Trying to enjoy Wagner, guilt-free, and mostly succeeding
It started with the weird story of Evgeny Nikitin, the Russian baritone who was supposed to sing the title role in "The Flying Dutchman" at Bayreuth, the festival/shrine in Germany that Wagner built to honor himself.
Nikitin withdrew (or was pushed out) a few days before Wednesday's opening performance after pictures surfaced showing a certain hideous symbol among his many tattoos. Yep, the swastika. (The picture here does not show the offending image. It's on his chest.)
Nikitin said he got the tats in his wilder young days when he was a member of a heavy metal band, as if that was justification. Didn't the Russians have a little trouble with the Nazis, too? Wouldn't a swastika be a really stupid thing for a Russian to decorate his body with?
Subsequent reports and images of the offending portion of the singer's chest confused the issue somewhat. Another design appears to have been placed over the swastika, as if in an attempt to obscure it. Whatever. The damage was done and, like any tattoo, will be awfully difficult to erase.
The issue just reminded everyone all over again about the hideous connection between Wagner and the Nazis, between the Nazis and Bayreuth, where Hitler was such a warmly welcomed guest.
I think the festival's decision to part ways with Nikitin was understandable and justifiable. Anything to avoid a scandal. But I know others will howl about over-reaction and hyper-sensitivity. I also imagine that ...
What bugs me about all of this is that it makes me have to think about the Wagner-Nazi connection all over again, just when I'm having so much fun plugging into live performances from Bayreuth (my online fave for this is Spain's RTVE).
I love doing (or at least trying to do) my work at the paper while in Wagnerian nirvana, trying not to add exclamation points to every line. I know that Lori, my nearest pod mate at the Sun, will invariably turn to me when she sees my ecstatic expressions and say, "Listing to that Nazi composer again?" But it's worse now that I have the image of Nikitin's ugly swastika in my mind.
We all know that Wagner died long before Hitler was born, so it is unfair to think of the composer as a prototype for National Socialist hero. But we all also know that Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite, and that he was the Nazi's musical poster boy, so it's hard not to consider some kind of guilt by association.
Part of me doesn't want to go that route -- the part of me that also embraces the artistry of Furtwangler, who led the Berlin Philharmonic throughout most of the Reich years; and Mengelberg, the Concertgebouw conductor who acted awfully pro-Nazi during the occupation of Holland.
I try to rationalize all of this by thinking that truly great artists can't make worthless art, no matter how black their souls may be. It's a naive view, I know.
When I was experiencing the rapture Thursday afternoon, listening to the live "Tristan" broadcast (is there anything more heart-racing than the love duet, more heart-stopping than the Liebestod?), I simply could not hear the evil in Wagner, only the genius. Sometimes I think I must be terribly flawed that I can do that so easily.
In the same way, I am always rooting for Daniel Barenboim and the few other brave musicians who have tried to break the barriers to performing Wagner in Israel, even though I know how painful and complex that issue is for anyone in that country -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- who survived the camps, who witnessed first-hand the Wagnerian soundtrack to the most evil chapter in the modern history of the human race.
I do not expect to come fully to terms with any of this. I just had to unburden myself now, before slipping my earphones back in to rejoin the Bayreuth Festival -- today is "Lohengrin." I hope to listen guilt-free, but that doesn't mean I won't think about all of that other, terribly dark stuff again. We all should, regularly.
AFP GETTY PHOTO