By Ilana Walder-Biesanz
(The rest of the issue can be found here.)
“I don’t listen to, or like, Wagner, because I am a Jew.”
That was my grandmother’s response when I asked her what she thought of Wagner’s music. She recognized that as a younger Jewish opera lover, I might not have the same response as she did. She didn’t have a problem with this, but she was adamant about her own determination to avoid Wagner.
Wagner’s anti-Semitic views are well-known; he wrote about them explicitly. His 1850 article “Judaism in Music” was written, in his own words, to “explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.” The essay repeats unoriginal, anti-Semitic claims—that Jews cannot speak European languages properly and that their own speech is incapable of expressing passion, and that Jews are therefore incapable of creating music that is truly art. Wagner encourages Jews to renounce their religion for the sake of Germany. He does not propose violence against Jews, but his anti-Semitic prejudices are clear.
The issue is further complicated by Hitler’s preference for Wagner. Hitler first saw Lohengrin at the age of twelve and remained an ardent lover of opera in general, and Wagner in particular, for the remainder of his life. Scholars have speculated that the ideas contained in Wagner’s writings and operas partially inspired Hitler’s theories of racial purity. Because of the connection, both historical and symbolic, between Wagner and Hitler, Wagner’s music has been unofficially banned in Israel for the entirety of the country’s existence. (Occasionally, this ban has been broken, as in 2001 when David Barenboim conducted the Tristan und Isolde overture as an unplanned encore in a concert, but performances of Wagner’s music have been rare and controversial.)
Some people question whether Wagner’s anti-Semitism can be detected in his operas. He may have had reprehensible opinions, these aficionados argue, but that doesn’t mean they affected
his artistic output. I do not think this is a fruitful line of argument. Wagner’s opinions on racial purity and supremacy in general, and Judaism in particular, are apparent in his works. The hierarchy of races in the Ring Cycle (with gold-loving dwarves at the bottom, one of whom is responsible for the chain of events that causes the destruction of the higher races), the emphasis on purity (both sexual and racial) in Parsifal, and Kundry’s role as the seductive “wandering Jew” and corrupter of men are all uncomfortably present in the works themselves, regardless of the listener’s background knowledge of Wagner’s views.
Instead of questioning the presence of Wagner’s racist and anti-Semitic ideas in his operas, we ought to ask whether those repugnant ideas are what a modern audience has to see in his operas. In postmodern literary theory, there is an idea called the “Fallacy of Intention,” which purports that anything external to a text itself—including the author’s intention in writing the text—is irrelevant to a proper critical examination of the text. The reader is the sole arbiter of meaning. This idea can be applied to Wagner’s operas. His political and religious goals in writing them do not matter; what matters are the inherent meanings directors and audiences can find. This does not eliminate racist and anti-Semitic readings of Wagner’s operas, as they are certainly possible even without considering Wagner’s personal history, but it allows us to choose how to engage with them.
Directors have found various ways to deal with the racist and anti-Semitic themes in Wagner’s operas. Many productions ignore sensitive issues entirely, preferring to focus on other themes (and there is no shortage of those in Wagner’s work). Girard’s recent production of Parsifal at the Met emphasized, among other things, sexual purity and gender relations rather than racial or religious purity. Other productions re-interpret the questionable themes. Chereau’s Ring Cycle took the hierarchy of races to be indicative of social class in a world on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, with the working-class dwarves struggling against the aristocratic gods. Some brave directors address the anti-Semitism in Wagner’s works directly. Herheim’s 2011 Parsifal in Bayreuth alluded to anti-Semitic stereotypes by having Kundry (as a maid) threaten to steal Herzeleide’s baby. Warner’s 2006 staging of Das Rheingold made Alberich’s identity as a Jew explicit: Wellgrunde even opened his fly before her “Pfui!” which was presumably in response to his circumcision. All of these are choices that can be valuable and enlightening for audiences, and they are all valid regardless of what Wagner intended his operas to convey. What Wagner wanted does not matter; what we can take from his operas today does.
For many people, including my grandmother, Wagner’s music symbolizes a great evil. If they do not want to listen to Wagner as a result, that is a personal decision I respect, but it is not one that I share. Wagner’s personal opinions do not taint my enjoyment of his music. Wagner was an anti-Semite, and it did affect his artistic output. That is no reason for me to stop listening to (or maybe, one day, singing or directing) his operas. His despicable opinions are there, but they’re for us to ignore, criticize, mock, or even embrace. Wagner left a legacy of beautiful music and we may do with it what we will.
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