Monday, April 26, 2010

Wagner Probably Didn't Count the Omer

It was an odd experience last night—returning home after seeing Gotterdammerung and then counting the omer. The juxtaposition heightened the difference between Judaism's and Wagner's weltanschauung (the word is wonderfully appropriate here.) But first, some background about Wagner, the Los Angeles Opera, and me and my (present in real life but largely blogo-absent) co-blogger Steve.

Two characteristics stand out about Wagner. He was a exceptionally brilliant composer and an exceptionally awful person. He is not merely another really good composer among many. He revolutionized music, especially opera (although he would not have used that word), in the 19th Century. (Many others far more knowledgeable than I am have written much about this; google him for details.)

At the same time, Wagner was reprehensible in pretty much every way. He was petty, vindictive, mean, a perpetual moocher, and an anti-Semite. His essay "Jewishness in Music" and later essays were exceptionally spiteful. And Hitler loved Wagner's music. Other than Wagner's musical genius—and genius is the right word—Wagner pretty much had nothing going for him.

There are some serious issues about whether Jews should listen to Wagner, given his anti-Semitism and the Nazi's love for his music. (The last piece the Berlin Philharmonic played in April 1945 was, appropriately, the final scene from Gotterdammerung.) I have never been particularly bothered by this. I never forget who Wagner was, but I separate the man from his music.

Wagner's magnum opus is a four-opera, 16 1/2 hour "Ring cycle", based on the Niebelung myths, the same Norse and Germanic myths that Tolkien used (among other things) for Lord of the Rings. The basic story involves magic gold in the Rhine, protected by mermaid-like Rhine-maidens. The gold can be made into a magic ring that will allow its owner to rule the world, but only a person who renounces love can take the gold. Alberich, an ugly dwarf, figures no one will love him anyway, and so he renounces love, takes the gold, and later makes the magic ring. Wotan the chief God wants the ring, as does a bunch of other people. The story rolls on through a series of adventures and misadventures, loves gained and lost, scheming, fraud, fighting, killing, betrayal, incest, and the obligatory slaying of a dragon (who actually used to be a giant - long story, don't ask). We have magic swords, magic apples, magic helmets, magic fire, and magic potions. The upshot: after far too much abuse of power, almost all the heroes, heroines, and Gods die, Valhalla (home of the Gods) burns down, the ring gets washed back into the Rhine, and (as Anna Russell put it) we are right back where we started 16 hours earlier.

Well almost. We've actually moved in a circle in one dimension but forward in another. The era of the gods is over, and the era of man has begun. Like Joni Mitchell, Wagner had a spiral view of time, not merely a cyclical one. In fact, "logo" of the Los Angeles Opera's production of this ring cycle is a spiral.

More background. In 1979, I took a great 9th grade history class, along with my co-blogger Steve (yes, we've known each other that long) and a bunch of other friends. The class covered the Renaissance to the present, and our teacher emphasized viewing the political and social history through a humanities lens; we studied the art, music, and architecture of the different periods and saw how it influenced—and was influenced by—the political and social history. It was a spectacular class, and made it clear that serious study of serious subjects could not be limited by a class curriculum. Everything was connected in very complex ways. In many ways, it was my first serious adult intellectual thinking.

Steve and I and a few other friends did a multimedia two-screen slide show (back before powerpoint) on Wagner, at the suggestion of the teacher. This was a very clever suggestion to several bright Jewish suburban kids: tell us about the brilliant composer and horrible anti-Semite. He knew exactly what he was doing (he is Jewish and designed a Holocaust curriculum, and has since trained countless teachers in how to teach the Holocaust.)

We were interested in seeing the Ring back then, but Los Angeles had no opera company. Well, the Los Angeles Opera opened in the 1980s, and last season they started their first Ring cycle. My wife categorically refused to see another Wagner opera after we endured a bizarre minimalist production of Parsifal, and so Steve and I got tickets. We saw the first two operas last season, and the last two this season. We saw the final opera, Gotterdammerung, yesterday. And we were fortunate enough to be joined—after all these years—by our 9th grade history teacher, now a retired principal and (as always) an opera fan. It took us 30 years to complete our Wagner project, but we did it.

By the way, the Los Angeles Opera has a few more shows of Gotterdammerung, and then is re-running the entire cycle three times in late May and June. If you are in Los Angeles (or anywhere close), I would highly recommend seeing this production. And Ring Festival LA is a loose collection of all sorts of events pertaining to the Ring cycle, and it includes several discussions and other programs exploring Wagner and his anti-Semitism.

Which gets us, of course, to counting the omer.

In the Ring cycle, Wagner pits love and power as irreconcilable opposites. Alberich must renounce love to get the ring and its power. The desire for the ring caused the giant Fafner to kill his brother Fasolt. Several other characters have their love cut short by power, or their power cut short by love.

This is a pretty dark view of the world. You can choose love, but then get clobbered the next time some powerful person rolls around. Or you can choose power, but you will have a miserable and loveless life.

Love and power are sometimes in tension. However, Judaism gives us a much brighter picture, as we are reminded when we count the omer. (I meant to post on counting the omer but never got the chance. I will try next year. Google it for details.)

All the seven "lower" sefirot are emanations of God (or goodness, if that is easier to think about), and we are reminded of each of the 49 combinations as we count the omer for 49 days. The first two sefirot are chesed (loving kindness) and gevurah (strength or power). And the first thing Judaism (but not Wagner) teaches about love and power is that they are aspects of the divine, and thus cannot be irreconcilably opposed. We can think of them as opposites in tension, but the resolution of that tension is itself the third sefirot, tiferet (beauty or harmony). That is, harmonizing these two is itself good and divine. Or we can think of them as complementary aspects of the divine. So, for example, a parent might be strict, but do so out of kindness. Or might be kind, by do so out of strength. The result is a much more optimistic—and I might add, realistic—view of both love and power.

Wagner's music is great. Go see the Ring. But when you think about love and power, remember the omer, not the gold in the Rhine.

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