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INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington (Part 2 of 6)

Monument to Richard Wagner, VeniceThe Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, continues:

Some people approach Wagner negatively because of his personal life and faults, especially his anti-Semitism. Is it fair to consider Wagner's personal faults in one’s estimation of his music?

Carol Berger:
I'm very glad you asked me about that. Wagner's anti-Semitism is a big sorrow to me. That being said, I would really appreciate it if all the sanctimonious people feeling so insulted by Wagner's anti-Semitism would turn with equal zeal on Brahms and Chopin. Wagner wrote some things that were pretty unfortunate and that don't make me feel very good about him inside, but Brahms and Chopin took their feelings on the road. They literally went after musicians, Chopin in Poland and Brahms in Vienna, and they intentionally got Jewish musicians thrown out of work. I remind you that the conductor who premiered Parsifal was Hermann Levi, a Jew. Wagner said to him, "You are my Parsifal conductor." Rabid anti-Semitism was prevalent in the time that Wagner lived in Europe. When Jewish musicians needed a recommendation, or they needed a couch to sleep on, when they had been thrown out of a job because of that anti-Semitism, they went to Maestro Wagner, and he helped them. So, for all the hot air that Wagner blew on paper, Wagner hired these musicians, he gave them work.

The creative world owes Wagner a huge debt, and it's far larger than this one grievous fault. Wagner codified, in a system culminating with Parsifal, the message of fellow-suffering, the message of connecting enlightenment and redemption to the concept of activist fellow-suffering. For that alone, we owe Wagner everything because he stated this in word and music. If anything is going to save us from blowing ourselves up in this world, it's only going to be if we begin to feel the pain of other people. What Wagner says in Parsifal, and this is the difference between the characters of Parsifal and Gurnemanz in the opera, is that it’s not good enough to say you feel bad for someone. You have to do something about it, to help that person. Only the pure fool, who is everyone, who experiences the pain and suffering of someone else and does something about it, only that person becomes enlightened. That is a far more important and enduring message to the world than anything else that he ever vented. It’s a spiritual message, a Buddhist message, a Christian message. People tend to run away from this message, because it's not about "I-me-myself," it’s about the "thou." It's the Zen idea of abandoning oneself for the other, and that is misunderstood by a lot of selfish opera people. So what Wagner wrote is despicable, but in the end his gift to the world is profoundly important.

Who are the people involved in the Millennium Wagner Opera Company other than yourself?

Carol Berger:
We have a roster of singers: 16 or 17 prima artists, and a list of secondary singers who form the core of the company. I have a conductor based in Atlanta, and I am having conversations at this time with a young Italian conductor from New York. I work very closely with Thomas Pertel, who is the company's accompanist and répétiteur. He is also the company vocal coach, and a Wagnerian singer himself. He and I work together with every single singer. I trust Thomas with this company more than anyone. Another person who takes an interest is William Smith, President of the Wagner Society of America, based in Chicago. That society has a healthy curiosity and respect for our effort. Individuals on the board of the Wagner Society of Northern California have been privately encouraging as well. And of course our Wagner friends in Germany take a keen interest and keep an observant if not low-profile watch on our development, as well as our trials and tribulations. After all, one of the mandates of Wagner Societies in general as tax-exempt organizations should be to be supportive of the performance of Wagner. But within the rank and file membership of Wagner Societies across the U.S., we have many active supporters.

One important way that we have changed the way an opera company is run is to redefine the relationship between company and supporter or friend. It has been very painful and difficult to build this company from scratch. We had no "sugar daddy." This company is not the brainchild of some rich person who wanted to sponsor an opera company and throws some money at it. That often happens with new companies. The Millennium Wagner Opera Company came about a different way. As its founder, after years in opera production and as a musicologist and lecturer, I found that the opportunities to see really fine Wagnerian psychodrama in the U.S. were too limited. So for us, being a friend or supporter is not a function of dollars. Our supporters and friends are people who have stood by us and helped us to persevere, who said, "Keep doing what you are doing. We believe in you." Maybe they don't have much money, but it's the emotional and spiritual support they give us that make them our friends. It is truly a Wagnerian adversity, because when I read about what Wagner himself went through, all the naysayers, the saboteurs, the fight to have his work staged, even to build Bayreuth, I recognize in what he went through a lot of what we are going through. Certain Wagner organizations in this country have positioned themselves as obstacles rather than natural allies with a common cause. Isn't that bizarre? No matter how we have reached out, tried to make friends, let them get to know us, even offered performance samplers, they seem hell bent on stamping us out like a naughty brush fire! It's sad to say, but look if you look at Wagner's detractors, you see that a bit of history repeats itself.

(To be continued.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to ask Carol Berger to provide just one (1!) proof of Brahms’ alleged passionate and active anti-Semitism. This is such blatant nonsense that I cannot even begin to think where to start vindicating Brahms of something he never committed and was never accused of by any of his (or even Wagner’s) biographers. This is an interesting trick to try and belittle Wagner’s anti-Semitism through the accusation of his rival(?) Brahms – as if saying “so what’s to it - everybody did it”. Well, not everyone did it as badly as Wagner. This nonsense (and that’s an understatement) is only second to Carol Berger’s branding of Wagner’s writings as “pretty unfortunate”. Well, know you that in his “Jewry in Music” (and not “Judaism/Jews in Music” as the book is sometimes erroneously called in English), a major milestone in European anti-Semitism, Wagner did not just treat the issue of Jews (allegedly) hindering European music, but was among those who laid the foundations to the German Rrace Theory by stating: “I view the Jewish race in particular as the born enemy of the racially pure man and of any nobleness in him; I am convinced that they especially will destroy us Germans". This is not trivial bourgeois anti-Semitism or “pretty unfortunate”. Shame on Carol Berger. (For full disclosure: this is written by a Jew who likes Wagner’s music, but likes Truth even more)