Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Here Comes That Sinking Feeling

April 16, 2010

Anja Kampe and Placido Domingo in Die Walküre
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2010

I always miss out on the drama. On Thursday, L.A. Opera music director James Conlon was under fire at the Museum of Tolerance by a heckler. He was giving a talk on Wagner and anti-Semitism as part of the Ring Festival LA, a series of public arts and educational events around town taking place in conjunction with L.A. Opera’s presentation of the visionary Achim Freyer-directed production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen this coming May and June. The heckler, one of a specific handful of seemingly unstable folks who’ve been working to generate controversy and derail the festival and opera performances, reportedly shouted down Conlon and later found himself in verbal confrontations with both L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft over his behavior before being escorted out by security. This was just the latest in a series of manufactured media events to draw attention to Wagner’s well-known anti-Semitism – a topic that has been under more civil discussion in numerous venues throughout several Ring Festival events.

One of those festival events was in fact taking place simultaneously downtown at the Museum of Contemporary Art where a panel of USC faculty and others were speaking under the auspices of the USC Master of Liberal Studies Program. The presentations, which were grouped under the title “From Nietzsche to ‘Star Wars’: The Wagnerian Power of ‘The Ring’,” allowed a number of faculty to speak about trends in 18th and 19th century literature and art that were reflected in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Wagner’s anti-Semitism was a topic of discussion here among members of the panel as well, though with much fewer histrionics. But the piece that really got me thinking, especially in light of all the local “protest” over the Ring Cycle, was from Roberto Ignacio Dìaz, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Comparative Literature. Entitled “Wagner and the City”, professor Dìaz’s presentation made an argument that the mounting of Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen has become a signifier used by cities to validate their own relevance, not only as cultural centers, but as cities in their own right. One knows a city by its ability to produce art, and in this logic, the Ring Cycle becomes much more than just a series of operas for the companies and persons involved in its production. The Ring becomes a marker of a city's place in the world.

Which brings me back to all the purported hubbub over Wagner’s anti-Semitism as a source of consternation in the mounting of the cycle here in Los Angeles. Ring Cycles have been mounted all over the U.S., and the world, with far less concern in both larger and smaller cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago. Even Long Beach produced a reduced chamber version of the work a few years back without anyone pouring out into the streets in distress. And, while New York prepares yet another update to its own Ring production with no one being called a Nazi, in Los Angeles, the production engenders major soul searching over a well-known fact about the composer’s prejudices. Furthermore, while Los Angeles often seems to have cornered the market on oddity, the fact is there are people who share the same sentiments everywhere in the world. Certainly there is no shortage of people who detest Wagner and his music because of his anti-Semitism in New York as well as San Francisco. Yet they haven’t enjoyed any of the publicity their Los Angeles counterparts have in the recent weeks.

Which suggests that maybe the protest and its coverage really tell us something else. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a fact. But much like the date of the signing of the Magna Carta or the identity of who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, once you know it, you know it. Diaz’s reading may suggest a broader issue. That concern over Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of presenting the Ring for the first time in Los Angeles may speak more to the city’s and its residents’ own anxiety about the standing of their metropolis in the rest of the world. Does discomfort over the Ring correlate to unease or uncertainty that our home is in fact more of a provincial outpost in the world than we care to admit? L.A. seems hesitant and wracked about doing something that other cities do without so much as a passing thought to the “controversy.” It’s sometimes easy to forget given L.A.’s size how young the city actually is. Yet, despite rising to the world stage over the last century, we still aren’t completely sure that we deserve to be where we, in fact, are. In this model, detesting the Ring may represent a sort of civic self-loathing. But ready or not, L.A.'s Ring is here. And whether or not it's what anyone expected, it is ours.



It has been often said that LA Opera will not be a "real" opera company until it can do its own Ring. And that LA is not a "real" city until it has a "real" opera company. There's a certain merit in that analysis.

Why protest to the Ring happens here and not elsewhere, I think, has nothing to do with imaginary self-loathing. That's an unfamiliar Los Angeles description. I suspect you just made it up.

