What will happen if you take a Jew, fly him to Bayreuth, and make him attend Wagner's operas in Wagner's own opera house: will he become a Wagner fan or will he get shivers all over and regret the day he ever showed up?
To answer this question, I fly myself to Germany.
In the heavens above the Atlantic, somewhere between USA and Europe, my head is exploding with questions:
There are so many operas in the world that are just fun; why am I getting myself into this Wagner thing? About two months ago I went to see Puccini's La Boheme in Ramallah. Was really wonderful. Everywhere you looked, seats and aisles, you would see the richer of Palestine: women with the most colorful and expensive hijabs, men with shiniest cellphones. The opera, truth be told, was awful, but the audience provided a feast to the eye.
Will there be hijabs in Bayreuth? Should I ask the pilot to change course and fly me to the Middle East, place of my birth? Can a man love Wagner and still be a Jew? Can a man be a Nazi-sympathizer and still hate Wagner? Wagner, the author of "Das Judenthum in der Musik," claimed that Jews, creatures of no passion, lack the ability to create music. Would I have the capacity to at least understand music, to understand Wagner?
The plane is flying as fast as it can, and distant images fly into my head. There was a professor, Edward Said, who spent much of his life defending the Palestinian cause, and who loved Wagner as well. When someone argued that listening to Wagner amounted to experiencing anti-Semitism, the professor called him "the Ayatollah of the arts." To the professor, who wrote that he was taken by the "sheer beauty and force" of Wagner, music is music, art is art, and politics should never get in the way. This argument of course did not prevent him from concluding, in the very same article, that Israel and Zionism are two of the worst entities man has ever created.
Wagner's virulent anti-Semitism, coupled with Adolf Hitler's and the Nazi party's sacred embrace of his operas, make Wagner's operas more than just operas. To this day, staging Wagner in Israel is nearly impossible. Only an occasional great pianist such as Barenboim will dare. But how many Barenboims are also honorary citizens of Palestine?
The plane touches ground in the Fatherland as originally scheduled. As we disembark, I am reminded of something the comedian Woody Allen once said: "Every time I listen to Wagner, I get the urge to conquer Poland." By the time I cross customs, I start having severe stomach aches. I am about to see Wagner's Ring; that is four operas. Who needs four stomach aches?
Upon reaching Bayreuth, a beautiful town, I am glad to see that I am not the only one with Jews and Nazis on his mind. The town of Bayreuth announces plans to establish a Jewish center. How nice. Willkommen.
And that is not the only good news coming out of Bayreuth these days: a few moments after my arrival, I am told that Katharina Wagner, the new co-director of Bayreuth Festival and the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, plans to open the family's archives and reveal the full extent of her family's relations with Adolf Hitler.
You should be happy, I say to myself. Most mortals wait for up to ten years before the opera house offers them the opportunity to purchase tickets. And I have four of them! For those who do not want to wait ten years, tickets are offered for up to 4,500 euros per performance. Where I was born, for this amount you can get a house and four camels. But I do not have to spend even one euro; my tickets are at the press office. Am I not one lucky Jew?!
My stomach is calming down; I feel better.
The Ring opens tomorrow; I want to acquaint myself with the town. I go to the Festspielhaus, called here The Hill, and mingle with the people. I never attended a Wagner opera; I would like to check out the side-effects of attending one.
Die Meistersinger, directed by none other than Katharina Wagner, is just over. A small group of very passionate Italians are screaming at each other. I do not know one word in Italian. "Why are you so upset?" I say to them in English. The man, a sharp dresser, tells me that he is the President of the Wagner Society in Milan. And he is pissed off. Furious. Really upset. "Katharina," he says to me, "is beautiful. I love her breasts. I love her. Why did she make such a banal, miserable direction?!"
People take their Wagner very personally here; better be careful.
I try to veer away from tonight's performance and talk to people about Wagner, about Bayreuth. They say they love being here, The Hill is their heaven on earth. "There's no air-condition inside," a man tells me. "but it is worth it. No air at all. A few years ago, some people died, it was so hot. The bodies were left in their seats until the end of the performance. You do not stop in the middle of Wagner."
Downstairs in the hotel I meet a man in a wheelchair who says he loves Wagner. His daughter, a tall blond lady, goes by the name of Cosima. He named her, he says, in honor of Wagner's wife. "Who is more important in your life," I ask him, "Richard Wagner or Jesus Christ?" He does not hesitate: "This is easy," he says: "Wagner."
I depart to my room, to prepare for tomorrow's opera. I read the plot. It is hard to follow; seems to be jumping all over. Why should it be easy?
