After a spirited debate that pitted two prominent Los Angeles politicians against each other over issues of anti-Semitism and the operas of Richard Wagner, the County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to give its support to the 2010 Ring Festival L.A., a citywide arts celebration that will focus on Wagner's epic cycle, "The Ring of the Nibelung."
The board rejected a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich asking the festival's main backer, the Los Angeles Opera, to shift the event's focus away from Wagner, the renowned 19th century composer who is widely admired for his operas and detested for his virulently anti-Semitic personal views.
Instead, the board voted to approve a substitute motion from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in support of L.A. Opera and the Ring Festival.
"We should keep our sticky fingers out of this," Yaroslavsky told the board. "There is no reason for politicians to meddle in artistic undertakings."
He went on to describe Antonovich's motion as "an insult to L.A. Opera" and added that the motion had failed to gain the support of a single civil rights organization.
The Ring Festival, which is scheduled to begin in the spring, will comprise three complete cycles of Wagner's "Ring" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as well as the participation of more than 50 organizations that will organize exhibitions, concerts and educational programming tied to the event.
In his substitute motion, Yaroslavsky wrote that "it's clear that the festival is not envisioned as simply a celebration of Wagner's life; but rather, as an examination of his influence on Western culture and society -- for better and for worse."
Yaroslavsky, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, represents the 3rd District of Los Angeles County, which includes parts of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
In Tuesday's debate, which lasted close to 30 minutes, Antonovich argued that the festival's inclusion of a handful of symposiums dedicated to discussing Wagner's anti-Semitism "is not balanced" and that the fest should include other composers, including Beethoven, Puccini and Verdi.
Antonovich, who is not Jewish and who represents the 5th District, in northern Los Angeles County, said after the meeting that he is "disappointed that the board has decided to maintain the status quo. It's a missed opportunity. We're not saying we want to censor Wagner but rather to remove him as the focal point."
Last week, Antonovich had proposed a motion urging L.A. Opera to broaden the scope of the festival as a way of achieving "balance, historical perspective and a true sampling of operatic and musical talent." In the motion, he faulted festival organizers for celebrating the work of "a racist whose anti-Semitic writings were the inspiration for Hitler and the Holocaust."
Tuesday's meeting brought out a number of people who objected to what they see as a festival that will glorify Wagner and his anti-Semitic politics. The speakers were private citizens who did not represent any larger organization.
"People make festivals for people they admire," said Peter Gimpel, an independent classical scholar and publisher. "I'm horrified by the Orwellian tactics of L.A. Opera. What they are doing borders on historic revisionism, which is worse than anti-Semitism."
Carie Delmar, who runs a website that has protested the festival, said that the "festival is an affront to everything this city stands for."
Those who came to speak in favor of the festival emphasized the symposiums that will be held to discuss Wagner's racism. "It's because of his anti-Semitism that a festival like this should delve into the very issues that are important," said Seth Brisk, who represented the American Jewish Committee.
At one point, Antonovich sought to amend Yaroslavky's motion with a request that L.A. Opera schedule additional speakers for the festival to ensure a better balance. But Yaroslavsky rejected the overture, telling his colleague that "there is already balance but not the kind you like."
In the end, Supervisors Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Don Knabe voted in favor of the substitute motion, while Antonovich was the lone vote against Yaroslavsky's measure. (Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was not present during the meeting.)
L.A. Opera is spending $32 million over a few years to produce the entire "Ring" cycle. The festival is a separate but closely related organization that funds the promotion of the "Ring" but leaves the cost of the individual arts events to the participating institutions. The participating groups are a mix of organizations mostly in L.A. County that receive tax dollars -- including the Music Center (where L.A. Opera resides) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- as well as private institutions such as the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Following the vote, Stephen Rountree, the chief operating officer of L.A. Opera, said that he "couldn't be more pleased" with Yaroslavsky's motion. "We will continue to pursue partners for the festival and continue our efforts to achieve a level of introspection about Wagner's life."