The actual difference is more attributable to the opera's marketing gimmick: Ring Festival LA. Originally announced (with considerable hutzpah) as a county-wide celebration of all things Wagner set to coincide with the three Ring Cycle performances. With seats for just one tenth of one percent of county residents it becomes clear to greater Los Angeles that this is an elite event, something intended for only a subset of that small minority called opera fans.

One thing you can say about LA without question is that we are multi-cultural. Ring Festival LA is mono-cultural. The culture is a European one at that. Of course in a multi-cultural society the many aspects of European culture have an important place. But general enthusiasm about such a Euro-centric festival would actually signal that LA is still provincial. We would have to admit that the culture of the Ring is somehow better than our own cultural mix. That would be self-loathing. There is no self-loathing here over this issue. Previous LA arts festivals have been very multicultural.

Worse yet, Ring Festival LA is centered on one individual who has been badmouthed so often by now that no one will publicly mention him any more without saying what a jerk he was. And even worse, his music inspired the greatest evil ever seen on our planet. I mean "Greatest Evil" as a literal statement, not an exaggeration.

While the festival may have brought out a handful of protesters, it has been greeted by the general populace with a mighty yawn. Residents of LA know what their city is and what it isn't. It may come as a surprise to the people inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that LA isn't a Wagner town.

Finally, in my view, the issue of Wagner's antisemitism is not relevant to the operas. If you're one of those people who likes the music you shouldn't have to feel all guilty about Richard's shortcomings as a human. There were lots of antisemites in his time and the Jews were not unaware of their enemies. More importantly there are antisemites today, right here in LA. They marched near city hall today waving swatiskas. Like Wagner's music, the swastika was a symbol of Hitler and the Nazis. In an effort to make LA a better place I would suggest people be more concerned about the antisemitism of those protesters than about that of Wagner.
A fascinating essay. San Francisco is even more of a provincial burg than your city, though most people living here don't realize it, but Mr. Diaz is right. We're older and have a number of "Ring"s under our belt, so We Are Kultured in a world class way.
Thanks for the comments. I'd have two responses to docker's well made points. I don't think LA being a multi-cultural city as opposed to a mono-cultural one has anything to do with anything. Multi-culturalism is one of those fables LA likes to tell itself about itself. Who isn't multi-cultural? San Francisco isn't? New York isn't? I'd even go so far as to say that at the time of their composition, the notion of a monolithic European Culture would have been though of as pretty far from the truth by the French and the English vis-a-vis the Germans.

As for the Festival being met with a yawn, the events I've attended so far have been just the opposite so far. Both were completely sold out, and these were lectures on weeknights. Granted the majority of Los Angelenos don't know or care, I agree. But the majority of LA residents have probably never been to a Dodgers game either.
So based on your premise, Seattle is a world-class city and LA is not?! Seattle is 3rd rate, and I have lived there.
LA has the most diverse population base in the world, and there will be pros and cons to any subject you want to discuss or promote. Get used to diversion.
It comes with the territory.
SF is a true burb by comparison, and I have lived there as well.
The point is not whether or not Seattle or Los Angeles is a world-class city. The issue is that producing a Ring cycle is one thing a city can do to convince itself that it is one whether or not that is in fact the case. Seattle may have produced a cycle years ago with little controversy because it felt it had something to prove. Los Angeles may be mounting one with a great deal of public angst because it, for some reason, doesn’t feel it actually deserves to be what it already is.

I’m not arguing that putting on the Ring makes a city important. I’m saying that there is a tendency to invest the Ring project with layers of meaning that have implications for those involved in the process, and that cities respond to those layers even if they aren’t factual.
While agreeing with some of "docker"'s points, i must take exception to the phrase "his music inspired the greatest evil ever".
First, if we measure evil by the death toll, the title of "greatest evil" may actually be much more appropriately applied to Soviet regime because it murdered over 50 million of its own citizens - far more than Nazis have done.
Second, while admitting that Nazis did use Wagner's music for their propaganda purposes, we have to be very careful about using the term "inspired". Are we blaming the music for the atrocities? I hope not, because that would put us on a dangerously slippery slope into absolving the real perpetrators of their guilt. If we ever get anywhere near saying "He was a nice guy but this music made him do it!", we are in really deep trouble.
If MarK (with whom I have been over this same territory elsewhere) cares to measure "greatest evil" with the sole criterion of body count, that is her prerogative. And if that means she thinks the Soviets worse than the Nazis, I can accept a contrary opinion.

