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.
Labels: LA Opera 09/10