Opera Season at the CJM

Once a generation, a major institution like the San Francisco Opera stages the four-part Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner. The slightly arch title of our June 23 program, Who’s Afraid of Richard Wagner?, is suggestive of the difficulty of engaging this titan of nineteenth-century music, both because his work is sonically overwhelming and because his politics were anti-Semitic.

Conversations about Wagner’s art and politics have already been going on for months, from a conversation at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center (is Wagner’s music inherently anti-Semitic?) to the University of San Francisco (exploring Buddhist influences on the composer). The Museum programmed this panel discussion, with UC Berkeley scholars Nicholas Mathew and Francesco Spagnolo, to provide a forum to discuss the ways in which art, politics, and Jewish ideas connect not just in Wagner’s work, but in its cultural and political afterlife.

More specifically, we asked Professors Spagnolo and Mathew to respond to Wagner’s infamous essay Judaism in Music, in which he accused Jews of being incapable of true creative originality, lacking a style of their own. We want the conversation to proceed organically, but initially Spagnolo will offer some important historical context about how Jews at the time, just before the dawn of political Zionism, were asking themselves similar questions as Wagner, while Mathew will explore the question of whether Israel’s inconsistent ban on Wagner’s work tells us something more general about the dark, transformative power of music.

I have my own questions for the panel. For instance, why did Wagner hire the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi to bring his beloved opera Parsifal to life? If he did so because Levi was the best in the field, it begs several other questions, ranging from the very general (can art, and artistic collaboration, overcome political differences and even prejudice?) to the more academic (was Wagner’s antipathy directed at Jews, or at Judaism?)

Oddly, the question of opera and creative collaboration is an important part of both our major exhibitions this summer. In Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theater? visitors encounter hundreds of paintings designed as an operetta in three parts, inspired in part of Charlotte’s step-mother, opera singer Paula Salomon-Lindberg. And in Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, the story of Stein’s partnership with composer Virgil Thomson (Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of us All) is brought to life.

Photo of Richard Wagner from Wikimedia Commons.


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