A Dangerous Odd Couple
Cornelius Schnauber is on the Hot Seat.
By Carol Jean Delmar
I shouldn’t admit that I often attend plays just to see the acting. But on Easter weekend, I went to hear the words.
Pressured to incorporate Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism into Ring Festival LA, Los Angeles Opera has had the uncanny ability to acknowledge Wagner’s anti-Semitism while, at the same time, excusing him for it — thus justifying the LA arts festival which celebrates his name.
“There is no anti-Semitism in the music.” “The man and the music are not one.” “Adolf Hitler hijacked Wagner’s music.” “Wagner never would have become a Nazi.” “Wagner had nothing to do with the Holocaust.” “Wagner did not mean that the Jews should be destroyed.”
I have been hearing these quotes for more than a year now, and during the course of the year, I have explained on this site, to political, educational and religious leaders, and to members of the press, why each of these statements is false.
It is wrong to celebrate Wagner’s life with Ring Festival LA. And it is even worse to lead the public on with a slanted perspective of his anti-Semitism to justify it. And that is exactly what Cornelius Schnauber’s play, “Richard and Felix: Twilight in Venice,” does.
A collaboration between the Met Theatre, the USC-Max Kade Institute for German-Swiss-Austrian Studies, founded by Schnauber, and the German-American Cultural Society – the play is enjoying a multi-weekend run at the Met Theatre in Hollywood from March 26 to April 25, with a separate reading on June 13 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, which is being sponsored by the Music Center’s Center Theatre Group, and will no doubt have an illustrious cast hand picked by artistic director Michael Ritchie.
The play depicts Wagner during the last hours of his life as he converses with the spirit of Felix Mendelssohn, one of the Jewish composers he visciously attacked in his writings as being incapable of creating true art.
Mendelssohn has the ability to foretell the future. He informs Wagner about Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, and Wagner responds with disbelief.
“To blame me . . . for the sins that others will commit in my name: That was outrageous!” Wagner rants in his final monologue. “This Hitler, and, what did you call it, the Holocaust? What can I do about it?”
Schnauber has made Wagner a victim rather than perpetrator. In an article in the Los Angeles Daily News (“Critics of Ring Festival LA point to composer Wagner’s anti-Semitism,” May 3, 2009), Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called Wagner “one of the literary architects of the Holocaust.”
Schnauber’s father was a Nazi. It appears that he carries his father’s guilt with him. “My grandparents brought up the issue of where did the Jews go? Where did they take them? Then my father said they were deported to a foreign country, so he never accepted the fact that Jews were intentionally killed,” Schnauber told Val Zavala in an interview on KCET’s “Life & Times” in 2004. “Nobody who participated in the German-Jewish Dialogue (which Schnauber created to start a dialogue between children of Nazis and children of Holocaust survivors) made me responsible for what happened during the Nazi period, but I always have guilt feelings because I come from the nation which put Hitler into power.”
But in a playwright’s note in the “Richard and Felix” program, Schnauber divulges his true beliefs, and I find them shocking in light of what scholars like Gottfried Wagner and Paul Lawrence Rose have written about Wagner and his family.
Schnauber writes of Wagner: “I admired how he changed the course of music and the cultural life and thinking of the Western civilization forever, which included also his ambiguous attitude toward Jews. His negative and sometimes evil remarks about Jews were used by Hitler and the Nazis while at the same time his positive remarks about Jews were ignored. The same happens today. Wagner’s enemies pick out only his so-called anti-Semitism which you cannot find in his operas at all – only in his essays and letters. As a composer of operas, Wagner was a true and most unique genius. Therefore I developed a dramatic play in which Wagner in his last hours of life has an encounter with the popular German-Jewish (baptized) composer Felix Mendelssohn. He comes from the other world (he died almost 40 years before Wagner) and both have a very lively discussion about Wagner’s attitudes toward Jews, music and women in which also Wagner’s wife Cosima and Wagner’s last great love, a mystery woman, Carlotta, participate. Mendelssohn also sees the future: how Wagner was used and misused by Hitler and the Nazis, which comes as a great shock to Wagner.”
This totally false portrayal of Wagner, which Schnauber believes to be true, reveals a playwright who is almost as disturbed as Wagner. Yet the organizers of Ring Festival LA are showcasing his work, and Michael Ritchie is enabling a reading of it with some of our finest actors, according to Schnauber, who was kind enough to speak to me about the play by telephone while recuperating from a fall. The name Anthony Hopkins came up. If you read this, Mr. Hopkins, DON’T!
I might add that excerpts from the play and the play in its entirety were performed in Los Angeles a few years ago. F. Kathleen Foley reviewed a scene from the play for the LA Times in 2006: “Staged and performed by [Louis] Fantasia . . . the scene is largely an apology for Wagner’s alleged anti-Semitism,” Foley wrote, adding: “Fantasia’s stentorian turn” helped lend “this cerebral enterprise a regrettably melodramatic quality.”
In 2007, Brad Schreiber wrote a review for “BackStage.” “Schnauber has not found a strongly dramatic presentation for his scholarship, and it is exacerbated by director Flint Esquerra,” he wrote. “Long tracts of philosophical debate, including a remembrance of a failed love affair with Carlotta, clumsily staged by Esquerra, turn the play discordant.”
As for the current production, it was also directed by Esquerra. Wagner was again portrayed by Don Deforest Paul and Mendelssohn by Jerry Weil. For the performance I attended, Kathryn Larsen was Wagner’s doting anti-Semitic wife, Cosima, and Kelley Chatman played Carlotta.
Neither the acting nor staging have improved. The actors gave little more than line readings. Deforest Paul overacted in the small space, thus appearing melodramatic. Only the miniscule set designed effectively by Paul Koslo lended some European warmth and charm. The actors played the characters as all-American, but maybe Larsen was attempting French. Cosima kept calling Wagner “Richaard,” when the correct pronunciation would have been to change the “ch” sound to that of an “h”. Frankly, a plain old American “Richard” would have been preferential to the frou-frou “Richaard,” which only served to make me think of the Michel Richard Bakery down the street. And the suggestive love scene between Wagner and Carlotta was almost embarrassing – totally out-of-place and unwarranted. Who wants to see an old geezer perform the act of love on top of an exotic hedonistic Gypsy, especially after watching the old geezer wade through a bout of gastritis. Not exactly erotic.
But again, the acting is only incidental to me. When I asked Schnauber if he thought Wagner would have become a Nazi, he answered me with a definitive no. He said that Wagner disliked all things bourgeois, which he would have considered the Nazis to be, and he would have eventually left Germany. Yet we all know the effect Wagner’s Aryan philosophies had on his family, and how the Nazi cloud still hangs over Bayreuth.
Nothing can justify Ring Festival LA, and Schnauber’s play is an example of LA Opera’s ability to hide the truth from the public while still exposing Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Wagner cannot be excused for his racism, which breathes life into his characters and flows rampantly within the confines of his music.
“Richard and Felix” deserves little merit as a literary achievement. The dialogue is stilted and confining, thus disallowing proper character development. But the play is indeed consistent with what Ring Festival LA has to offer: It doesn’t deserve a standing ovation.