County supervisor asks Los Angeles Opera to remove Wagner focus from 'Ring' fest

Wagner is still causing trouble. That brilliant bastard, whose anti-Semitic views earned him extra favor with the Nazis who came to power 50 years after the composer's death, is the understandable focus of a large-scale festival the Los Angeles Opera has planned in conjunction with the company's first presentation of the complete Ring Cycle in spring 2010.

Last month, I received an email from a music critic, Carie Delmar, who wrote:

I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors and I am opposed to an arts festival that is being touted by Los Angeles city and county leaders as the most massive arts festival to hit LA since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. The idea for the festival came from Placido Domingo and others within the umbrella of the Los Angeles Music Center, including music director James Conlon, who saw the financial benefits of such a festival to raise money to fund the company's $32 million "Ring" cycle ... In spring 2010, the company will present three "Ring" cycles in concert with this arts festival – Ring Festival LA – which is basically a Richard Wagner Festival. More than 60 arts and educational organizations will present concerts, lectures, seminars and special events focused on or inspired by Wagner ... It is a known fact that Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite who ...


inspired Adolf Hitler and was the forerunner of the Nazi doctrine. Wagner wrote essays depicting Jews as insect life with hopes of their destruction. Hitler used Wagner's music as a score or backdrop for his speeches at Nazi rallies and even as Jewish victims were hauled off to concentration camps. I believe that Ring Festival LA is an affront to Holocaust survivors who still associate Wagner's name and music with the horrors they endured during the Nazi era. I have started a protest campaign to broaden the festival so that more composers are included to take the focus off Wagner ...

Supervisor Mike Antonovich agrees with me, that the festival should be broadened to include other composers. LA Opera called it a Wagner festival at the onset. After much pressure from the Jewish community, Rabbi Adlerstein at the Wiesenthal Center and from newspaper articles, LA Opera now has taken Wagner's name out of much of their marketing materials and exchanged it for the word, "Ring." They have also added a paragraph in their "Overview" to acknowledge Wagner's anti-Semitism, and a couple of lectures are planned to address his racism. But the festival still has about 60 other events that add up to a Wagner festival, which serves to glorify the man ...


Also what makes this so disheartening to me is that some major patrons are Jewish and they are supporting this festival. One is E. Randol Schoenberg who is President of the Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles. Eli Broad has contributed $6 million to the "Ring" and I have heard $3 million to the festival. The organizer, Barry Sanders, is also Jewish and prominent in the Los Angeles community. These Jews have totally forgotten their heritage and the Holocaust in their efforts to promote Los Angeles Opera. Elitism and power seems to be winning over values and morality. I am very grateful that Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is not Jewish, understands the significance of such a misdirected festival.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich officially asked the L.A. Opera to make changes in the focus of festival, an action that set off plenty of discussion. My colleague at the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed, jumped in with a counter-argument:

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 ... Wagner was a complicated man and his relationship to Jews was and remains confusing.  This is hardly news either ...

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 ... 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?   

... 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 ...

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. 

I have to say that I am surprised that, in 2010, such a heated debate should have broken out in this country. I would never downplay the hideous aspect of Wagner's personality, nor make light of Hitler's appropriation of the composer's music, but I think we ought to be able to deal with the issues with perspective. Great art is great art. Wagner's Ring is great art. That's one reason many Jewish conductors have mastered the score, from Mahler to Barenboim. (That Wagner entrusted the premiere of his ever-so-Christian Parsifal to a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi, says something, too.)

Any Wagner festival that attempted to "glorify" the man would be rightly challenged. I don't think the L.A. fest has any such intention. Wagner the incredibly creative, revolutionary artist deserves to be acknowledged and studied. I'm terribly naive, I know, but I still believe that a totally evil person cannot create beautiful art. Hitler's inconsequential drawings are a case in point. Wagner's operas reach a level of such transcendent beauty and power that they must reflect, it seems to me, some tiny, redeemable portion of his soul.


The simple truth is that the world of music would be a much poorer place without his work. So the Ring will go on, as it must. The debate over Wagner will go on, too, of course, just as it should.