A Comment From Bayreuth on Barenboim's Surprise

A talk with Christian Thielemann at the Bayreuth Festival

Dalia Shehori
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Dalia Shehori

Christian Thielemann, 42, is the favored conductor of Wolfgang Wagner, the director of the Bayreuth Festival in Bavaria, which showcases the works of Richard Wagner each summer. This year, the festival director entrusted him with two Richard Wagner operas, as well as Beethoven's Ninth, which was staged last Saturday night in a gala concert that marked the 125th year since the festival was originally founded, and 50 years since its revival in 1951.

Wolfgang Wagner also chose Thielemann to conduct a new Ring Cycle (Die Niebelungen), which will be put on in Bayreuth in 2006. Thielemann also happens to be a Berlin-born and Berlin-based conductor to whom an anti-Semitic statement about Daniel Barenboim was attributed last year. In essence, it is why he granted an interview to Ha'aretz.

We met at a full-dress rehearsal of "Parsifal," during the intermission between the second and third acts. Christian Thielemann is 1.90 meters tall, has an athletic build, is very handsome. Sweating profusely (for the sake of acoustics, there is no air-conditioning in the festival hall), he consumed large quantities of mineral water. In conversation, he exudes inordinate personal charm.

In October 2000, he gained notoriety for a letter that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, written by a former Berlin culture official named Ulrich Roloff-Momin, who reported in passing that a "leading Berliner" - whom he did not name - had been heard to say how happy he was, "now that the Jewish mucking about in Berlin will be over." Rolofff-Momin was hinting, or the "leading Berliner" was hinting at the anticipated departure of Daniel Barenboim from his position as musical director of the Staatsoper, the Berlin State Opera, when his contract lapses in the summer of 2002.

The letter created a tumult in the media. The comment was traced to - and denied by - Christian Thielemann, the musical director of the Deutsche Oper, the German opera, which competes for limited city funding with Barenboim's Staatsoper. Thielemann, who guest-conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra five years ago and is scheduled to conduct it again in two years' time, was at one time Barenboim's assistant at the Staatsoper.

In an interview with Ha'aretz, Barenboim has gone on record saying that their relationship was cordial and friendly. "I believe Thielemann's denial, so long as there is no solid evidence against it," Barenboim said.

That which a Russian and a Frenchman are allowed

More than three years ago, in 1997, Thielemann was involved in a public argument after he conducted, at Covent Garden in London, "Palestrina" a work by Hans Pfitzner. This fiercely anti-Semitic conductor, who admired Hitler, believed that art must serve the homeland, and wrote contemptible things about Arnold Schoenberg. In his later years, Pfitzner tried to receive, albeit without success, the patronage of the Nazi regime. His music is composed in a romantic style not unlike that of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mahler. Pfitzner died penniless in 1949.

During the attacks on him, Thielemann said that politics and music had nothing in common, and defended Pfitzner as a conductor. "I love this work, and I do not know what fascism has to do with a D major." But ever since then, the public has continued to think of him as a conservative musician with right-wing tendencies.

During our conversation, he claimed there was no basis to this notion. "I defended Pfitzner's "Palestrina," not his opinions. I play this music wholeheartedly. It is a very fine work. Why am I a conservative if I play Pfitzner? An Italian conductor conducts an Italian repertoire and its okay. A Russian plays a Russian repertoire, a Frenchman a French. But if a young German says, `I feel okay with the German repertoire,' then he is told: `Something is wrong here.' How can I be a nationalist when I work with foreign singers? I was raised on Debussy and Prokofiev, but even more on German music, because I was born in Berlin. This is an interesting discussion - how in every country there are people who hate themselves. Even if they're not guilty, they feel guilt and responsibility. A French conductor can conduct French music and it's okay, but a German conductor always has to say: `I'm international, I'm European.' People have harbored these opinions about me ever since I started conducting, when I was 27. Maybe I should have been more diplomatic back then. But I was very young and naive."

The vague statement attributed to him regarding Barenboim stupefied him. "It was one of the worst moments of my life when I read it in the newspapers. Someone called me at home while I was eating schnitzel and asked if I knew whom the article was about. I fell out of my chair, and asked, `What?'"

Thielemann asserts that the timing of the story's publication was intentional. "It came out precisely when I was negotiating the renewal of my contract with the Opera in Berlin and with Deutsche Grammophon." The publicity was intended, he believes, to spoil the negotiations and bring about his exit from Berlin. "There are some groups that would like to see me out," he says. "It's a wonderful thing to bring about someone's ouster. It has nothing to do with Daniel."

You'll be playing Wagner

After he played Pfitzner, it was easy to attribute anti-Semitic attitudes to him, he says. There is an atmosphere of resentment and envy. "Anything that can be done to get rid of someone is done," he says. The statement he ostensibly made about Barenboim has come back to him in at least five different versions. "I have two attorneys, and I will find the person who spread these statements in my name. I am so angry, because it ruins my good name, and that's what those people wanted. It's hell. People look at me with suspicion. I conduct all over the world. I work almost exclusively with foreign singers. How could anyone think such as thing of me?"

Thielemann also differentiates between Richard Wagner's anti-Semitic views and his music, saying that "a C Major and the music of "Tristan und Isolde" have nothing to do with one another." He mentions a few other figures that appear in Wagner's operas, about whom it is said that Wagner described them in an anti-Semitic air. "It's completely idiotic, because we do not find that the (anti-Semitic) words he wrote are expressed in his music - and for me that is the cardinal issue," says Thielemann.

He notes that the first man to conduct Parsifal at Bayreuth, in Wagner's time, was Hermann Levy, a Jew. "Somebody wrote something about `the Aryan Parsifal.' It's all so stupid. It is impossible to find a single anti-Semitic political statement in Wagner's music, and I think that everyone agrees on this point."

Thielemann adds that he can understand people who look at Wagner through Holocaust spectacles and refuse to listen to him. But in his opinion - and here he gets into the question of whether Wagner should be played in Israel - "you shouldn't prevent other people from listening to this music." He nevertheless feels that people who have come to a concert with a pre-announced program that does not include Wagner, should not be surprised, as Barenboim did. "In that situation, it is very dangerous. I would not have done it."

He remembers how when he conducted the Israel Philharmonic, musicians in the orchestra came to him and said they would like to play Wagner. However, he says, "you have a whole political situation here. What can you do in the face of extreme opinions? If people are really so emotional about something, you should respect it. I would very much like to conduct Wagner in Israel. But if I knew there were objections, I would steer clear of it, because I don't want to force people. They have their own reasons, and I have to respect it, even if I have a different opinion. I think the day will come when you will play Wagner.

"The objection to playing him is a dictatorial act. The dictator says - you may not do this or that. I feel that there should be democracy, and those who are opposed to playing Wagner should respect the people who want to hear him."



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