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Wagner from Jerusalem

October 7, 2010

In Israel, there is an unspoken ban on performing the works of anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner. The announcement that an Israeli orchestra will perform at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth has caused a stir at home.

Richard Wagner bust in Bayreuth
Israel's ban on Wagner's music pre-dates the HolocaustImage: AP

The Israel Chamber Orchestra is set to become the country's first ensemble to perform at the annual Bayreuth Festival, a month-long event showcasing the operas of Richard Wagner.

The decision, announced Tuesday, goes against a long-time tradition in Israel of not performing works by Wagner, who was a vocal anti-Semite and whose writings later influenced Adolf Hitler.

"The decision was not to break a taboo," Erella Talmi, chairwoman of the orchestra's board of directors, told Israeli Defense Forces Radio on Tuesday. "The decision was to accept an invitation that showed a new openness."

The spokesman for the Bayreuth Frestival, Peter Emmerich, told Deutsche Welle that the idea for the visit came from the new musical director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Jewish-Austrian conductor Roberto Paternostro, who was a long-time personal friend of Katharina Wagner, co-director of the festival and great-granddaughter of the composer.

"Mr Paternostro contacted the Bayreuth Festival, but the festival does not extend any official invitations, so we referred him to the city of Bayreuth," said Emmerich. The city authorities supported the idea and welcomed the orchestra, with the backing of the festival.

Daniel Barenboim
Barenboim was one prominent musician who dared to play Wagner in IsraelImage: AP

Katharina Wagner had initially planned to visit Israel next week - privately, and not in her capacity as festival co-director, emphasized Emmerich - to meet with Paternostro. Since news of the guest performance hit the press prematurely, Wagner has canceled her trip and will hold a press conference with Paternostro on October 12 in Berlin.

Long-time Wagner boycott

The unspoken ban on Wagner's music dates back to 1938, when violence against Jews increased in Nazi Germany, the Palestine Orchestra - now known as the Israel Philharmonic - rejected the composer's works in protest.

Since then, attempts by prominent musicians to breach the boycott have triggered criticism and public debate. Argentinean-born Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, for example, performed part of Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde" in 2001, prompting several angered audience members to walk out.

Meirav Magen-Leilie, spokeswoman for the Israel Chamber Orchestra, said the ensemble would not rehearse Wagner's music in Israel, in order to respect local sentiment. She added that Katharina Wagner intended to visit Israel next week.

Katharina Wagner
Katharina Wagner has been instrumental in modernizing the Bayreuth FestivalImage: AP

"Katharina Wagner is determined to visit and deliver the invitation in person," said Magen-Leilie. "She understands that this is not simply another concert. She takes this matter very seriously."

Criticism from a survivor

Israeli journalist and Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger told Deutsche Welle that he was opposed to the orchestra's plans because of Wagner's unequivocal anti-Semitism.

"Wagner was the first to explain in writing that there was a master race - the Germans - and a low-class race - the Jews," Klieger said.

"We don't need reconciliation with Wagner - we have reconciliation with Germany," he added. "We have nothing against the new German generations. They're not the same Germans, but Wagner is the same Wagner."

Author: Kate Bowen (Reuters/dpa)

Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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