(Haaretz) — The music of German composer Richard Wagner was never played in his parents’ home: Too many bad associations with Hitler and the Nazis, explains filmmaker Hilan Warshaw.
So it wasn’t until he began playing violin in a New York City youth orchestra that Warshaw was first introduced to the work of the notoriously anti-Semitic 19th-century German opera composer. And rather embarrassingly, he found himself smitten.
“I just loved the music. But, at the same time, it was something that my conscious mind told me was anathema,” he recalls.
Over the years, Warshaw – whose family lost many relatives during the Holocaust – developed what he describes as a “push-pull relationship” with Hitler’s favorite composer. And it made him curious about the other Jews in Wagner’s life.
So curious, in fact, that he decided to devote the past several years to making a film on the subject. The fruit of that effort, “Wagner’s Jews,” is playing in Tel Aviv at the Docaviv festival, Israel’s premier event for documentary film.
Produced, directed and written by Warshaw, the feature-length film focuses on the Jews who were some of Wagner’s closest associates, among them the gifted young pianist Carl Tausig, who was almost like a son to him; the conductor Hermann Levi, who happened to be the son of a rabbi; and the pianist Joseph Rubinstein, who lived in Wagner’s home for many years and killed himself when the composer died.
Stephen Fry has one of those faces you likely recognize but don’t know why. Did he live in the old neighborhood? Did you go to school with him? Or, as is the case, is he someone almost famous?
Fry was a Golden Globe nominee for playing the title role in the 1998 film, “Wilde.” He’s also appeared in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and has a role in next year’s Hobbit movie, “The Desolation of Smaug.” But the actor/writer is best known in his native England.
Fry is at the center of a documentary, “Wagner & Me,” opening December 7 in New York and in several other major cities in coming weeks. Fry is a Wagner enthusiast. He claims he was 11 or 12 when he heard his music “on my father’s gramophone. It released forces in me. No music has done it like Wagner’s.”
The problem is that his “passion was shared by Hitler. I’m Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.”
It seems that if you want to play Wagner’s Dutchman on stage, a Nazi tattoo just ain’t gonna fly. Russian singer Evgeny Nikitin withdrew from the titular role of the famed German opera on Saturday after a July 20 television broadcast showcasing his hard-rocking past as drummer in a Russian metal band included a clear view of his tattooed torso — including a large swastika spanning the right of his chest.
Nikitin had originally told the German Aspekte TV program that his dermatological decoration was “just part of our underground culture.”
Three central Jewish thinkers, Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, and I. L. Peretz were all profoundly inspired by the medieval legend of Tannhäuser, a knight and poet who worshipped the goddess Venus. Herzl and Peretz were also fans of the 1845 opera based on this legend, by the notoriously anti-Semitic Richard Wagner. This paradox is explored in a study out in October from Purdue University Press, “A Knight at the Opera” by Leah Garrett — whose great grandfather, Baruch Charney Vladeck, was the manager of the Forverts in the 1930s as well as a founder of the Jewish Labor Committee.
The author, a professor of contemporary Jewish life and culture at Monash University, explains how for each of these three prominent Jews, Tannhäuser, ostensibly a Christian legend especially in Wagner’s version, became instead a “tool to foster Jewish identity and subvert anti-Semitism.” Heine’s 1836 poem “Der Tannhäuser” is a “bawdy and satiric rewrite” of the story, Garrett notes, deflating the original Teutonic high-mindedness. Over a half-century later, Herzl attended nightly performances of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris while writing “The Jewish State.” In his diary, Herzl noted that “only on those evenings where there was no opera did I have any doubts as to the truth of my ideas.”
Today Richard Tauber, the Austrian tenor of Jewish ancestry, is a genuine icon, as the title of a splendid 5-CD box set of his recordings from EMI Classics indicates. Yet his life is a cautionary tale of how critics should reflect on the possible impact of their words.
By the 1920s, Tauber had achieved matinee idol status throughout Europe via his recordings of the operettas of Franz Lehár and Oscar Straus. The Austrian Jewish journalist Karl Kraus called Tauber “Der Schmalztenor” and meant by “Schmaltz” the less complimentary parts of what we think of as schmaltz — the slushy sentimentality.
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