Wrong Speaker, Wrong Venue, Right Heckler
By Carol Jean Delmar
There was much skepticism at the Wiesenthal Center on April 15 — before, during and after LA Opera music director James Conlon gave his interpretation of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, which, Conlon said, can be separated from Wagner’s art. If in fact that were true, then we Jews could rejoice and listen without guilt to Wagner’s music, then celebrate it with the 115-event arts festival currently under way in Los Angeles, even if many of those events are about Wagner, the man. The issue for me is not whether or not we should listen to Wagner’s music. Go right ahead. It is that I find it morally reprehensible that city, county, arts, educational and religious leaders, and even media organizations, are participating, endorsing and publicizing a 115-event festival focused on Wagner. The festival exonerates and celebrates him simply due to the sheer number of events in his name, and the county is funding part of it.
Before the lecture began, I met a woman who told me that she was a Holocaust survivor. When I asked her if she had reservations about the festival, she was reluctant to say yes since she said that everybody has a right to an opinion. When I explained to her that I was the daughter of Holocaust survivors and do find fault with the festival, she opened up and agreed with me, then introduced me to a friend of hers who had similar sentiments.
Then after the lecture, I spoke to another woman. I feared that she had been charmed by Conlon’s words and would be in agreement with him. But she too was skeptical and told me that she just could not comprehend how art could take precedence over morality.
James Conlon was the wrong speaker to lecture on Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the Center’s Museum of Tolerance. He is an artist. Although morality does enter into his conscience, what always resonates more clearly for him is art. Yet for those of us who are related to Holocaust survivors, even if we are art lovers, when we think of Wagner, we think of Wagner’s racial ideologies and their influence on Hitler and the Nazi regime. We hear Wagner’s music as the soundtrack behind Adolf Hitler’s speeches. We draw a connection between Hitler and Wagner because we know that Wagner wrote about the “great solution,” which Hitler turned into the “Final Solution.” We question people who say that Wagner definitively would not have become a Nazi and would have “despised Hitler,” as Conlon asserted at the lecture, because we know that Wagner’s wife was a rabid anti-Semite; his daughter-in-law Winifred had a close relationship with Hitler; his daughter married fascist Houston Stewart Chamberlain; his grandson Wieland was a leader at the satellite of the Flossenbürg concentration camp; and the list goes on. Conlon said that Wagner’s music had nothing to do with the Nazi regime and that Wagner would have been against the Nazis. He said that Hitler “hijacked” Wagner’s music for political purposes and that the uncultured Nazis didn’t like listening to it. Frankly, that isn’t the issue. Who cares if they liked it or not. Just watch parts of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” The association is what counts coupled with the knowledge that members of Wagner’s family became Nazis.
James Conlon even went so far as to state that Wagner was an anti-Semite just like many others of his generation, and that his views were not genocidal. I do not know how Conlon could be so positive with his assertion since Wagner called for the ”destruction” of the Jews in “Judaism in Music,” and Cosima Wagner wrote in her “Diaries”: “Richard is in favor of expelling them entirely. We laugh to think that it really seems as if his article on the Jews marked the beginning of this struggle.”
Wagner was not your ordinary anti-Semite. In a July 21, 2000 article by Adrian Mourby in The Guardian, Mourby quoted Alexander Knapp, a professor of Jewish music at London University, as having said: “The crucial difference is that Wagner was espoused by Hitler and the Nazis.” Mourby continued: “Although Wagner did not [could not] advocate the Holocaust – he died before Hitler was born – there is no doubt that his music was adopted by Germany’s architects of mass destruction.”
Mourby also quoted that Pennsylvania State University professor Paul Lawrence Rose, author of “Wagner: Race and Revolution,” stated: “There was a Holocaust and Wagner’s self-righteous ravings, sublimated into his music, were one of the most potent elements in creating the mentality that made such an enormity thinkable.”
Conlon stressed that if you do not know that Wagner was an anti-Semite, you wouldn’t be able to detect anti-Semitism in his music and texts.
To me, that is like saying that you shouldn’t read the synopsis of an opera before going to see it. No one can enjoy an opera without some preparatory reading about its plot, history, musical style and composer. Opera is an intellectual pursuit. Reading about Wagner’s anti-Semitism enables one to better understand the complexity of his operas. It seems Conlon is missing the boat. Wagner himself coined the word “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or that each of his operas is a “total work of art.” In “A Communication to My Friends,” Wagner wrote: “I cannot consider those who pretend to love me as artist, yet deem themselves bound to deny me their sympathy as man. . . . The severance of the artist from the man is as brainless an attempt as the divorce of soul from body and . . . never was an artist loved nor his art comprehended, unless he was also loved – at least unwittingly – as man.”
As for Hans Sachs’s final aria in “Die Meistersinger” — which I have written about in my introductory essay on this blog as being nationalistic with a racist, German supremacist intent — Conlon insisted the aria was not imperialistic or political at all, which is totally contrary to the wordage used in the text. In “Judaism in Music,” Wagner described Jews as being “disagreeably foreign,” incapable of creating art. In “Meistersinger,” Sachs sings a plea for the mastersingers to keep art German and pure — free from foreigners and foreign rule. It couldn’t be more clear.
