CULTURE & THE ARTS
A Visit to Franconia through Jewish Eyes:
Singing Yiddish in Bayreuth:
AUFBAU 62:16 Aug. 2, 1996 p16
Copyright by Leonard J. Lehrman & AUFBAU July 16, 1996
"Does Herr Wagner speak English, or only German?" I asked Peter Emmerich, Bayreuth's press department chief who had arranged for us to meet with 76-year-old Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of the composer Richard Wagner and Intendant of the Bayreuth Festival since the death of his brother Wieland thirty years ago. "Actually he speaks Oberfraenkisch," came the answer with a chuckle.
The July 5 meeting came off splendidly. We began with an exchange of presents: the American singers Helene Williams, Ronald Edwards and I were each given copies of the 214-page festival program book, along with guided tours of both the Festspielhaus and the city of Bayreuth; we presented Herren Wagner and Emmerich with a copy of our October 30, 1994 William Cullen Bryant Bicentennial Long Island Composers Alliance Concert CD, featuring 13 settings by 13 American composers of poems by America's first poet to achieve international recognition; and then, on the stage of Probebhne III, we performed for him a setting of mine for soprano-tenor duet and piano of Leyb Naydus' poem "In der Fremd" - in Yiddish. Being connoisseurs of Mittelhochdeutsch, as one must be in order to comprehend Wagner libretti fully, both gentlemen clearly understood every word as it was read to them before being sung - except the last one: "Sof," which I explained is the final letter of the (Ashkenazic) Hebrew or Yiddish alphabet.
Clearly delighted at the performance, both applauded warmly, and Herr Wagner pronounced himself honored to have been treated to it. Then came the hard questions: My song, which was broadcast on ZDF German TV and Jerusalem Radio a decade ago and has been heard throughout the U.S. and Europe, was in fact originally inspired by Richard Wagner's Tannhaeuser, on which I coached heldentenor Karl Walther Boehm in Bremerhaven fifteen years ago. I love and feel inspired by so much of Wagner's music. But what can I do, what can I say to those hundreds - nay thousands of Jews in America and elsewhere who say they will not willingly set foot on German soil (again or ever) as long as they live, because of the anti-Semitism they feel emanating from that country, and particularly Bayreuth and the Wagner tradition.
Emmerich reminded me that two out of the three conductors at Bayreuth this summer happen to be Jewish (namely, my former Met boss James Levine and Daniel Barenboim - who was unfortunately too busy to meet with us; the third is Giuseppe Sinopoli) and assured me that as far as they were concerned one's faith "played no role." "Ah, but it does for us," I reminded him.
Herr Wagner then called attention to an innovation he had just brought into his new staging of the last scene of Die Meistersinger (a full piano staging rehearsal of which we were pleased to attend that evening, on his generous invitation). A shield bearing a picture of the Biblical David with his harp is presented to Hans Sachs, who symbolically passes it on to his apprentice David, so the Biblical ("Jewish") tradition is linked to that of the medieval meistersingers.
Gently we reminded him that the tradition of representing human figures on shields or icons was not Hebraic--in fact the ancient prohibition against idol worship forbade it: the tradition of physically representing David with a harp is thus a Christian medieval one, not a Jewish one; but we granted that his heart did seem to be in the right place.
Referring to the Nazi period as the time of "Wahnsinn" (insanity), and Europe as having always been racially a "Mischmasch," Herr Wagner discounted the anti-Semitic interpretation of Sachs' final anti-"Waelsch" warning monologue, saying it referred to anything not German, especially French (like Meyerbeer, in Wagnerian terms) and not specifically Jewish (though Wagner's rival Meyerbeer happened to be Jewish, and bore the brunt of Wagner's anti-Semitic diatribes). Wahnfried, the Wagner family's former residence at Bayreuth, is now the Richard Wagner Museum. The only reference it now contains to Hitler's frequent visits there is a photograph showing the Fhrer on a balcony, waving in the distance, with an inscription noting how many difficulties and embarrassments his association with the place later caused the Wagner family.
Hitler is also mentioned as the addressee of an April 29, 1933 letter (a draft of which is on display) from Arturo Toscanini, accepting a contract to conduct at Bayreuth. The accompanying commentary notes that several months later the conductor cancelled, and suggests that his reasons for doing so were at least as much personal as ideological, i.e. due to professional slights received in addition to a general reaction to German anti-Semitism at that time.
I had read that Wagner himself had refused to let the conductor Hermann Levi conduct the premiere of Parsifal unless he would agree to be baptized, which he would not. Yet Levi is listed at Bayreuth as the conductor of that premiere. How could this be? Martin Gregor-Dellin's authoritative (1983) Wagner biography cleared this up: in a letter received by Levi on January 19, 1881, Wagner apparently announced that he had changed his mind, and would allow the unbaptized Jew to conduct his Christian mystery drama.
Wolfgang Wagner seemed to gasp only slightly at the most provocative and final question: How about a Yiddish concert in Bayreuth? Hardly missing a beat, he replied, "Why not?" - with a look at Peter Emmerich, who promptly promised to help arrange one for some season in the future, probably at Pianohaus ber, which presents a series of chamber concerts all year, but especially during the annual July-August Festival at the Wagner Festspielhaus.