As for the musical inspiration of Hitler and the Nazis, I think there is little doubt that they held up Wagner (both the man and his music) as a (to them) positive symbol of German racial superiority. If we want to assign blame for their evil deeds, we can only blame them directly as people.

But we must understand their inspirations. Today it is our duty to understand how they came into power and the extent to which they abused it. Music was a real but minor Nazi tool. Beating people up on the street was far more effective in the short term.

The current Los Angeles festival of Wagner, which contains no focus on how the music was misused in history, is what is actually absolving the Nazi perpetrators (if only very very slightly). We are being told subliminally that it's okay to just swim along with the music and not worry about what those bad people did with his music.

I am not saying that "the music made them do it". What I am saying is that "they used the music to help do it." If someone is murdered with a baseball bat, we are not going to blame the bat nor stop enjoying baseball. But it would be best to remain aware of what that tool can do in the wrong hands. Charles Manson got his messages from a Beatles song. It is Manson not the Beatles who went to jail. But we should still remember that a seemingly meaningless lyric could inspire a fertile homicidal maniac to action.

I am suggesting that the arts can still be used as a tool of the Dark Side (an allusion that would be completely cool if LAO had indeed gotten George Lucas to direct the Ring). Suppose America's right wing got all riled up by some two-bit country singer and a two-bit Fox news commentator used that to get elected to public office. It would be best for all of us not to forget that such things are still possible. I hope it doesn't turn out like that of course. But it did turn out like that once, in a certain highly civilized, industrialized country which has produced much great music. We forget that story at our own peril.

David Ocker
If you know of a better way to measure evil than by the number of murdered people, you are free to propose it, but meanwhile we would have to accept that the Soviet regime was even more horrific than the Nazis. Many people keep forgetting that fact which is why i believe it is important to keep reminding of it.
As for the Nazis' use of the music, that music has not gotten any worse because of it - the same notes are still there. The Festival should of course not ignore history and i don't see any evidence that it is doing any such thing. In fact, this "festival" presents a wonderful opportunity of discussing precisely these subjects as we are doing here right now and is being done in several events around LA that are organized in conjunction with the festival.
On the other hand, using your own example, should every performance of a Beatles' song be accompanied by information about Manson? It seems to me that that would definitely be overkill (no pun intended at all).
No, we should not forget history, but i also believe that we should not hold music hostage to it. Let's not let Nazis take great music (or any great art, for that matter) away from us! It belongs to humanity, not to them.
MarK - I'm appalled that you want to argue against my "greatest evil" comment by saying "Well, the Russians killed more people." That line of reasoning doesn't look good on you. Millions of humans dead and an inconceivably horrific program of despicable, bald-faced discrimination is evil. Can you agree with that?

If you can say that Wagner's music (and libretto) has not gotten any worse in spite of its use by the Nazis (in their drive to become the "second most evil" regime ever), I can also say the music hasn't improved either because of them. We'll continue to disagree about how good the music was to begin with.

My apologies to the author of Out West Arts. MarK and I seem to have hijacked this discussion.

David Ocker
There is nothing to be "appalled" about, David - i never argued against your use of the word "evil". It is absolutely correct and appropriate. But when you use the word "greatest", you should be able to prove it, and so far you have not - specifically, by the number of peaceful people murdered Nazis' crimes occupy a distant second place and you have not suggested any other way of measuring.
The music is very good and i am sure you know that. Most musically knowledgeable people put Wagner at number four or five among the greatest composers ever. His music is probably the most important and influential between Beethoven in early 1800s and Stravinsky-Schoenberg in early 1900s. And i am sure you know that too.
We would not be able to "hijack" this discussion even if we tried. As far as i know, anyone is free to join in at any time and neither you nor i have any way of preventing that. In fact, i would like nothing more than to read other people's opinions on this and other subjects, especially if they are based on facts. Since the "blog owner" is the only one whose approval is necessary for comments to appear here, he evidently does not object to our conversation so far and therefore we have nothing to apologize for.
@MarK - you seem to have taken offense that I called a certain evil "greatest" when you regard it as only number two. I suppose I could take offense that you have called Wagner one of the "greatest" composers when I would put him farther down the list at ... no wait.

