reason. As I mentioned in one of my comment replies, I believe Hitler’s favourite composer was actually Mozart, not Wagner – but nobody in Israel is suggesting we ban Mozart. On the other hand, Chopin was also antisemitic, but no-one is demanding that we ban Chopin. It’s the combination of the two, plus other factors which I already mentioned, which, when brought together, make the playing of Wagner’s music problematic in Israel.
      I hadn’t heard about Nazi henchmen having to be dragged kicking and screaming to Bayreuth in 1934. Could you please tell us more about that?

      • Gurnemanz says:

        According to Ian Kershaw, for Hitler Wagner was the non plus ultra, meaning he was in a class of his own when it came to music. Of other, so to speak common mortal composers, Anton Bruckner was a special favourite, followed by Beethoven and Mozart.

        Albert Speer wrote in his memoirs(and other sources confirm, more or less) that Hitler had distributed tickets for Bayreuth festival of 1934(or 1933) to top Nazi party officals. However, when he entered the hall of the Festspielhaus he found it almost empty. Enraged, he ordered the SS to drag his subordinates from hotels, beerhouses and brothels into the opera house. But from then it turned even worse since most of them slept through the performances, some snoring quite loudly and one almost broke his neck by falling in his sleep over the railing of one of the VIP boxes. Hitler then gave up and released the tickets to the general public again.

      • I was amused by this story, so I Googled it. Apparently, it was in 1933, not 1934. (See: http://wagneroperas.blogspot.com/2007/07/bored-nazis-at-bayreuth.html
        Apparently (at least, according to Hitler himself), it was “Lohengrin” that made a Wagner fan of him.
        I’m attaching for you the link to a recording supposedly made at the Bayreuth Festival of 1933, of “Parsifal”, with Max Lorenz in the title role and the Jewish Alexander Kipnis as your namesake, although I understand there are doubts as to the authenticity of this recording.

      • Gurnemanz says:

        One more thing: contrary to popular legend and widespread belief in it, the number of Wagner performances declined significantly during the Third Reich, in 1939 being less then two thirds of what they were in 1932, the last year of the Weimar Republic.

      • Silke says:

        Lohengrin – mmmh

        out of that opera a line has made it into everyday German (in my generation, I have no idea whether it is still popular), known even to people who never came close to the opera itself.

        “Nie sollst Du mich befragen” Never shall you ask me …

        It comes in most handy when you want to avoid explaining erratic and irrational behaviour.

      • Gurnemanz says:

        Thanks for the Youtube file. Max Lorenz is also an interesting figure. Google him and you’ll find out why. Artistically, he’s THE Wagner tenor. No one could match the variety of Wagner roles he could sing. Only Siegfried Jerusalem comes close IMHO.

      • And what is your opinion of Jonas Kaufmann?

  10. Gurnemanz says:

    Also, I have to beg to differ on your last paragraph. There is no antisemitism in either “Lohengrin” or “Die Meistersinger” or any other Wagner works. People who write such rubbish seek to cash in on people’s fears, prejudices, misconceptions and, I do dare say, ignorance. Kind of like Hitler did, mind you…

    • I think you’ve misunderstood what I’m trying to say here. I don’t mean that the librettos of “Lohengrin or of “Meistersinger” are, in themselves, antisemitic. However, “Lohengrin” does have this underlying theme of the need for the German states to unite and rally round King Heinrich to defend Germany from invaders, so the theme of German nationalism is there. Also, in “Meistersinger”, Wagner was very definitely seeking to glorify a specifically German national and artistic spirit and to warn against what is not German. True, he doesn’t specifically mention the Jews, but when taken in conjunction with what he wrote about Judaism in Music, it is not surprising that, almost from the start, it was understood that that’s what he had in mind.

      • Gurnemanz says:

        “Lohengrin” is less nationalistic then Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. Compare the most notable excerpts from the two, the Grail Naration from Act 3 of “Lohengrin” and Saint Crispin’s Day Speech from “Henry V” and tell me which is more nationalistic. Or rather, which of the two is nationalistic and which is not. The invaders in “Lohengrin” are clearly identified in Act 1 as Hungarians. Also, while Lohengrin premiered in 1850, same year when Wagner published “Das Judentum in der Musik”, the prose draft, the libretto and the scores were done some time before that and since there is no record of Wagner making antisemitic outbursts before 1850 it is hard to believe “Lohengrin” contains hidden messages of that kind.

        As for “Die Meistersinger” there is no argument it contains a culturally nationalistic theme but it was part of the zeitgeist. As for antisemitism in it it usually stems from various hacks makking out of the character Sixtus Beckmesser an anti-Jewish steretoype. That notion is so absurd that even the Nazis did not buy into it! Linguist and Wagner scholar Nicholas Vazsonyi in his collection of essays and interviews “Wagner’s Meistersinger: Performance, History, Representation” dedicates an entire chapter on how the nazis (as well as their precursors and fellow travelers) saw “Die Meistersinger” before and after they came to power and in it it is stated that in more then 300 nazi publications about “Die Meistersinger” there not a single reference to Beckmesser as an allegory of “the Jews”. So those who claim that Beckmesser is an antisemitic caricature are, in a manner of speaking, being bigger catholics then the Pope.

      • Gurnemanz says:

        The only character thought as antisemitic caricature in and around Wagner’s time was Mime in “Siegfried”. But that same Mime in “Das Rheingold” is along with Freia the only character one can actually feel some sympathy for(and even in “Siegfried” there are moments we can sympathize with him such as when he berates an ungrateful Siegfried and reminds him that it was him who had nurtured him and raised him after his mother died).

  11. Doesn’t anyone want to take up my challenge and express an opinion as to whether or not Jonas Kaufmann is a true heldentenor? 😉

  12. Ellen May says:

    I don’t know whether Kaufmann is a true heldentenor but I do know he’s absolutely gorgeous!

    @Gurnemanz – I don’t think the St. Crispin’s Day Speech is particularly nationalistic.

  13. Usha Boe says:

    It’s fantastic as your other blog posts : D, appreciate it for putting up.

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