The Bard music festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, recently concluded a series of concerts and lectures on “Wagner and His World,” including a panel on “Wagner and the Jewish Question.” A recent news item on a similar theme: Michael D. Antonovich, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, filed a motion demanding that the citywide festival that the Los Angeles Opera was organizing in conjunction with its production of the Ring cycle next spring be widened to include Puccini and Mozart because it was an affront only to honour a composer whose music and writings were the “de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust.”
On August 18, 2009, the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit published the German translation of a long, sardonic “protocol” by the playwright Tuvia Tenenbom, the founding artistic director of the iconoclastic Jewish Theater in New York. He attended this summer’s performance of the Ring cycle in Bayreuth. The protocol has the caption “Hallo, Herr Hitler.”
Here is a rough summary.
Tenenbom, who is in his late forties, had never heard a Wagner opera before. He was born in Tel Aviv and raised in Meah She’arim, the rigidly orthodox section of West Jerusalem where he was to become a rabbi. In due course he rebelled, was – in his words – “kicked out” and went to New York to pursue a career in the theatre and in journalism. He produced a black comedy, The Last Jew in Europe, in Berlin in 2008.
On the plane on his way to Germany, he remembered Woody Allen’s remark, “Every time I hear Wagner I have the strong inner urge to invade Poland.”
On arrival he had violent stomach cramps. However, he heard two pieces of good news. The city of Bayreuth would help its Jewish community establish a religious and cultural centre. (He later found out the community consisted of five hundred people, all Russian immigrants, with the exception of three who were born in Germany.) And the two co-directors of the festival, Wagner’s great granddaughters Katharina and her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier intended to fully disclose the relationship between the Wagner family and Hitler in 2013, the two-hundredth anniversary of the composer’s birth – including perhaps, so The New York Times speculates, the information whether the two descendants’ grandmother Winifred slept with Hitler, which is considered highly unlikely but not altogether impossible. (The 2007 novel Winnie and Wolf by A.N. Wilson is based on the assumption that they did and that there was a child.)
Tenenbom gave himself one free day before attending Part One, Das Rheingold, to absorb the atmosphere. He found the city beautiful. The Festspielhaus, he noticed, was a place of pilgrimage. An Italian critic he talked to called Katharina’s recent production of Die Meistersinger “atrocious.” Tenenbom was also warned that the theatre had no air conditioning. A few years ago somebody died of heat stroke, he was told. But they kept his body in his seat until the end of the performance. In Bayreuth, Tenenbom learned, one does not interrupt an opera.
The next day, as the lights dimmed for Das Rheingold, he stared at the curtain in half-darkness for what seemed to him an eternity. While looking around to see how others responded, he imagined he saw a man with a little black mustache. “Hallo, Herr Hitler,” he whispered, taking care that nobody heard him. That’s the man I would like to interview. It would be the greatest coup of my career. But the curtain rose and the vision faded.
The stage was dipped in deep blue. From behind the rocks three Rhine Maidens appeared. Tenenbom became all excited wondering what they were going to do. He might even become a Wagner fan. But soon he realized that they were going to do nothing. He looked at his program. Who was the director? A man called Tankred Dorst. Why did he keep his singers so static?
The next person to appear was Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. Well, he thought, she’s bound to liven things up. He had read that a dwarf would also appear, sooner or later, who would soon change into a toad. My God, what Disney would do with these characters. But not Tankred Dorst. He has no ideas. Except one: not to have ideas. And perhaps one other idea. If Wagner was complex, this would make him more complex. The man to Tenenbom’s left had just gone to sleep; the one to his right was already snoring. Tenenbom decided not to invade Poland.
At the end of the opera, the public, including his two neighbours, was beside itself with enthusiasm. The applause lasted a full ten minutes. There’s something about all this, he told himself, that I don’t understand. Maybe I shall find out tomorrow, at Die Walküre.
Next day, punctually at four, he was in his seat, a little better prepared this time. The curtain went up. In the middle of the stage was a structure that reminded him of something in the toilet area of the synagogue in Tunis. When the Valkyries appeared, all in red, fully equipped with spears and plexiglass shields, to carry their dead heroes to Valhalla, a graffito explained to the audience: “You love life; we love death.” I can fly in a few friends from Gaza, Tenenbom said to himself, who can show this director how heroes move!
At the end of the opera, there was the same enthusiasm as yesterday. He went outside to catch a critic. Did he like the production? he asked. No, it was dreadful. What about yesterday’s? Abominable. Would he tell his readers? Oops — Tenenbom had touched a nerve. “How can I?” the critic shrugged. “Some people had to wait ten years to get a ticket!”
Before seeing Siegfried the next day he contemplated whether to sell his ticket. He had heard he could get four thousand euros for it. He contemplated all the things he could buy for four thousand euros. But he caved in.
In Siegfried Mime the dwarf appeared. If that is a dwarf, Tenenbom quietly observed, I am Eddie Murphy.
In the intermission he talked to an American, born in Germany, who was a manager for space flights at NASA and therefore good at explaining things scientifically. He said, “Wagner is a total experience. You have to come here every year. When you hear the music you are in a different world. Just as during an orgasm.”
For the rest of the opera he imagined he was a German. Angela Merkel was in the audience. She had seen every performance. He felt safe in a country run by people who used their time so meaningfully. He was in ecstasy and raised his hands to Heaven like an American evangelist.
The next day, at four sharp, he was in his seat to await the Götterdämmerung. His neighbour told him to forget about the production and just concentrate on the music. He tried to do that and failed. Was Wagner right?, he wondered. Do Jews have a musical deficit? Every time the music approached a climax it went sideways. Was there somebody on this planet with whom he could talk?
There was. Right here. Katharina herself.
He went to see her. He asked her if the gods had consulted her before dispatching her to this earth, which existence would she have chosen – to be the granddaughter of Richard Wagner or of a Polish rabbi? Katharina chose the rabbi.
He asked her what was her aim in life? She replied, to see to it that at last all questions about Wagner and the Nazis were answered once and for all and that everything was put on the table.
Tenenbom was impressed by her seriousness and her determination.
At the end of his journey he decided that Wagner was not a great thinker at all, On the contrary, judging from the confusions in the Ring, he could not think straight. Was anti-Semitism detectable in the music? No.
I will not invade Poland, he decided. Not even Liechtenstein.
Sorry, Woody Allen.