From around the world, music-seeking tourists are gathering for Seattle Opera’s productions of the four operas of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Niebelung, otherwise known as Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” These four long evenings of mythological fantasy (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Gotterdämmerung) may not be every music lover’s idea of enchantment, but their importance to the music world in general, and the cultural life of the Pacific Northwest in specific, cannot be denied.
Throughout August at McCaw Hall, a festival of performances, discussions, study and parties surrounds the Ring Cycle. Seattle Opera’s respected international reputation has in great part been built on the 30-year tradition of its Ring.
JTNews spoke with tenor Peter Kazaras for a Jewish perspective on Wagner’s Cycle. He will be singing the part of Loge, the embodiment of fire, in Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas which together spin a Teutonic mythological story of river maidens, a magic gold ring, power, lust and the twilight of some gods.
Kazaras identifies as “half Jewish, but it’s my mother’s half,” as he offers the perspective of the lifelong outsider. In fact, Kazaras understands his character as the Ring’s “true Jew.”
Active as a stage director as well as a singer, a veteran of opera houses from Berlin to the Met, Kazaras is also a Harvard graduate with a law degree. He describes the persistent stereotype of the Jew, and addresses some of the unease with which many Jews bring themselves to contemplate Wagner in the first place.
“There is a perceived notion of what Loge is, that is pretty much what I would call the ‘wily trickster’ interpretation: I am nimble, I am clever, I am quick, and I am someone whom no one can trust. But we all agree that Loge is an outsider. He is somehow different, and he knows it.
“Our director’s point of view is that this ‘wily trickster’ point of view minimizes the seriousness of what it is that Loge is trying to do,” Kazaras continues. “Completely in tune with the natural world, he is trying to keep the natural balance of the world from being destroyed.”
According to Kazaras, the Seattle Opera production eschews the ancient stereotype of Jews as tricky and not to be trusted. Rather, the Seattle production favors an even more ancient, and far more honorable idea of the Jew as representative of an eternal truth that makes other people uncomfortable. Nowhere in the four Ring operas is there any overt mention of Jews at all. Kazaras’s explanation addresses subtext, not text itself.
When Kazaras spoke to Gottfried Wagner, the author of Twilight of the Wagners as well as the composer’s great-grandson, he called Gottfried “an innocent for having written this book,” which got him reviled by the family.
“He’s the one who was sort of shut out of Bayreuth” (the German festival community which produces Wagner’s operas in the manner of religious pilgrimage).
“Gottfried’s book reveals deep anti-Semitism among the Wagners and their heirs,” Kazaras said. He found however, that even this well-meaning member of the new generation tripped on old stereotypes. To Gottfried Wagner, the grubby miner Mime is supposed to be the Jew.
“I suggested to him that there is a level on which Jews and Germans are permanently bonded to one another. That would be the level at which, say, Nixon and Kissinger are bonded. The useful, necessary outsider who knows more, who spends his life trying to get in and who will be only grudgingly accepted. At any possible drop of a hat, he’ll be dismissed as nothing but a stupid Jew, as we know from the Nixon tapes. And the people who are on the inside are people who need help: because everyone needs help.
“When I suggested to him the idea of Loge as the Jew, it shocked him. He said, ‘No no, Mime is the Jew! Because he’s short and misshapen and wears bad clothing! And he stumbles around.’”
There is a vast Jewish audience that knows a thimbleful about Wagner and has a stereotypical view of its own: don’t sing Wagner, Wagner hated Jews, Wagner was the music of the Holocaust.
Kazaras agrees. “Right. There are literally people who believe that Wagner was writing for Hitler. There are always people who are ignorant.”
Wagner was born in 1813; he died in 1883, 50 years before the Holocaust. But the association in some Jewish minds seems to go something like, “Hitler loved Wagner’s music—
“And Wagner’s music had mythic importance,” Kazaras completes the thought. “I’ve had this discussion with Bill Hoffmann, librettist for Ghosts of Versailles, who says ‘I don’t see how you can do it. Anybody who performs his music is a sympathizer.’ He cannot abide the fact that anybody has anything to do with Wagner. He hates Wagner.”
Yet everybody’s entitled to their opinion.
“If I were involved in a production which was offensive to me,” says Kazaras, “I would say something about it. In fact, the real truth might be much more complicated. The argument would be that Wagner wanted the same thing that Hitler wanted. And that Hitler almost achieved what Wagner wanted. Except I’m not sure that was what Wagner wanted. He was a charmer, a most erudite man, and a monster. Wagner was about himself.”