That Foxy Wagner

Kudos to Eugene Symphony’s maestro Francesco Lecce-Chong for choosing to give us Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in palatable portions (EW 7/15). I went to the Met simulcast of the complete opera a few years ago and only fell asleep twice.

He’s also right on in describing what a rotten individual the composer was, up to and including his virulent anti-Semitism. But there’s an interesting caveat to his bigotry that’s worth noting.

When his final opera, Parsifal, was ready for production, Wagner carefully surveyed the list of capable conductors (not including the great Hans von Bulow, whose wife he had stolen some years before) and concluded that the right man for the job was Hermann Levi, son of a rabbi and a committed Wagnerian. 

Admittedly, there were complications. Wagner considered Parsifal to be a Christian epic, and insisted that Levi be baptized before the first performance. When the conductor angrily threw cold water on that demand, instead of on himself, the composer relented, and the unconsecrated Levi led a triumphant premiere. 

Wagner may indeed have been a league leader in anti-Semitism. When it came to getting the best possible performances of his operas and ensuring the greater glorification of that titan himself, he was not above practicing his bigotry like a fox.

Mike Kopf