What More Can Be Said About Playing Wagner in Israel?

When it comes to the debate about whether to boycott the composer's music, it's hard to tell who is forcing what on whom.

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The events honoring the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner will come to an end a week from now, and a look ahead at the next anniversary festivities for him arouse optimism: The 250th anniversary of his birth will take place only in 2063, and the 150th anniversary of his death in 2033. In other words, we can look forward to at least 20 years of quiet. What did Prof. Na’ama Shefi say at a symposium to mark the year of Wagner in Jerusalem? “I’m tired.” And in fact, there is a certain fatigue evident when it comes to the Wagner debate in Israel. There is a sense that everything has already been said, and that what continues to be said is meta-polemical: We’re discussing an argument about the boycott and not the boycott itself.

Something of this feeling arose at that conference in the Jerusalem Theater last Tuesday. Composers and intellectuals gathered there, as well as two wonderful female singers – Efrat Ashkenazi and Shiri Hershkovitz – to discuss Wagner and his world, as a final chord for the year of Wagner, and perhaps not as a final but as a silent chord to the discussion of the boycott. The singers did not sing the boycotted music of the German composer that evening, only the music related to his work and his times, influenced by it and influencing it; the discussion was supposed to provide a broad platform to just those people who are not enthusiastic supporters of his music’s performance in Israel.

A protester on stage

About 150 people made their way on the still snowy sidewalks to participate in the discussion that began promisingly with Frederick Shazlan, musical director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, at the piano, and with the charming singing of Ashkenazi and Hershkovitz. But before the composers - professors Menachem Zur and Michael Wolpe - began speaking, a man who was seen a few minutes earlier entering the hall jumped onto the stage: A clearly strong and athletic man, who faced the audience and spread out his arms.

From that moment until the police removed him, over half an hour later, the man put on a horror show that included shouts, screams, curses and threats, grabbing objects on the stage while pretending to resist being dragged off it, a supposed surrender to several older men who thought they had succeeded, while he moaned and wept that they were breaking his bones – and immediately jumped onto the stage again to prove that he had been pretending.

A long emotional process was experienced by the shocked audience: From panic and fear in the face of the man’s violence and wild behavior, to anger at the disturbance, to shame that a single person was able to control dozens due to their fear that he would hit them, to sympathy that began to be aroused towards him at the thought that maybe he himself needed help, until the sobering up at the realization that this was nothing more than a kind of cynical game.

From the start it was clear there was nothing authentic about this protest. It was not the pain of the elderly Holocaust survivor who waved a noisemaker from his seat when he heard the sounds of Wagner at a concert in Rishon Letzion a decade ago, thereby hinting at the wickedness of the composer and his legacy, and waiting submissively to be removed from the auditorium. It wasn’t the hurt and the intellectual discussion in the letters and words of others in various forums before the concert of works by Wagner that was planned last year, and not even the anger in an even more violent outburst at a Wagner concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 30 years ago. Here, in the final analysis, it was just depressing.

When it comes to Wagner in Israel, it’s already hard to know who is representing freedom of expression and who is the reactionary; who is the minority in need of protection and who the violent strongman; and who is forcing what on whom. Volkswagen and Ludwig II, Nordic Teutonic mythology and the Jewish Holocaust, “the music of the future” and Nazism and democracy - all are thrown into the same pot and the discussion is burned.

And it’s hard to know what to hope for and how to behave: to abandon this story and stop annoying people with attempts to perform Wagner, and thereby to finally gain a little quiet and listen to Wagner on the Mezzo TV channel; or to insist and fight over principles and keep on banging against the wall in attempts to play Wagner until the opponents themselves give up in despair – and in that way it will be possible to … what, exactly? To stage “The Valkyries” at the Israel Opera? The last act of “Parsifal” at the Philharmonic? Woe to such a victory for freedom of expression.

Rehearsing The Valkyries at Bayreuther Festspiele.Credit: AP

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