Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Ring Part 2 – Dealing with Wagner’s Anti Semitism

When does the moral repugnance of an artist or scientist or musician disqualify one from enjoying their work???
2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner. During November and December 2013, Opera Australia (OA) is performing complete cycles of the four blood stained operas which make up his epic vision – the Ring Cycle.  It was booked out a year ago even though it cost well over a grand and is 17 hours of not very tuneful dirges.
As you may know from my last blog, I was part of cut down, sawn up version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the Opera Australia Ring Festival.  It was for a cut opera company called Emotionworks.  As part of OA’s Ring Festival, Emotionworks performed all four enormous works in one hour as rock icons and gods of the late twentieth century.  This is cut opera at its most condensed.  It was really dense.   For my sins, I was Garry Glitter playing the murderous thug Hunding – a complete bastard playing a prick of a bastard.  The pictures below tell the tale of how we adulterated and butchered this endless work of 17 hours of operatic madness.  
Our performance was very true to the original Wagnerian conception.
Sadly its brilliant creator was a virulent anti-Semite.  He was a prolific writer which included his essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik, (Jewishness in Music), a nasty view on the influence of Jews in German culture and society at that time.   There is no doubt that essay “Jewishness in Music” will taint his reputation forever.  The evidence of his anti-Semitism is undeniable.  Moreover, there are suggestions of a sort of Aryan style racism emerging later in his life.

One can never be too earnest in one's operatic adventures
But Wagner’s main sins occurred after his death.  His music was appropriated to be an iconic part of Nazi ritual.  The Die Meistersinger (Overture) was chosen by Hitler to open the Nuremberg rallies.  For the music buffs, here is a recent version. The dramatic anthem celebrating the Ride of the Valkyries is another example of work popular with the Nazi in war time news reels.  However, it was also used for that anti war work of Apocalypse Now.  Which appropriation counts the most?
Can you really be responsible for those who appropriate your work?  Are the great composers responsible for the toilet paper their work now promotes in advertisements around the world?  The appropriation of Wagner’s work by the Nazis was aided by the coincidence of their ideas.  Wagner’s family knew Hitler.  This was an appropriation that seems to have been abetted by the coincidence of views between Wagner and the Nazis.  That however is speculation by me.
The issue of Wagner was a pointed one in the production I was involved in.  Three of the performers were Jewish. One of the singers was a German scholar who was also a Cantor (ritual singer) at the local progressive Jewish Temple.  The cut opera was performed in the Jewish heart of Melbourne in St Kilda.  So the troubling aspect of Wagner and his anti-Semitism had to be addressed. 
Jewish Wagnerians from Stephen Fry to Daniel Barenboim ( wrestle with this issue in this, his 200th year.  At the same, many areas of Jewish life boycott the Wagnerian Operas.   My opera chose this means of acknowledging the Wagnerian anti Semitism.  We ran a competition (which was a bit of token gesture as it was virtually invisible).  This was put out before the performance:
“Emotionworks, wishing to acknowledge the historical blight (of Wagner’s anti-Semitism) is running a competition.  The winners receive free tickets to the cut opera which will be performed in a boxing ring.  The competition is this:
What gesture, statement or symbol can be used in the program notes, costumes or set (although there really isn’t a set other than the boxing ring) to acknowledge the vileness of Wagner’s anti Semitic attitudes and legacies?  Emotionworks is concerned not to use cheap Nazi paraphernalia but does feel the need explore the contradiction of performing tainted cultural product in a tolerant multicultural society.  Good luck!
Many would see this as an arse covering exercise.  On the other hand, it was a public acknowledgement of the problem and might have led to some people at least reading about and discussing the issue.  Friends of mine, however, refused to come or thought it was inappropriate to celebrate Wagner's work.
The suppression of cultural product is very vexed.  Indeed the Nazis themselves were infamous for their cultural suppression from book burning to the non playing of the music of Jewish composers.  Cultural repression seems to be the handmaiden of many totalitarian regimes. 
Moreover, there is no complete freedom of cultural expression.  We reasonably suppress by law, some culture for reasons of defamation, intellectual theft, treason and in an effort to stymie criminal communications.  We used to suppress culture where it transgressed community standards on vulgarity and obscenity but in these coarse times, that suppression is now too fucking difficult and is pretty fucked up (to coin a phrase).
I do support the suppression of Holocaust denial because of its dangers, its divisiveness, its offensiveness, its dishonesty and its historical distortion. So clearly there are cultural and pseudo historical statements that ought to be suppressed.  
The need and legitimacy of suppressing cultural output that is socially corrosive must diminish over time.  My view is that Wagner’s sins should not be forgotten and should at least be publicly acknowledged at performances of his works (as we did).  But I think I would draw the line at outright suppression in any environment except perhaps those where Nazism is particularly shocking such as Jewish, Gypsy, Gay and say Russian circles.  In some of those circles, the Nazi crimes might still be so raw as to justify suppression.
What is your view?
Should the creative works of nasty people be suppressed?
Should creations appropriated by nasty people be tainted by that appropriation?
When does time run its course so that the suppression loses relevance?
Over to you guys…

