Next spring, the Los Angeles Opera will stage its first complete production of Richard Wagner's monumental four-opera cycle, "Der Ring des Nibelungen." In conjunction with those performances, more than 70 arts, cultural and educational institutions will produce a 10-week "Ring Festival," consisting of concerts, exhibitions, symposiums, lectures and other performances.
It will be L.A.'s largest cultural event since the 1984 Olympics -- not only a major aesthetic occasion but also an important step toward attracting the sort of arts tourism many believe will be an increasingly crucial part of the city's economic future. Or, at least it will be, unless county Supervisor Mike Antonovich can persuade his colleagues to approve a letter to L.A. Opera Chief Executive Marc I. Stern demanding that the festival shift its attention from Wagner to other composers.
Antonovich, it seems, has discovered that although Wagner was a composer of undoubted brilliance, he also was a loathsome man whose principal defect was an anti-Semitism so vile and thoroughgoing that it won the admiration of Adolf Hitler. Thus, on Tuesday, Antonovich will ask the other four supervisors to cosign a letter "requesting that the 'Ring Festival L.A.' shift the focus from honoring composer Richard Wagner to featuring other composers as headliners, to provide balance, historical perspective and a true sampling of operatic and musical talent."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 22, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 25 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Ring Festival: In Tim Rutten's column on July 18 about Los Angeles' Ring Festival, lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg was identified as the son of Arnold Schoenberg. He is the composer's grandson.
Let's pass quickly over the self-evident absurdity of a Ring Festival that focused on anyone but Wagner. The real mysteries here are timing and motive. The Ring Cycle production and festival were announced months ago. Why intervene now? Los Angeles is home to America's second-largest Jewish community, and yet there's been no real public outcry since the announcement.
The most comprehensive story on the question appeared in a Jewish newspaper, the Forward, which described the community's reaction to the festival as "muted" and pointed out that the county's only Jewish supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky, supports the festival. It also noted that philanthropist Eli Broad contributed $6 million to make the productions possible and that L.A. Opera board member Barry Sanders, who is leading the festival, is a past president of the American Jewish Committee's local chapter.
(Another L.A. Opera board member is E. Randol Schoenberg, who is not only the son of the great composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was forced to flee Vienna by the Nazis, but also an attorney who has done heroic work winning back art stolen from Jews during the war.)
Moreover, from the first, L.A. Opera has confronted Wagner's anti-Semitism head on. The company's website overview of the production and festival contains this unequivocal statement: "It is important to note here that while Richard Wagner is considered one of the most important and influential of all composers, he is also rightly reviled as having been an anti-Semite. Wagner's writings on the subject percolated into German politics and popular culture and, decades after the composer's death, were celebrated by Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. It is the company's belief that opera has value not only as musical and theatrical entertainment but as a way to gain important historical insight and to explore moral issues. Ring Festival L.A. will specifically address the subject of Wagner's anti-Semitism in several contexts, including seminars, panel conversations and performances."
Meanwhile, the L.A. Opera's music director, James Conlon, said this to the Forward about Wagner: "He was a despicable human being and an anti-Semite. There is no cleaning that up and no attempt to clean that up. The art is about the art, and history is about history."
The question of what to do about great artists' hateful ideas always is a difficult one. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are three giants stained by anti-Semitism who come quickly to mind. I'm a passionate lover of opera and classical music, but I choose not to attend Wagner performances or to buy recordings of his work, though it is among the most ravishingly beautiful in the repertoire. I agree with the novelist Thomas Mann, briefly a fellow Angeleno, who renounced the composer in 1940: "I find an element of Nazism, not only in Wagner's questionable literature," he wrote. "I find it also in his music ... though I have so loved that work that even today I am deeply stirred whenever a few bars of music from this world impinge upon my ear."
These are profound questions that involve not only the heart but the deeply personal recesses of conscience. The Board of Supervisors would be well advised to stick to the things it knows how to screw up.