County supervisor revives debate over Wagner’s ‘Ring’


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The worlds of opera and local politics collided this week over Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, re-igniting a fierce debate about the brilliant German composer known for his marvelous music and repugnant racism.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich issued a statement Tuesday calling for an overhaul of the 2010 Ring Festival Los Angeles, a citywide arts celebration that will spotlight Wagner’s 19th century, four-opera “The Ring of the Nibelung.”


In the statement, Antonovich emphasized Wagner’s well-known anti-Semitic views and said that the festival would be “an affront to those who have suffered or have been impacted by the horrors” of the Nazis.

Next week, he will ask the county board to send a letter to Los Angeles Opera, which is producing Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, requesting it shift the festival’s focus from Wagner to featuring other classical composers.

Antonovich’s action prompted vehement responses on both sides of the debate. Some accused L.A. Opera and other arts institutions involved with the festival of glorifying a racist while others labeled the supervisor’s suggested changes a form of censorship.

“An analogy would be that if we had a book fair, you wouldn’t put Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ as the focus,” said Antonovich in an interview Wednesday. “What we’re asking for is a balance and that the festival broaden its theme.”

Antonovich, who represents the 5th District, which covers much of northern Los Angeles County, suggested that the festival incorporate other composers such as Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn.

Barry Sanders, the leader of the Ring Festival and an L.A. Opera board member, said “there has never been an effort to glorify Wagner the man, but rather to bring his operas in their full context to the people.”
He added that “it would be abhorrent to exert creative censorship on the festival.”

Set to begin in the spring of 2010, the festival will focus on L.A. Opera’s first-ever staging of all four operas in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It will also feature the participation of more than 50 arts institutions around Los Angeles that will produce exhibitions, concerts and educational programming related to Wagner and his music.

Among the participating institutions are the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the L.A. Philharmonic.

As part of the festival, L.A. Opera is hosting symposiums dedicated to discussing Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings and personal views. “Wagner was himself dramatically anti-Semitic, but his music is not and there is no reason to censor his music or fail to address his art because of his personal beliefs,” said Kenneth Reinhard, a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA , who will lead one of the discussions.

L.A. Opera’s General Director Plácido Domingo, who spearheaded the festival, said in a statement that the “Ring” “invites exactly this sort of intensive analysis and discussion, and the festival will provide many different forums for gaining insights into the past and exploring moral issues.’

But people opposed to the festival argue that Wagner’s personal life and music are inseparable and that the festival’s effort to compartmentalize his racist beliefs is a fundamentally invalid approach.

“The man and the music are one,” said Carie Delmar, who runs a blog devoted to protesting the festival. She said that anti-Semitic themes can be found throughout Wagner’s works, and that the characters of Alberich and Mime in the “Ring” are thinly veiled Jewish caricatures.

“This festival is Wagner idolatry to the hilt,” Delmar said. “There are influential Jewish people supporting Ring Festival L.A. and I think they have forgotten their heritage as Jews.”

In recent years, Wagner’s “Ring” cycle has been presented by a number of opera companies in the U.S. and around the world without sparking major protests.

L.A. Opera is spending $32 million to produce the “Ring” cycle, and the first two installments premiered earlier this year. The Ring Festival is a separate but related organization whose task is to coordinate and market the various “Ring”-related activities around the city. The promotional budget for the festival is in the “several hundred thousands,” according to festival leaders.

James Conlon, L.A. Opera’s music director, has been one of the company’s biggest champions of Wagner, but he has also devoted considerable efforts to launching the Recovered Voices series, dedicated to resurrecting operas that were suppressed during the Nazi regime.

In various interviews, arts leaders around L.A. reiterated their commitment to the festival.

“The ‘Ring’ is a stunning work of art and it contains positive humanistic themes,” said Deborah Borda, the president of the L.A. Philharmonic. “It has been performed for well over a hundred years. If something is truly evil art, it wouldn’t have lasted this long.”

-- David Ng