AACHEN, Germany — In an ongoing debate as emotionally charged as his music, German composer Richard Wagner has long been a source of controversy among Jews. Overshadowed by his infamous anti-Semitism — and loyal anti-Semitic fans — in Israel, Wagner’s work is, in practice, verboten.
The unofficial ban on Wagner performances in Israel dates back to a 1938 decision by the Palestinian Symphonic Orchestra (the predecessor of the Israel Philharmonic) to drop the composer from its repertoire following the Kristallnacht pogroms that year.
Indeed, public performances of Wagner in Israel are extremely rare, and when they do occur, they are accompanied by protests and debates as loud and stormy as the bombastic music of the German composer itself.
Israeli-born singer Netta Or usually strikes much softer tones in her performances. The highly successful performer prefers to take on the more lyrical style required in Mozart, Bach or baroque operas, and is not the archetypical Wagnerian soprano.
Or, who has lived most of her life in Germany, faced moral and artistic challenges ahead of her performances at this year’s widely-known annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany.
For Or, it was a challenge to reconcile that she is singing in an opera written by a composer who had nothing but contempt for Jews, and whose most ardent devotee is none other than Adolf Hitler. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the festival is inaugurated by and dedicated to the anti-Semitic composer.
The Jewish opera singer has already performed on the world’s most prestigious stages, such as the Teatro Real in Madrid, the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, the Budapest Spring Festival, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Salzburg Festival. But this performance is different.
Created in 1876, the Wagner festival takes place annually in the Bayreuth Festival Theater constructed by the composer himself to suit the special acoustic needs of his music. It is widely regarded as one of the most celebrated classical music events in the world.
And yet, repelled by Wagner’s anti-Semitism, Or was torn when she received her invitation for the audition in Bayreuth about two years ago.
‘I really wanted to get it. But then again, thinking about the close relationship between Hitler and the Wagner family, I didn’t’
“I felt awkward. For a musician who has to succeed in a free market that is overcrowded with competing soprano singers like me, turning down the opportunity of a role at Bayreuth simply isn’t an option,” she said. “Even though I didn’t think I’d get the part, I wasn’t sure whether I even really wanted it. I mean, I really wanted it — but then again, thinking about the close relationship between Hitler and the Wagner family, I didn’t.”
Ironically, it is this ambivalence that may have eased the singer’s audition nerves and helped her prevail over her competitors.
“Everyone was so nervous,” she said of the atmosphere at the casting, invoking a scene from the movie “A Chorus Line.”
“There are 25 very talented singers on a stage who are so eager to get the part that they almost make fools of themselves. And then there was me, not even sure I wanted to be there. And then I got the part,” she said.
Her moral concerns notwithstanding, Or, who at the festival is playing the role of the first flower girl in the Wagner-Opera “Parsifal,” emphasized that she is “proud and grateful” to perform in Bayreuth. “The artists who appear in Bayreuth are among the world’s most distinguished and it is a true honor to be allowed to share the stage with them,” she added humbly.
This year’s festival opened July 25 and closes August 28.
Or is not the first Israeli and certainly not the first Jew to perform at the Bayreuth festival, which employed Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim from 1981 until 1987.
One of the festival’s first conductors at the end of the 19th century was Herman Levy, the Jewish music director of the Bavarian National Royal Theater in Munich, who was forced upon Wagner by King Ludwig of Bavaria. Ludwig made Levy’s employment a precondition for his funding of the festival, so Wagner was compelled to reluctantly give in.
This year’s opening performance of the festival, a new production of the Wagner comedic opera “The Mastersingers of Nürnberg,” is directed by the Australian Jewish theater and opera director Barrie Kosky.
However, even though there is no official record on nationality, religion or ethnicity of artists appearing at the Bayreuth festival, it is likely that Or is the first Israeli to sing there.
This is significant, as Wagner, who hated Jews in general, had particular contempt for Jewish singing.
In his notorious 1850 essay “Judaism in Music” Wagner writes, “Everything that repels us in the Jew’s appearance and in his way of talking eventually chases us away when it appears in his singing, unless we are captivated by its ridiculousness.”
Or’s response to this is defiance.
“Wagner is dead. He can’t do anything anymore. I am here to sing his music and to make sure that Bayreuth isn’t ‘judenrein,'” she said, invoking the notorious Nazi expression meaning that an area had been “cleansed” of Jews.
“For me,” Or continued, “that’s a way to actually prevail over Wagner’s Jew-hatred. But I wish that there would just be more awareness about Wagner’s anti-Semitic worldview.”
Bayreuth raises profile on Wagner’s anti-Semitism
The musical performances at the festival will be accompanied by a series of lectures and discussions that under the title “Discourse Bayreuth” will also address Wagner’s anti-Semitism, said Peter Emmerich, a spokesperson for the festival.
To Prof. Ruth HaCohen, the Artur Rubinstein Professor of Musicology at Hebrew University and the author of “The Music Libel Against the Jews,” such a framework is imperative.
“I think Wagner’s music should not be completely banned in Israel, nor anywhere else,” HaCohen said. “But I think, when it is performed in public, it always needs to be embedded in a framework that critically discusses the worldview of its composer in relation to the works performed and their reception and impact.”
Although Wagner had been dead for six years by the time Hitler was born, many historians believe that both Wagner’s music and his anti-Semitic writing had a significant impact on the German dictator. Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifried became close friends with Hitler, whom she often received in the Wagner family’s Bayreuth home.
Wagner pioneered many ideas of modern anti-Semitism long before the Nazis rose to power. His association of Judaism with cultural decline and the idea that society needs to emancipate itself from alleged crippling Jewish domination recur as central themes in later pieces of anti-Semitic writing by other authors, including Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
“This is what distinguishes Wagner. He wasn’t simply an opportunistic collaborator of the Nazi regime, but actually an intellectual champion of anti-Semitic thought,” explained HaCohen.
Prof. Na’ama Sheffi, a lecturer at the Department of Communication at Sderot’s Sapir College who researched the perception of Wagner in Israel, agreed with this assessment. She added that “this may be the reason why Wagner, in Israel, became an outstanding symbol of German anti-Semitism.”
Not celebrating the man, rather his music
Spokesperson Emmerich emphasized that “the Bayreuth Festival is not about commemorating the person Richard Wagner. Its purpose is simply and solely to perform his music as good as possible.”
That’s also the way Or sees it, “Otherwise I couldn’t sing here.”
But HaCohen is skeptical whether such a clear cut distinction between the music, its composer and his worldview can be made.
‘Wagner saw himself not only as a musician, but also as a philosopher and a prophet’
“Wagner saw himself not only as a musician, but also as a philosopher and a prophet. He saw his music as a way to promote a vision of a future society. One should consider this as one among a number of aspects that are relevant to the interpretation of Wagner’s complex art,” she said.
HaCohen thinks that responsibility is also with the artists.
“They should use the prominence and exposure that they gain from performing at Bayreuth in order raise awareness about Wagner’s anti-Semitism,” said HaCohen. “In today’s world in which everybody has access to social media, this is not a hard thing to do.”