I'm not interested in playing this ordinal ranking game of yours, either for evils or composers (or for evil composers). I'm happy for you to calculate your grades by whatever method you choose. Feel free to continue battering me for picking the "wrong" greatest evil - if that makes you feel better.

I have tried hard to keep all my public comments on Ring-related events relevant only to the festival and not to the operas themselves, except to allude occasionally to the fact that I'm not much of a fan of Wagner's music. I argue that Los Angeles is ill served by choosing Richard Wagner, a symbol of and inspiration for the Nazis, as a centerpiece for public celebration. My arguments are, for the most part, about politics and historical memory not about artistic appreciation and aesthetics. I just posted a new piece at Mixed Meters about the Festival and Hitler's Birthday.

Those people who like Wagner's music should attend these performances. I hope they have a good time. If there are accompanying festival/party/marketing events, those should not be sponsored or endorsed by local governments or politicians who speak in my name.

I may not play in a local professional orchestra but I am a classically-trained "musically knowledgeable" musician and have made my living as such for many decades. I have strong opinions about classical music and there is much of it that I truly respect and enjoy. I decry the museum-like tendencies of large musical organizations. I am appalled when dead composers are beatified like saints and don't get me started on the subject of "Is Classical Music Dead?".

I agree that Wagner was very influential; too much so, in my opinion, but there's nothing to be done about that now. He had a good composers technique; he would have made a fine film composer, churning out one cue after another.

But the subject of whether his music was great or small, good or bad, or whether you or I like or dislike it, is simply not relevant to the issue of why this eff-ing festival is wrong for Los Angeles. If the argument in favor of the festival comes down to "the music is SO good that we can overlook the nasty things", which is a personal aesthetic decision, then there's really not much more to discuss, is there?

David Ocker
There is in fact plenty to discuss, including Wagner's personality and its relation to his music, and the festival is doing just that through many panel discussions and seminars that i heard about from my friends some of whom are participating in these events which makes me confident that the negative side of the issue is not being ignored. Pointing out historical inaccuracies does not make me feel any better or any worse - it's just the facts, nothing else. Ranking evils and composers is not my favorite pastime either and i only referred to the former because of your insistence on the "greatest" designation, while the latter may even be a more arguable proposition but i have seen it in several respectable musicological publications. This is memorable to me because at the time i was surprised that Wagner was ranked so highly, but over the years, after i have become better acquainted with his music as well as with its importance in musical developments after him, i have come to realize that his music truly deserves to be considered within the second "troika" of composers (the first being of course Bach-Mozart-Beethoven).
You probably realize by now that all I'm interested in discussing is Ring Festival L.A.

So let me propose this topic of discussion: How well do you think RFLA is reaching out to the 90% of LA County residents who aren't already opera fans? That would be about nine million people, two-thirds of whom are of color, who speak 224 languages and come from every planet.

And each of us has contributed some of our hard-earned money to the $14 million county loan to LA Opera - over 40% of the Ring budget - which is keeping that centerpiece of the festival from flushing itself down the financial toilet.

And here's an extra credit question: is there any good reason I shouldn't let you have the last word in this increasingly pointless duet? (Pointless because neither of us has the slightest inclination to change their mind. Although I do have lots of free time.)

David Ocker
Yes, I agree. This battle has gone on long enough and since it’s my blog, I’ll take the last word. Ironically, this debate is exactly the kind of thing that my original post was trying to address. I don’t think questions regarding Wagner’s anti-Semitism and its proper role in shaping our opinions about his music, or the Ring Festival or anything else are particularly interesting in 2010. His anti-Semitism is a fact, and it is highly unlikely that people will stop wanting to hear his music or talk about his life anytime soon.

The real questions is why are some (albeit a minority) of Angelenos wrapped up in these discussions now, when virtually every comparable city in the US appears not to have suffer from the same crisis of conscience at similar moments in time. Arguments about L.A. unique multi-cultural nature run particularly hollow for me. There is certainly something that sets L.A. apart, but I doubt it’s because we’ve reached some ethnic moral high ground.
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