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Ivan Katz

Ivan Katz

Posted: July 17, 2009 10:39 AM

A Demagogue In Full Cry


The silly season is starting a bit early this year. It is often very easy to find something to mock in the shenanigans of California politicians, but Los Angeles Supervisor Mike Antonovich has earned a place of distinction in the Pantheon of Public Stupidity.

The State of California is unable to pay its just debts. Politicians from Baja to the Oregon border are confronting public policy choices that range from the disfiguring to the catastrophic; the general feeling seems to be that if it is lucky, The Golden State will end up looking rather like Mississippi but with a more tolerable climate. The worst case scenario is Zimbabwe with marginally less corruption. And in the midst of this tumult, Supervisor Antonovich weighs in with a stunning proposal: The Los Angeles Opera should cancel its performances of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen and its Ring Festival on the grounds that (Extry! Extry!) Wagner was an anti-Semite.

The Los Angeles Times quoted a statement released by the esteemed public servant:

"To specifically honor and glorify the man whose music and racist anti-Semitic writings inspired Hitler and became the de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust in a countywide festival is an affront to those who have suffered or have been impacted by the horrors of Adolf Hitler's National Socialistic Worker Party."

Had the Los Angeles Opera suggested that it was about to present a festival in which Jewish businesses would be sacked and looted, Jews rounded up indiscriminately and packed off to Death Valley, or even that all patrons in the loge and balcony levels be required to wear yellow Stars of David on their dinner jackets and gowns, I'd be the first to suggest a boycott and the laying of criminal charges. But the LA Opera has suggested no such thing.

Supervisor Antonovich has cooked up a toxic stew of sloganeering masquerading as thought, demagoguery, and deeply flawed historical analysis, which he has served piping hot in an attempt to curry favor with unthinking members of the electorate. It is, withal, the sort of thing we expect from Robert Mugabe. Or The Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda itself.

The esteemed Supervisor's statement that Wagner's music and writing "inspired Hitler" finds no basis in the historical record, full stop. Wagner no more "inspired " Adolf Hitler than Anton Bruckner did (and contrary to the lore in the field, Bruckner - not Wagner - was Hitler's favorite composer).

Likewise, the assertion that Wagner's music "became the de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust" is ignorant, demagogic and simply wrong. The massacre of European Jewry was not a movie and, as a result, it had no soundtrack. But to the extent that those of us alive 64 years after the end of the Second World War require a "soundtrack", Yizkor - the prayers for the dead - is a "soundtrack to the Holocaust." So is Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. So are innumerable Sancti, Angeli and Requia. Some idiot with long experience writing press releases for the motion picture industry and no concept of history appears to be busily at work here.

It is absolutely unquestioned that Wagner was an anti-Semite. It is also unquestioned that he wrote some utterly despicable, deplorable things about Jews and their influence on music. We can examine those writings and the "thoughts" behind them, we can put them into context, but we can never justify or condone them. I am even willing to agree that all available evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that Wagner was a singularly awful human being. Yet he was dead for decades before the thugs and butchers took control of German and unleashed horrors unprecedented in the annals of European History. What any of this has to do with the merit of Wagner's music is hard to fathom.

It appears that when the predictable furor arose over his remarks, Antonovich backtracked. The Los Angeles Times reports that Antonovich "does not want to cancel the festival...He wants to substitute works by other composers." And the difference is?

Indeed, the Los Angeles Times noted that Antonovich suggested that the Los Angeles Opera "Delete the focus on Wagner and incorporate other composers as headliners including Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn and others." "Headliners?" What is he suggesting, the revival of vaudeville?

Oh sure, the substitution of a composer who abandoned Judaism (Mendelssohn) for an anti-Semite is guaranteed to quell public outrage. Jakob Liebmann Beer was so proud of his Jewish heritage that he changed his name to Giacomo Meyerbeer. And what kind of dolt wants to put Mozart's character into issue?

I am quite uncertain as to which operatic work of Mendelssohn's Supervisor Antonovich wants the Los Angeles Opera to perform; I cannot imagine that frenzied crowds will line up to purchase tickets for either Die Hochzeit des Camachos or Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde. Robert Schumann's one opera, Genoveva, is a nearly unlistenable bore. And for all of his talents, Franz Schubert was a fourth-rate opera composer.

It goes without saying that Mike Antonovich is trying to score cheap political points by flogging the nearest available dead German. One can only hope that even Angelinos are too smart to fall for it.

It ought to be mentioned that over the years I have attended four complete performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen, and I am slated to see the World End next month in Seattle. I am a dues paying (and daily attending) member of an Orthodox synagogue. I do not in any manner, shape or form feel that by attending a performance of a Wagner opera - or four of them - I am in any way contributing to anti-Semitism or sullying the memory of those slaughtered in the Holocaust (a group that happens to include several of my relatives).

It does not take a degree in Moral Theology to separate the deplorable (Wagner the man) from the sublime (Wagner the composer). Nor, for that matter, does it take a degree in veterinary medicine to know a horse's ass when he is quoted by the Los Angeles Times.