My 'Parsifal' Problem and Yours

April 04, 1993|By STEPHEN WIGLER

In this morning's Arts and Entertainment section I have a piece on Wagner's "Parsifal." It's neither the best nor the worst of the articles on opera I have written over the years. But it was one of the most difficult.

What made it so difficult was the nature of the work -- which will be broadcast on Maryland Public Television Wednesday at 8 p.m. -- and the nature of the man who composed it. Wagner was probably the most despicable human being who ever produced great art. He was an untrustworthy friend, he treated all people -- except those from whom he needed favors -- with contempt, he was a liar, a cheat, a narcissist and a paranoid. Add to all this that he was one of the most vicious (and volubly so) anti-Semites who ever lived.

The fact of my Jewishness doesn't trouble me much when I deal with the composers I love. Most of them were -- most Christians were in the 19th century -- at least faintly anti-Semitic. Some of them -- such as Franz Liszt, Wagner's father-in-law and one of my favorites -- were more than faintly anti-Semitic. This doesn't bother me a whit. Everyone is entitled to his likes and dislikes, me included.

What makes Wagner different is that for most of his adult life he was obsessed by Jews -- talking about them as if they were a corrosive virus that needed to be expunged if earth were to survive. It's scarcely an accident that public performances of only one composer are banned in Israel -- and it's Richard Wagner.

When I listen to his music -- and I love it -- it is sometimes hard for me to forget that this was a man who would have preferred that I not be alive to enjoy it. And it sometimes occurs to me that if Adolf Hitler -- who loved Wagner's music and was much influenced by his racial ideas -- had succeeded in leading Germany to victory in World War II, that might indeed have been the case. My love for Wagner is always tainted by this.

Wagner enthusiasts are a club -- the most fanatical subsect of that fanatical sect known as opera lovers. And I know that the Meister himself -- though he was never above putting hatred aside in order to use a Jew who could sing or conduct his music or help make him money -- would not want me for a member.

But, finally, it's the nature of "Parsifal" itself that I find most troubling. It's ostensibly a Christian work, filled with symbols that have to do with the sacrament of communion and stage properties treated as if they are sacred relics -- the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ supposedly drank at the Last Supper and that was the receptacle for his blood at his crucifixion, and the spear that is supposed to have pierced his side when he was dying on the Cross.

Let me say that I do not find these symbols offensive because they belong to a faith that I do not share.

In my previous incarnation -- that is to say, before I became a newspaper music critic -- I was a professor of English who specialized in the literature of the Renaissance. Much of that literature -- whether the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the devotional lyrics of George Herbert, the ecstatic odes of Richard Crashaw or the epic explorations of John Milton -- has Christian themes. I love this poetry and I love and respect the different kinds of Christianity that inform it, whether the simple, refined Anglicism of Herbert, the exotically colorful Catholicism of Crashaw or the wonderfully idiosyncratic, left-wing Protestantism of Milton.

And actual anti-Semitism in Renaissance works never really bothered me. Whether it was in Marlowe's "Jew of Malta" or Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," I made no excuses about the anti-Jewish hatred that marks those plays and unself-consciously taught my students how that hatred functioned artistically in the work at hand.

Wagner's rabid anti-Semitism is nowhere to be found in "Parsifal" (or, for that matter, in any of his other operas). Wagner was a clever man. He knew that in the 19th century -- as today -- a large percentage of theatergoers were Jewish, and he always kept a careful eye on box office receipts.

But "Parsifal" is about redemption and there is a restrictiveness about who gets redeemed that I find deeply disturbing. In Christian art, redemption is usually something that belongs to the community of believers, but often -- as it is in the poetry of Milton -- that community of believers is defined very widely indeed. In Wagner, it could not be more exclusive.

The band of the redeemed in "Parsifal" is the fraternity of the Grail Knights, a brotherhood that is defined not only by their moral purity but also by the the purity of their Aryan blood. When I was engaged in writing an appreciation of this work, I could never put completely behind me the realization that I was writing about a work and an artist that did not appreciate me.

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