The concept of “Volk” also had much to do with the reason Wagner’s anti-Semitism was so unique. In a paper by Grace Mikell – “Germany’s Progression of Prejudice” – Mikell wrote of the “Volk” concept as being “a desire to maintain the purity of native blood and an intimacy with the native soil which allows man to become ‘in tune’ with the ‘universal spirit’,” which was the “basis of Germanic values.” The ideal “volkish” (or “völkisch”) German, she wrote, “is native, has unmixed blood, possesses a moral character, and a bellicose, bloodthirsty nature.” (From George L. Mosse’s “The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich,” 1964). She wrote that “Wagner’s music, expressing the core of the ‘volkish’ concept, stirred the primitive Germanic desires with its quixiotic heroes and their brave, fiery quests” (From Peter Viereck’s “Meta-Politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind,” 1965).
Yet Conlon also insisted that Wagner’s characters are not caricatures of Jews. He named Alberich and Mime in the “Ring” as illustrations. My introductory essay explains how Wagner’s descriptions of Jews in “Judaism in Music” match up with these characters. In The Guardian article, Mourby quoted Indiana University professor Marc Weiner, author of “Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination,” as having said: “I have analysed the corporeal images in his [Wagner’s] dramatic works against the background of 19th-century racist imagery. By examining such bodily images as the elevated, nasal voice, the ‘foetor judaicus’ (Jewish stench), the hobbling gait, the ashen skin colour, and deviant sexuality associated with Jews in the 19th century, it’s become clear to me that the images of Alberich, Mime, and Hagen [in the ‘Ring’ cycle], Beckmesser [in ‘Die Meistersinger’], and Klingsor [ in ‘Parsifal’], were drawn from stock anti-semitic clichés of Wagner’s time.”
In another essay by Indiana University professor William Rozycki, which also examines Weiner’s book and research, Rozycki wrote: “Weiner cites references in the popular press and in anti-Semitic essays of the time that described the Jewish voice as nasal and high pitched. Wagner’s sonic representation of, for example, the Nibelungs in the ‘Ring’ cycle, is an artistic use of that stereotype. Though Wagner never stated overtly that the anti-heroic Nibelungs of the ‘Ring’ cycle, the brothers Alberich and Mime, were Jews, he assigned them musical material that lies much higher within their vocal registers than those of his Teutonic heroes. Wagner conceived their voices to have a bleating and screeching tone, as opposed to the deeper and more resonant sounds he associated with his heroic tenors and bass-baritones. And though Wagner never uses the term ‘Jew’ in his stage notes, Weiner discovered that Wagner’s music for Alberich and Mime was remarkably similar in vocal treatment to that of ‘Two Jews, One Rich, One Poor: Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’ in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a work of the same period in which specific vocal characteristics were associated with figures overtly identified as Jews.”
I do not fault people for studying Wagner’s music. I fault LA’s leaders for celebrating him with a massive arts festival. The Museum of Tolerance should never have become a participating partner of Ring Festival LA. In the opening comments, museum director Liebe Geft expressed that it was the wishes of leaders at the Wiesenthal Center that the festival explore Wagner’s anti-Semitism. If in fact the goal of the Wiesenthal Center has been to “educate” people about Wagner’s anti-Semitism, it is important to educate them with truths. Having Conlon as a speaker was contrary to the Center’s goals since the information disseminated was slanted. But the outcome of the lecture was not Conlon’s fault. The rabbis at the Wiesenthal Center were aware of his beliefs. If the lecture had included a speaker with opposing views to refute Conlon’s claims, it could have been worthwhile. But because of Conlon’s opinionated position which is contrary to everything that we as Jews hold dear, one person became overly emotional and could not contain himself. He was thus labeled a “heckler” in the Los Angeles Times.
The tragic part about this unfortunate incident is that the heckler was right. He simply did not expose his very appropriate and accurate information in a politically correct manner because he was too excited by Conlon’s remarks to remain calm. I do not advocate such behavior but I understand it. I wanted to take part in the “Question and Answer” period, but not with a question. I wanted to make about seven comments to refute Conlon’s misrepresentations. Since I knew that I would not be given the opportunity to fully express my angst, I decided to remain silent.
In conclusion, I know the truth about Wagner. My fear is that the public doesn’t, and LA Opera, with the aid of county leaders, has created a marketing campaign of propaganda which excuses Wagner for his moral improprieties for the sake of art, which is totally unacceptable. If art is so significant in LA County, the money used to fund this Wagner festival would have been put to far better use if appropriated to provide more arts education in our schools, which would have in turn resulted in more arts jobs. The county found $14 million to save a controversial $32 million “Ring” for a privately funded nonprofit opera company that couldn’t live within its means because it wanted to cater to a Wagner cult that is reluctant to come to LA and doesn’t exist here.
This city has been deaf to the cries of those of us in the Jewish community who protest the “Ring” festival on moral grounds. I didn’t know it was going to happen; I was totally surprised. But if it took some heckling to wake people up, so be it.