Zev Yaroslavsky, James Conlon stand up to ‘Ring’ festival heckler


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A public lecture at the Museum of Tolerance on Thursday evening turned into a shouting match when a heckler challenged the premise of the ‘Ring Festival L.A.’ and voiced insults to those associated with it.

The verbal attacks were directed at James Conlon, the music director of the L.A. Opera, who was the primary speaker. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was in the audience and got into a verbal altercation with the lone protester, threatening to physically remove the man from the auditorium.


Conlon’s speech, titled ‘Music, Memory and Morality: How and Why Wagner Matters,’ was a free event held as part of the ‘Ring’ Festival, a county-wide celebration of the arts tied to the production of the first complete production of Wagner’s cycle in Los Angeles.

In his speech, Conlon discussed the composer’s well-known anti-Semitic personal beliefs and argued that audiences could appreciate Wagner’s music even if they despised his racism.

Near the end of Conlon’s speech, protester Peter Gimpel stood up from his seat in the back row of the auditorium and blasted the conductor with a rambling list of accusations. He claimed that the conductor and the festival are glorifying an anti-Semite and revising history.

He also singled out Barry Sanders, the leader of the festival, whom he compared to Adolf Hitler by calling him ‘Mein Führer.’

Gimpel refused repeated requests from the museum’s director, Liebe Geft, to sit down, and continued to harangue the conductor for several minutes. At one point, Yaroslavsky, who was sitting two rows away, stood up and shouted back at the protester.

‘You’ve had your say,’ Yaroslavsky said, adding that he would personally eject Gimpel from the auditorium if he didn’t stop speaking.


When Gimpel refused to acquiesce, Yaroslavsky angrily left his seat and approached the heckler.

The threat of removal appeared to quiet Gimpel but the protester resumed his tirade a few minutes later.

The museum then called in security guards, who then positioned themselves near Gimpel. During the question and answer portion of the evening, Gimpel stood up and left the auditorium followed by a guard. Upon leaving the auditorium, he attempted to shout something at Conlon but was pushed out of the room by the guard.

Throughout the confrontation, Conlon appeared calm and did not raise his voice to the protester. He took issue with the accusation that he is a representative of the festival. ‘I’m here to represent myself,’ he said.

Gimpel, who is an L.A.-based Jewish American writer, is a familiar face to organizers of the ‘Ring’ festival. In 2009, he testified at a meeting of the county board of supervisors during which he accused the festival of ‘historic revisionism’ and ‘Orwellian tactics.’

At the 2009 meeting, the board rejected a proposal by county Supervisor Mike Antonovich that the festival broaden its scope to include composers other than Wagner.


Representatives of Yaroslavsky did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on Friday.

Sanders said Friday that he ‘can’t take seriously personal attacks by someone who doesn’t know me.’ He added: ‘Without the ‘Ring’ festival, this man would not have been able to say the things he said last night. So he should thank the festival for making that possible.’

-- David Ng

Top photo: L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Zev Yaroslavsky, center, with James Conlon, left, and Plácido Domingo earlier this month. Credit: Steve Cohn Photography


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