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.”
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.
Crossposted from Haaretz
The Jerusalem Cinematheque has decided not to screen two works by composer Richard Wagner from the opera season of the New York Metropolitan Opera, which will be broadcast live beginning October 15.
Starting this year, the Jerusalem Cinematheque joins the 1,600 theaters throughout the world that already use sophisticated HD technology to offer live broadcasts of a representative sampling from the season of the largest opera house in the United States, and one of the five most important ones in the world.
The general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, said in an exclusive interview with Haaretz that the selection, which includes 11 operas, is a microcosm of the repertoire and a representation of the finest and newest productions, including debut productions. But an examination of the repertoire at the Jerusalem Cinematheque reveals only nine operas from the selection that will be broadcast worldwide.
“That was simply amazing!” a normally jaded music executive exclaimed to me after the second act of Franz Schreker’s provocative “Der Ferne Klang” (“The Distant Sound”). Hounded to death as a “degenerate” composer by the rising Nazis, Schreker’s defiantly louche, wildly successful 1909 opera disappeared and had to wait a century for its first American production at the Bard Summerscape Festival. Though belated, it was an exhilarating performance and a brilliant production of a thrilling, involving, distinctive genius of a work.
I don’t often rave, but this was a superlative event in every way possible. Whatever small reservations I had after hearing “The Distant Sound” in concert in 2007 disappeared upon seeing it staged. Leon Botstein conducted the opera’s astonishingly complex score for huge (and multiple) orchestras with passion and clarity, revealing the sudden depths and multilevel range of the music.
Pristine Classical, the acclaimed historic recordings website, is honoring the German-born Jewish conductor Alfred Hertz with an ongoing reissue series, available both online and on CD. The reissues feature Hertz conducting the San Francisco Symphony in sprightly performances of Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, and deft renditions of ballet music by Delibes.
After a 13 year stint at the Metropolitan Opera, Hertz left New York to take over the San Francisco Symphony in 1915. His departure may have been partly motivated by the Met’s antisemitism. Stephen Birmingham’s “‘Our Crowd’: The Great Jewish Families of New York” reminds us that despite donating millions of dollars, the Jewish banker Otto Kahn was not allowed to purchase Met box seats. In any event Hertz preferred Frisco, even after the night of April 17, 1906, when he was woken by the city’s historic earthquake following a performance of “Carmen” with Enrico Caruso.
Hertz was also a Wagner specialist, as can be heard on 1913 outings with the Berlin Philharmonic, available on CD from Naxos. Hertz’s Wagner enraged the composer’s widow Cosima, however, who wanted to restrict Der Meister’s music to Bayreuth.
In a second season episode of Larry David’s HBO comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry is caught whistling a Wagner tune outside of a film premier and is accused of being a self-hating Jew. On the show it’s all for laughs; “I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish!” Larry quips, borrowing from Woody Allen. But for many, the issue of Richard Wagner’s antisemitism and the effect it should have on our appreciation of his music is deadly serious business.
The problem is once again rising to the surface, thanks to the L.A. Opera’s upcoming Ring Festival. Starting in April, the festival will include art exhibitions, lectures and performances, but its main event will be a $32 million production of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, which will take place from May 29 to June 26. In a recent piece for the L.A. Times, Reed Johnson outlined the controversy surrounding Wagner’s work, which will be the subject of various lectures and symposiums in the run-up to the festival.
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