PS  Apologies for the late posting of this blog.  Being an opera tart is time consuming business.


  1. Everyone hates someone. I dont see what the problem is. Just shrug and "whatever". Deal with it.

    Besides, if he was alive today, I'm sure he'd be an "anti-nobjectivist"

    1. WTF?
      What happened to the usual swathes of bullshit?

      Everyone too busy?

      Good news then.
      The economy must really be improving if even twiddle[sic] has managed to land a job!


    2. MalcolmS2:59 AM

      magicsausagetosser: "What happened to the usual swathes of bullshit?"

      Well, two's not a bad start!

      What dy'a want? :)

    3. Thats only one ya dingus

      Do try to stay in focus


  2. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse & Edvard Munch were two who may fall into this category.
    I don't think it depreciated Wodehouse's works.
    It's more difficult to evaluate how it has influenced appreciation of Munch's efforts.
    Certainly hasn't depreciated sale values.

  3. MalcolmS6:16 PM

    Hi folks. We're off to warmer climes and family for Saturnalia.

    Just one last reminder of what the real Christmas/Saturnalia is all about in case you have forgotten. Have a good one!

    Saturnalia is "realer" and "really real" :)

    1. RalphH 19/124:12 AM

      “Christmas in America is an exuberant display of human ingenuity, capitalist productivity, and the enjoyment of life. Yet all of these are castigated as "materialistic"; the real meaning of the holiday, we are told, is assorted Nativity tales and altruist injunctions (e.g., love thy neighbor) that no one takes seriously. …….

      All the best customs of Christmas, from carols to trees to spectacular decorations, have their root in pagan ideas and practices. These customs were greatly amplified by American culture, as the product of reason, science, business, worldliness, and egoism, i.e., the pursuit of happiness. ……..

      America's tragedy is that its intellectual leaders have typically tried to replace happiness with guilt by insisting that the spiritual meaning of Christmas is religion and self-sacrifice for Tiny Tim or his equivalent. But the spiritual must start with recognizing reality. Life requires reason, selfishness, capitalism; that is what Christmas should celebrate--and really, underneath all the pretense, that is what it does celebrate. It is time to take the Christ out of Christmas, and turn the holiday into a guiltlessly egoistic, pro-reason, this-worldly, commercial celebration. (Leonard Peikoff - from Malcolm’s link - MalcolmS6:16 PM)

      What a load of utter tosh Malcolm. Do you really want the world to be like Scrooge before his awakening (that’s what Peikoff is advocating). Regardless of what people may make it Christmas is ALL about Christ. It’s about the spirit of love and giving - not the miserliness and greed of selfishness. It’s about recognising that goodness (and it’s attendant truth) which leads to genuine happiness, does not come from material things or from people directly but from something far bigger.

      The only true and lasting happiness comes from having care and respect for the joy and happiness of others. As Scrooge discovered, the only sacrifice needed is the sacrifice of one’s greedy, selfish ego so that one can live the real reality i.e. attain an ego based on actual truths (as taught by Christ for example), not on one’s personal greed and self-aggrandisement.

    2. MalcolmS8:20 PM

      RalphH: "Regardless of what people may make it Christmas is ALL about Christ"

      You are very confused Ralph. If that statement was true Christians would have celebrated on Christ's alleged birthday. Instead their purpose was all about their lust for converting the pagans and stopping their celebration of the approaching season of "new life." When they failed to do so they took the bull by the horns and tried to take it over. When they took over politically they banned it. The Christians *stole* Christmas Ralph.

      "It’s about the spirit of love and giving - not the miserliness and greed of selfishness"

      Well, of course it is! What you fail to understand is that the "spirit of love and giving" *is* selfish. Christmas is about celebrating thisworld and this life with family and friends, i.e., those one loves and values. Most people do not give gifts promiscuously to everyone or to their enemies. Why should they? They give to those they *value*! That's selfish Ralph! It's also the *good.*