No denying Wagner’s complexity and divisiveness: L.A. talks again

Among the copious anecdotes that Leon Botstein likes to relate about Richard Wagner and his ugly anti-Jewish views is an ironic one involving Zionist Movement founder Theodor Herzl.

Wagner and the Ring Festival: An article in Sunday’s Arts & Books section about the Los Angeles Opera’s Ring Festival L.A. said that UCLA’s Kenneth Reinhard’s mother is not Jewish. She is. The article also dropped the first name and identification for University of La Verne professor Alfred Clark. —

As Botstein has detailed in an essay, in 1895 Herzl was a journalist in Paris covering the Dreyfus affair, an army scandal with anti-Semitic taints that rocked French society. When he wasn’t filing news reports, Herzl attended the Paris Opera, where he absorbed Wagner’s volcanic music. He was inspired both by the German composer’s artistry and his ideas about community-building, which some scholars believe helped shape Herzl’s concept of a Jewish homeland.

“Herzl, the founder of the Jewish state, was a devoted, lifelong Wagnerian,” Botstein observed last week in a phone interview from New York, where he’s president of Bard College. “So it is not an easy issue.”

That issue, of course, is what relationship Wagner’s social and political ideas, particularly his grotesque anti-Jewish ones, had to his artistry, and how they affected Germany and, possibly, influenced the rise of the Nazis.

In the decades since Wagner’s death in 1883, hordes of musicians, critics, historians and philosophers have chewed over that theme. Is it valid, or even desirable, to separate Wagner’s politics from his sublimely beautiful, radically innovative music? Should his works be stricken from the repertory, like a high-rolling slugger banned from the Hall of Fame? Or can the composer who penned the viciously anti-Semitic essay “Jewry in Music,” yet still has been idolized by generations of Jewish composers and musicians, be embraced in all his monumental contradictoriness?

It was all but inevitable that L.A. Opera would address some of those themes as part of its upcoming Ring Festival L.A. The three-month, region-wide celebration of all things Wagnerian, encompassing art exhibitions, lectures and performances, doesn’t officially begin until April. Its centerpiece will be L.A. Opera’s $32-million production of Wagner’s complete four- opera “Ring” cycle, which will be performed three times in repertory between May 29 and June 26.

But starting this month, a series of lectures and symposiums, most of them free to the public, will attempt to illuminate Wagner, his ideas and his music, and place them in the context of 19th century European culture and politics.

On Tuesday, the Hammer Museum in Westwood will host a discussion on “Wagner and Anti-Semitism.” The panel will consist of Botstein, who also serves as music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; David J. Levin of the University of Chicago; Kenneth Reinhard, a UCLA scholar; and Marc A. Weiner of Indiana University, author of “Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination.”

The week’s panel of some of the country’s top Wagnerian scholars is the first of a handful of talks tackling the topic of the composer and the Jewish question that will be sprinkled throughout the Ring Festival, including others at the American Jewish University and University of La Verne.

The events aim to advance the conversation about Wagner beyond the deadlocked debate, as the Hammer’s website puts it, between “rival claims of ‘bad man’ and ‘great music.’ ” Oscillating between those two positions, Reinhard said, tends to produce a reductive and skewed discussion.

“It ultimately feels like you’re apologizing for the man if you like the music, or you’re trying to find fault with the music if you don’t like man,” he said.

Reinhard learned at an early age how divisive Wagner can be. His father, a Holocaust survivor, and his Jewish mother love classical music but can’t bear Wagner, either aesthetically or politically. “In a strange way,” that made Wagner’s music intriguing to him, Reinhard said. “It became something like a forbidden fruit.”

But while praising Wagner’s “strangely seductive” music as “the most wonderful ever written,” Reinhard understands other listeners’ queasier reactions. “You still have this lingering guilt, even anxiety, about the nature of Wagner,” he said.

Botstein also possesses both a personal and professional perspective on the controversies that continue to swirl around Wag- ner. He was born in Switzerland in 1946, and many family mem- bers perished in the Holocaust, he said.

But he opposes Israel’s informal ban on the performance of Wagner, finding it “hypocritical” because the works of other anti-Semitic composers are allowed. Call Wagner cynical and repugnant, an anti-Semite, a lech, a shameless self-promoter, Botstein said. Nevertheless, he stressed, it’s one thing to see the grasping, gold-hungry character of Mime in “The Ring of the Nibelung” as a Jewish caricature. It’s quite another to lay blame for the crimes of mass genocide at the feet of a man who died before Hitler was born.

“To make a big fuss about Wagner is a cheap way of coming to terms with the slaughter of millions of innocent civilians,” Botstein said.

While absolutely condemning Wagner’s virulent bigotry, Botstein and other scholars point out that aspects of the composer’s mind-set toward Jews were shared by many European artists and intellectuals as disparate as Karl Marx, Franz Liszt and George Eliot.

Dr. Alfred Clark, University of La Verne associate vice president for academic affairs and a humanities professor, said that when Wagner was writing the “Ring” in exile in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1850s, he was greatly inspired by the nationalistic ardor sparked by the continent-wide revolutions of 1848. In reaching back to Norse mythology to create the “Ring,” Wagner was channeling the collective aspirations of a group of motley principalities that hadn’t yet united into the German nation. But by the time the “Ring” was performed, Germany had hardened into “a Prussian, autocratic, militaristic, authoritarian state,” Clark said. So too had Wagner’s ideas stiffened, and his prejudices as well.

“I think the Wagner who was writing in the 1850s was a different person in the 1870s and 1880s,” Clark said. “This doesn’t forgive the anti-Semitism that Wagner espoused in his writings, especially in his later life. It is to say that Wagner is not equal to the Nazis.”

The Ring Festival’s spotlight on Wagner already has drawn public criticism and heated up the blogosphere. Last July, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich urged the opera company to remove its focus on Wagner because of the composer’s toxic views and legacy.

The debate will continue this month and, in all likelihood, for years to come.

“As long as anti-Semitism is a living issue and as long as the Holocaust is a living wound, then I do think the question of Wagner and anti-Semitism should be on the table,” Reinhard said.

As for Reinhard and his father, they’ve managed to reconcile.

“My dad is wonderful, and he valiantly tries to listen to Wagner,” Reinhard said. “It’s very sweet. He doesn’t like Schoenberg either.”