Why not at Wahnfried? It has a beautiful small hall with a lovely piano both Wagner and Franz Liszt played (the small Liszt museum is right next door to Wahnfried). They used to have concerts there, the lady at the desk explained, but it costs DM 2000 for a pianist, she said, and with the limited number of seats (60-80) they'd have to sell tickets for at least DM 40 apiece to cover costs, and then nobody would come. It does seem a waste of a precious facility. But maybe with the active participation of the generous German National Tourist Office and colleagues, who funded our stay in both Bayreuth and Coburg (the crown jewels of that region in Bavaria known as Franconia), something can be done.
I wanted especially to go to Coburg, to relive an experience I had there ten years ago, and which I shared with Herren Emmerich and Wagner: the tiny 800-year-old city, from 1948 to 1990 bounded on three sides by East Germany, is picturesquely nestled in the mountains and contains some of the oldest of all German buildings, since the statue of Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert standing in the main square (he was a Saxe-Coburg) made the British decide not to bomb the place at the close of World War II.
There, in the spring of 1986, having been forced by Deutsche Oper Berlin Generalintendant Goetz Friedrich (who refused to meet with me except on Yom Kippur) to leave my position as Studienleiter and Kapellmeister at Berlin's Theater des Westens, I was offered (after an audition) the position of Chordirektor at the Landestheater der Stadt Coburg. The Intendant was Dr. Tebbe Harms Kleen, presently Intendant in the somewhat larger theater of Wrzburg. There have been five Intendants in Coburg since, up to the present formerly retired interim Intendant, Herr Reinhold Roettger, with whom we met.
In Coburg itself, the most distinguished-looking tower, a part of the old city gates, is known as the "Judentor." One of the principal thoroughfares at the center of town is the "Judengasse." There is also a "Judenberg" that overlooks the town, and a large cemetery to the southeast which includes in its Jewish section memorials to those Jews who gave their lives for the Fatherland in World War I, and a few of those who were deported and died either in Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. Otherwise, despite this evidence of there having once been a flourishing Jewish community here, there seems to be no Jewish presence left in the town at all.
Bayreuth, an hour away, supposedly (according to two U.S. Jewish guidebooks) has an ancient synagogue at Gruenewaldstr. 13, but no one there had heard of it, nor could any trace be found of it. The headquarters of the Israelitische Gemeinde there are located in a building adjoining the Markgraefliches Opernhaus--Wilhelmina von Bayreuth's ornate 18th-century structure which was the largest German opera house before Wagner built his up the hill--and that's the reason (the "Grund," our guide told us) why it escaped being burned in 1938.
[Unfortunately, the Jewish offices were not open at any time we were there, which was also the case in Leipzig (where thieves relieved us of 8 of our 9 pieces of luggage, containing thousands of dollars worth of concert clothing, rail & plane tickets, 13 undeveloped rolls of exposed film, personal items like allergy medicines, books, and music--much of which had to be FAXed from America in order to save the remaining concerts of our tour; photocopying was provided by the generous HansJoachim Rose after the U.S. Embassy refused to help) and Carpentras, France (a beautiful partially subterranean structure visited on previous occasions). The synagogue at Paris's Orly airport, from which we flew home, is virtually unmarked, hidden next to the toilets on the second floor and enterable only by leaving one's passport with a security ("permanence") official downstairs who unlocks it and then disappears, leaving it open after you depart. So much for security.]
Anyway, to return to Coburg, where we were pleased to attend [(thanks to the German National Tourist Office)] a sold-out July 4 performance of operetta excerpts by Burkhard, von Suppe, Lehar, Milloecker, Strauss, Straus, Fall, and Jessel--wondering how many in the audience, soloists, small chorus and 6-piece flute/piano/string orchestra (directed by Klaus Lapins, conducted by Reinhard Schmidt) knew that the last three composers mentioned happened to have been Jewish. Dr. Kleen's 1986 answer to my inquiry as to whether Coburg was now entirely "judenfrei" was startling, though perhaps commendably honest: I asked him if he knew to where the Jews of Coburg had been taken. "Good question," he replied. "I'll have to ask the Buergermeister next time I see him. But you know, Herr Lehrman," he went on, "this is Bayern (Bavaria), and this was Hitler country (Gebiet). But the people here were not evil ('boese') Nazis, just average ('durchschnittliche') Nazis." The story had a visible effect when I retold it to Wolfgang Wagner, whose jaw dropped.
We had but one minute more to the interview, so I quickly told another story that did raise our hosts' spirits and ended our encounter on a good note: When a Japanese official inquired of the leader of the East European Jewish immigrant community in Japan during the Second World War: "Why do our friends the Germans hate you Jews so much?" the rabbi replied: "Because we are an Asian people." Wolfgang Wagner and Peter Emmerich both found that hysterically funny. With a little afterthought, I believe they must have realized that the joke was not on the Jewish people (Israel is after all in Asia Minor) but on their own ancestral German perpetrators of master-race ideology.
It remains to be seen how much and how soon the Yiddishe Nashoma will penetrate (or re-penetrate) the bloodied bastions of Bayreuth and Bavaria. And perhaps it is too early as yet to speak of what our scientific friends call a
paradigm shift. But with our next visit in a year or two, perhaps not. [Next issue: Yiddish in Dresden & Berlin and an historic return to Fontainebleau]
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