So, on the following day, I am on The Hill at my seat in the press box. Critics encircle me. There are no aisles in this house, only seats.. If I have to go to the toilet, I am stuck. If a fire breaks out, I do not have to worry: the orchestra will continue to play for the next 2.5 hours -- the duration of Das Rheingold. No intermission. These critics must know their Wagner. If I do not understand something, I shall bother every one of them. "The acoustics here are so good," one tells me, "you can hear the music from the back."
Time now. Lights down. Music up. All you can see is a black curtain. You stare at the black curtain and see in your head whatever comes into it. Into mine walks a man with a little black moustache. He loves this place, comes here often. I would love to give this man an interview; it would be the peak of my life's work…
Curtain up. Moustache out.
The stage is washed in blue as three Rhinemaidens appear among the rocks. I cannot wait to see what will happen: I might become a Wagner fan. But nothing is happening. I wait for one of the Rhinemaidens to move. Who directed this thing? Why is he keeping the stage like this? Freia, Goddess of Youth and Beauty, is on the books to show up soon. There is also, I read yesterday, a dwarf who turns into a toad. The director, I conclude, has a Master Concept: if Wagner is complex, let us make him more complex. Result? A man nearby has fallen asleep, and another is already snoring. I make up my mind not to invade Poland. At least not tonight.
When Das Rhinegold finally ends, the audience is ecstatic. For endless minutes, applause rocks the Hill. I check my sleeping neighbor; they applaud as well.
Maybe, maybe the action starts only tomorrow, in Die Walküre. This opera is to run for six hours. That is an Opera!
Next afternoon, I am at my seat.
I prepared a little better this time, reading texts about Die Walküre not to lose any detail or coloration. Although my texts assure me that sexual tension is about to take shape between Siegmund and Sieglinde, the two characters sing past each other on a set that reminds me of a synagogue from my childhood. As for sexual tension, you find it here as much as you are likely to find it in any average synagogue .
I look around; am I the only person here thinking like this?
Who is in charge of the lights here, by the way? Whoever it is, that person works pretty hard to make sure we see as little as possible. Maybe this person should take down the curtain altogether. I cannot hold my thoughts to myself anymore, and ask a critic. The critic is happy to explain: This place is sacred, he says; sacred places, like churches, do not have strong lights.
Why, I ask him, is everything so stagy? Is that also part of the Sacred? No, says the critic; it is just bad directing. The director, the critic tells me, is not really a director, he just got the job.
Critics know so much. Amazing.
A man behind me is already snoring. He will probably end up applauding louder than anyone.
Hours later, the third Act, here called Aufzug, starts; eight red Valkyries appear, holding spears and plexiglass shields, on their way to carry the Heroes to Valhalla. I like red. I picture Suicide Bombers carried by the Virgin Brides to Paradise. I feel home. I can almost see graffiti on the stage: You love life, we love death. I feel like flying in some friends from Gaza right this minute.
The red Valkyries move -- which is great news. The only problem is that you cannot figure out where exactly they are going. But do not worry: in a few minutes' time, the static returns.
As Die Walküre ends, a ring of fire is lit round the character named Brünnhilde; red smoke of fire engulfs the stage -- like ruins. The audience is elated. Just like yesterday, a thunderous applause is loudly sounded -- including the sleeping folk.
What did they see in it that I did not?
I go out and find a critic to enlighten me. Did he enjoy the evening? No, it was awful. And yesterday was awful, too. Will he tell his readers that this is an awful place to be? Oops, touched a raw spot. People wait ten years to get a ticket; how can he tell them that it is bad? Cannot do it.
Should I come to the next opera, Siegfried, or sell my ticket at a discount for 4,000 euros? For two days I dream of all the things I could buy for the extra 4,000 euros, but in the end, I go to Siegfried.
Mime, a dwarf, is on stage. He looks like a dwarf the way I look like a hijab. I have this odd feeling that of the 2,000 people in attendance today I am the only one thinking of that. Why? I must ask my critic friends later.
Mime is a complicated character; some scholars believe that Wagner meant to portray a Jew in a negative way. I wonder what the singer playing this role thinks of it. I chance to meet him on The Hill, and ask him. Yes, he tells me, he read about this when he did his research. Did the director discuss it with him during rehearsals? No. Would he like to play Mime as a Jew, say in a Yiddish accent? The singer laughs wildly; the idea seems funny to him. "I like to play in Bayreuth," he confides to me. "The applause here is the longest. Everywhere else the applause lasts only one third of the time it lasts here." Nice to know.
After Aufzug part one ends, and before Aufzug part two starts, I make it my business to meet a Follower. I find him in the image of a manager of an American scientific company. German-born, and living abroad for years, he flies to Bayreuth often. This, he tells me, is his 28th year here. I ask him what he thinks of Wagner and the Nazis. "If this is the direction you want to take this interview," he says, "I refuse." Period.
