Margaret Strother Shalev
Wagner in Israel, p.3

In the years following his death, Wagner remained an icon for progressive music in Europe: his shrine was Bayreuth, where his widow, Cosima, ruled the Bayreuth empire with a dull iron hand. Wagner's own sets and stage directions were preserved unchanged for almost fifty years, taking on the rigidity of Kabuki rituals. Alternate Wagnerian worlds took root in non-Bayreuth Europe and in America; in the 1930s, the American opera world served as a haven for German-Jewish refugees who considered Wagner, Brahms and Beethoven "their" music, which they were determined to preserve from Nazi misappropriation.

During Hitler's rule, the Bayreuth clique was deeply and passionately Nazi. Hitler was a frequent, beloved guest, "Uncle Wolfie" to the young Wagner grandsons. The festival's opera productions took on an increasingly fascist tone, and Wagnerian fantasy permeated the language, culture and image of Nazism, both within and outside of Germany. Wagner's character Siegfried was presented as the symbol of the resurgent German male (ignoring his ignominious death as the stupid, violent betrayer of Brünnhilde). The fall of Berlin and the fiery end of World War II seemed like a re-enactment of Götterdämmerung. And, as previously noted, survivors of the camps have recalled forced performances of Wagner's music while martyrs were being marched to the gas chambers. Wagner's operas frequently had Jewish stereotypes within them, such as Mime, the whining, evil dwarf who raised Siegfried and was then slaughtered by him in a moment of racial self-revelation. In the camps, it was as if real deaths were episodes in a Wagnerian epic, the purging of 6,000,000 "Mimes."

Wagner in Israel

The first attempt to shake off the 1938 Wagner ban was made by the Israel Philharmonic's director-for-life, the beloved Zubin Mehta. Mehta, a native of India, is one of the artistic heroes who have stood by Israel under the direst circumstances, for decades braving air raids and the scorn of anti-Zionists to conduct each Tel Aviv concert season. As such, Mehta felt safe enough to attempt to force the Israeli public to move on. In 1981, he announced to the audience at an Israeli Philharmonic concert that the prelude from Tristan und Isolde would be performed as an encore. Pandemonium erupted with the first strains -- shouts of "Shame! Shame!" erupted from the audience; legend has it that a survivor leapt to the stage to bear his scars. In retrospect, a chastened Mehta concluded, the time had not yet come.

In 2000, another attempt was made to challenge the Wagner ban when the small Rishon LeTzion Symphony programmed and performed Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. The performance was not entirely without incident, but they were able to play the piece through, perhaps buoyed by the credibility of the conductor, Mendy Rodan, a 71-year-old Holocaust survivor who saw the performance as a sort of revenge on the Nazis. In 2001, Daniel Barenboim picked up the spear: conducting the Berlin Statskapelle, guests of the annual Israel Festival, Barenboim placed on the concert schedule the first act of Die Walküre, with incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde sung by the world's leading performers in those roles, Placido Domingo and Deborah Voigt. Few believed the concert would go on as scheduled, and indeed, after pleas from diverse public figures, politicians and representatives of the Simon Weisenthal Center, the program was changed. But at the last concert of the series, after the last encore, the fateful event occurred. Barenboim, witnesses report, asked the audience to have a private chat: let's say, he suggested, that the concert is officially "over". Why shouldn't we play a little Wagner now? Why should a few people have veto power over so many? A heated discussion ensued, and in the end, the orchestra performed the prelude to Tristan, protested by only a handful of holdouts. After the performance, however, even some proponents felt a sense of remorse, complaining that Barenboim had tricked and seduced them.

Daniel Barenboim, conductor and superstar-pianist, excels in the art of bringing people together, instigating events, leading orchestras. Politically, Barenboim is a peacemaker, adopting as part of his public identity his friendship with the late Edward Said, the iconic Palestinian-American academic. Together with Said, Barenboim wrote a book about musical interpretation, and created an annual workshop in Austria for Israeli and Arab music students, by all accounts an idyllic and courageous enterprise. In their public discourses, Barenboim generally deferred to Said, who likened the suppressed voice of Wagner's music to the suppressed voice of the Palestinians. For his part, Barenboim's objections to the banning of Wagner rely on familiar themes: music isn't anti-Semitic, music is music. Despite his earlier statements, Barenboim no longer disputes Wagner's anti-Semitic program, or the loathsome uses to which his music was put by the Nazis. But the terrible memories the music evokes for Holocaust survivors, he asserts, don't "give them the right to keep other people from hearing it...It's a diaspora mentality."*

* San Francisco Chronicle, January 10, 2001

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May 2004

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Every City has a Soul
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Wagner in Israel
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The Stable
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The Truth about the Rosenbergs
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