Valkyries don't ride in Israel - yet The music of the Nazis' beloved Richard Wagner is not performed on Israeli soil. But some musicians are suggesting it's time to change.

July 05, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - As a doctoral student in New York, Yehudit Etzion fell captive to the music of Richard Wagner, a favorite of Adolph Hitler. Seduced by the 19th-century German composer's harmonic language, his symphonic writing, she attended every performance she could of his operas.

Today, Etzion is a musicology professor in Israel. She teaches Wagner in her classes, explaining his influence on this century's great composers. But Etzion knows that Wagner's music evokes haunting memories for many of her fellow Israelis, the survivors of the Nazi death camps. For this reason, she opposes bringing his works to the Jewish state, a question being debated once again here.

"I would not stage Wagner as long as it can offend people," said Etzion, a professor at Bar Illan University near Tel Aviv. "It's a little premature to stage Wagner in Israel now."

Etzion's feelings reflect the conundrum facing the stewards of Israel's opera company. Earlier this month, the music director of the New Israeli Opera proposed lifting the country's self-imposed performance ban on Wagner's works. As in the past, the suggestion provoked strong feelings and emotional outbursts.

"Leave us Holocaust survivors alone with this playing of Wagner," Shevach Weiss, an Israeli lawmaker who lived as a child in Nazi-occupied Poland, said during a legislative hearing on the issue. "Let us go to our world and die, and then you can play Wagner as much as you want."

The debate goes beyond issues of artistic expression and cultural sensitivity. It speaks to the nature of Israeli society, its roots and aspirations.

Israel remembers the Holocaust victims in an annual national day of mourning. As many of the country's Holocaust survivors near the end of their lives, Israel's once-strained relationship with Germany has evolved into one of allied nations. Today, the modern Jewish state trades regularly with Germany, its citizens vacation there and Israeli taxi drivers prefer Mercedes.

For decades, performing Wag-ner's music in Israel has been taboo because of its association with the Third Reich. Wagner wrote several anti-Semitic tracts years before Hitler was born. But it was the composer's epic, lavish operas that Hitler and his followers publicly embraced.

Wagner was played often at Nazi party events and, along with other composers, in the concentration camps. The music came to symbolize the Nazi regime's grand evil plan. Although an occasional Wagner piece plays on Israel's publicly funded radio station, the music remains a potent symbol 50 years after the country's founding.

During a June 6 panel discussion on Wagner, sponsored by the New Israeli Opera Company, the audience shouted down the moderator when told a visiting baritone would sing a selection from "The Flying Dutchman." "Rape!" cried one participant. The performance was scrapped.

Past attempts to perform Wagner in Israel's concert halls met a similar fate.

The Israel Philharmonic scheduled a piece for its 1966 season, but opposition kept it off the program. In 1981, Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic's popular, Indian-born conductor, explained to an audience one evening that the orchestra's encore would be a selection from Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde."

Those offended by the piece were invited to leave, but no one did. As Mehta started the prelude, some in the crowd began shouting. The orchestra eventually finished the performance - to loud applause. But the following night, a tumult ensued, Mehta recalled in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. The conductor said he stopped the concert.

In 1991, conductor Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli born in Argentina, set out to bring Wagner to Israeli concertgoers. To promote artistic expression, for the sake of music in Israel, the world-famous pianist said Wagner should be played in Israel.

The majority of Philharmonic musicians supported him. The orchestra decided to first poll its 36,000 subscribers. The suggestion got a 70 percent approval rate, but the Philharmonic felt the 30 percent who opposed the proposal was too high to ignore.

It's been a dream of conductor Asher Fisch to stage a Wagner opera in his native Israel. When Fisch assumed the music directorship of the Israel opera last year, he proposed including Wagner in the opera's repertoire to the 11-member board.

"Wagner belongs mostly in an opera house," Fisch said in a telephone interview from his home in Vienna. "It was my personal interest to break the boycott. To just let it live on without dealing with it was wrong. I personally feel the boycott is not based on knowledge any more, and it's not based on real feelings. It's based on ignorance."

Most Israelis, Fisch contends, don't know much about Wagner's life or his music. Some of his writings are blatantly anti-Semitic, but many of his contemporaries held similar views. Richard Strauss was associated with the Nazis; his music is played here.

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