I try to calm him down; I do not need enemies on The Hill. I ask him, the way a student would ask a teacher, please to explain Wagner to me.
He smiles, cheers up. He says that as a manager of a scientific company, he loves to explain things: "Wagner cannot be explained," he discloses in exact scientific terms. When listening to Wagner, he adds, you get "a 'click' and you are out of this world. It is like an orgasm."
What should I expect to happen to me once the opera is over?
"You feel that you are in a beautiful world" and it lasts quite some time. But you have to come back every year. "Wagner in The Hill is a total experience."
I go to my seat and decide to approach the coming Aufzug as a Follower. First, I close my eyes; a devotional trick I learned from observant Jews. I listen to the music, and suddenly Mime really is short -- a real dwarf. And I am German. My mother's name is Cosima, and my father's name is Adolf. The music is amazing. It is MY music, my German music. And I LOVE the darkness on the stage, it is mystical! I shall kill anyone who tries to shed light on it. And I am really happy that the head of the government, the Chancellor, is here tonight; that she has come every night. I feel safe knowing that the people who rule our country make good use of their time. I am elated. I raise my hands, the way religious believers do. It is Revelation Time. I am not from the Middle East; I want THIS!
Soon Siegfried ends; on the next day I go to spend some quality time by the graveyards of Richard's and Cosima's dogs. Yes, they exist. Right here in Bayreuth.
Suddenly, in the stillness of the graves, a voice calls upon me: "Go to the Jews to learn more." I run to the Jewish Temple. The Jewish community in Bayreuth is small; maybe five hundred I am told once inside the building; a few hundred Russians and five from the Old Days. "May God remember the sacred souls, six million, who fell sanctifying His Name," says the sign next to the Holy Ark. Prayer books are dated August 1937. I meet the president of the Jüdische Gemeinde, an Old Timer, born and raised in Bayreuth. He never went to see an opera on The Hill. Never. How come? "When Wagner was alive," he answers, "he never came to visit our Temple; why I should I visit his?"
But the following day I am back at my seat to experience the Twilight of the Gods. I ask the critic near me for some tips. "Do not focus on the directing," he instructs me; "just on the music." I try it out. The strange thing is that every time I feel the music about to take me to some high point, it suddenly pulls me down. Whenever I feel that I'm about to reach a climax, the music fades. What is wrong with me?
I turn to the Critic. He is asleep.
As the Ring nears its end, no one is left to answer my questions. A thought awakens: Was Wagner right, are Jews music-deficient? The thought prods me; I feel a desperate need to talk with somebody about Wagner, Jews, and Nazis. So, to Katharina I go.
A press person opens the door, and we sit.
I tell Katharina about the comment the Italian made my first day. She breaks out laughing. "We just received a letter that the best of the festival are my breasts," she admits.
What should I respond to this? I do not know so I change the topic: Are there things about Wagner and the Nazis that we still do not know?
She tells me of a "mystical wardrobe near Munich, which is in the ownership of four members of the family, and no one knows what is in that wardrobe. My father says: Open it; and other parts of the family say: Do not open it."
But I care less about wardrobes than closets. Does she think that her great-grandfather had Jews in mind when he drew some of his characters, such as the dwarves in The Ring or Beckmesser in Meistersinger?
"Beckmesser for me," she says, "is a typical German, not Jewish."
I press on: You are the daughter of great composers, I am a son of great rabbis -- and we finally meet. I ask you, Katharina: Did Richard Wagner think of Jews when he wrote his characters?
This is not easy for her, I can see, but Katharina finally looks up. "Probably," she says, "in the Beckmesser he did."
"What if the Gods had come to you," I ask her, "before you were born and said to you: 'We are going to send you to Earth, but before we do, we give you two options: You are either going to be the great-granddaughter of Wagner or the great granddaughter of a big Polish rabbi. Your choice.' Which would you choose?"
The press person coughs; Katharina chooses the second.
I ask Rabbi Katharina of Poland what is her dream in life, what would she like to accomplish?
"To close the chapter on the Nazi past of Bayreuth," she states. "To answer all the questions about Bayreuth and the Nazis. To have everything on the table."
The press person stands up, but she does not seem to care a bit if he likes her answers or not. He tells her that it is time to finish the interview. She ignores him. He tells her there is a big donor waiting to meet her. "Go meet him," she tells him.
Wagner will never be the powerhouse I expected a week ago when I first arrived on this Hill. As for anti-Semitism in Wagner's music, I did not find any. It is time to give this issue a final rest. Wagner had some stupid ideas in his head. Many people do.
Just ask the critics.