September 9, 2009
Carie Delmar was vacillating between two words: stain and shame. She couldn’t decide whether the city’s upcoming spring celebration of renowned composer and anti-Semite Richard Wagner (called Ring Festival LA) represents a “stain” on the festival or, worse, a mark of “shame” on the city and the festival’s organizers.
It didn’t start off that ugly. When Delmar began her protest campaign many months ago, she was simply hoping the organizers would broaden the festival to make it less offensive.
She wrote letters to the organizers and to local leaders and politicians. In a March 19 editorial for OperaOnline.us, Delmar, the daughter of Holocaust survivors and an opera critic, appealed to the organizers:
“We’ve come so far in combating racism in the United States. A citywide arts festival that celebrates Wagner’s life is a bad idea.
“I beseech the organizers of Ring Festival LA to rethink the festival’s programming. James Conlon’s ‘Recovered Voices’ project has exposed us to the music of composers who were persecuted by the Nazis. Why not honor some of them? Why not include Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and others? And what about Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn?”
When a recent attempt by L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich to shift the festival’s attention from Wagner to other composers was defeated, Delmar assumed the protest was over.
But it wasn’t. She saw that some prominent and courageous local Jews, like Judea Pearl and Rabbi Harold Schulweis, shared her outrage at the idea of honoring an anti-Semite, and that encouraged her to keep her protest going.
When I visited her the other day in her Pico-Robertson home — which resembles a small shrine to everything opera — it was clear she had shed her opera-buff hat and was in full activist mode.
The way she figures it, since she and her allies have failed to tone down the Wagner celebration, they might as well try to use it to expose the evils of anti-Semitism.
So she was looking for ideas: What could they do to draw attention to their message? Festival posters with a blood stain on it? Ads exposing Wagner’s racism? “Never Again” vigils at the events? Should they call it “Festival of Shame” or “Ring With a Stain”?
If this obsessive and feisty woman has her way, festival-goers next year will see a parallel festival of protest that will expose Wagner’s dark side and show how artistic beauty can camouflage the most vile of human sentiments.
Personally, I think that in all the emotional hoopla about Wagner, one key point has been missed.
As I see it, the mistake was not simply in picking an anti-Semitic opera composer, but in picking opera itself as the basis for a citywide cultural celebration — one that aims, no less, to recapture the unifying spirit of the highly successful arts festival at the 1984 Olympics here in Los Angeles.
For Ring Festival LA, recapturing that spirit will be an exceedingly tall order. As Reed Johnson wrote last year in the Los Angeles Times, the Olympics Arts Festival, which included public projects like the commissioning of murals by Frank Romero and Willie Herron, “has been credited with helping promote L.A. as a cultural destination, bringing internationally renowned artists, such as Pina Bausch, to the city and fostering creative collaborations, some of which endure to this day.”
Said another way, the Olympics Arts Festival succeeded because it celebrated all five rings on its flag, not just one.
It’s true that in the opera world, Wagner’s “Ring” masterpiece is a big cultural happening. As Johnson wrote, “Ring Festival LA also follows Wagner’s lead in conceiving his monumental four-opera cycle ... as both a cultural and civic happening.”
It’s also true that the Wagner festival will be an international event that will attract visitors from around the world and help elevate Los Angeles on the cultural map.
But let’s be real. Down in the diverse neighborhoods of Los Angeles, where the vast majority of people have never attended an opera, it will take more than one spectacular opera — no matter how many events are associated with it — to create a cultural happening that will have wide appeal throughout the city.
The truth is, the starting point for Ring Festival LA was not a blank page, but the LA Opera’s planned 2010 production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.
From that operatic seed, the organizers, in conjunction with numerous Southern California arts and educational institutions, have tried to graft a “big tent” festival that would, in the words of one of the organizers, “be what the Olympics were like.”
The fact that they chose an anti-Semitic composer around which to base this festival has only made their situation more problematic.
For me, then, the issue is not just whether the festival has a moral “stain” on it — but whether it’s smart to base a citywide cultural event on one artist and one work.
There’s nothing wrong with the LA Opera celebrating a legendary and spectacular opera. But if the City of Los Angeles wants to get behind a real citywide cultural celebration, they ought to support a program that promotes a kaleidoscope of arts and artists and appeals to as many people as possible.
That kind of appeal is too much to ask of any creative genius, let alone an anti-Semite.
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