Monday, August 02, 2010


I recently found out that one of my favorite productions of Parsifal, Nikolaus Lehnnhoff's post-apocalyptic setting of Wagner's last work at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was advertised with the above poster. The conductor for this production was the American Kent Nagano, who is of Japanese extraction. I was really shocked that the management of the Festspielhaus would stoop down to this kind of opportunistic attention-grabber tactic.

The ad bears the logo of the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, and reads "Kent Nagano conducts Wagner." Although I don't believe their intention was to offend, but rather to produce amusement, the image is still disturbing, and the fact that it was developed to cause amusement in the first place betrays much of its problematic nature. It shows a photo-shopped image of the composer manually slanting his eyes in order to make himself look "more Asian." This obviously alludes to a racist European custom of trying to mimic Asian facial characteristics by doing this. The ad comments on Kent Nagano's Japanese-American ethnicity while at the same time it indirectly reminds us of Richard Wagner's own prejudicial view of the world.

Under the surface of the visual "joke" the ad touches a deeper vein. It recalls the fact that when Parsifal premiered at Bayreuth in 1882 Wagner asked conductor Hermann Levi to submit to Christian baptism in order to be purified of his "Jewishness" so he could be worthy to conduct this Christian work. The ad touches upon German (Christian) supremacy, perhaps announcing that someone of Japanese extraction conducting Wagner's most holy work is not only somehow preposterously humorous, but that it soils the true "German-ness" of the work (these were Wagner's own fears of having a Jewish conductor lead the opera's premiere). As a result the composer's most famous portrait has now metamorphosed into a grotesque mask, itself already having been "soiled."

Needless to say this is the kind of ad that clearly nobody would dare to show in the United States, England or in many other European countries. The fact that it won advertising awards in Berlin, and that nobody protested or even batted an eye when it came out speaks volumes about questions of sensitivity in Baden-Baden and the rest of Germany. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves if our society has become way too tender to questions of race that we are in danger of completely losing our sense of humor, which I believe was the point of departure for this ad. Of course, humor directed at minorities is no humor at all.

The only question that remains in my mind is what did Kent Nagano himself think of the ad?


Heredia said...

Hi, I'm mexican and wagnerian. I really can't understand how you in U.S. can say "This obviously alludes to a racist European custom of trying to mimic Asian facial characteristics by doing this.", and other things in this way. Is this an "european custom"? Do you really can't see how racist that is? Do you really can't see how hypocrit that sounds? I'm sure in U.S., where the ghetto was the normal constitution of the citties, and where you like to say "latin" to a wide range of races, Mr vargas, never tear the eyes to mimic japaneese characteristics(jus't see how Mickey Rooney acted like a japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany's). I don't know if a joke in a theatre is more preocupant than a boy shooted in texas or than a law in Arizona.
In the other hand, please, you can't see the wagner's XIX century racism like we see the racism today. What he said to Levi, is similar to what Heine or Marx wrote of themselves as jews. The purified blood of Amfortas is not the purification of blood in Germany. Wagner didn't know the concentration camps, the arizona law, and monuments and citties with the name of racists and slavery defendors (check Austin). Thank you

Daniel Höhr said...

I'm German, a Wagnerian and also a musician. I don't see anything wrong with this ad. We shouldn't interpret too much into it. I think many people are far too sensitive and too politically correct. Asians do have slanted eyes and there is nothing wrong with making the gesture shown in the ad (we did that a children a lot and I don't think we were racist, but that was in the seventies). The ad humorously expresses a connection between the composer and the conductor. It has certainly been understood the way it was meant and I am sureit was created with Kent Nagano's consent.

Anonymous said...

American speaking: I don't see any problem. Asians have an epicanthic fold - big deal. It's not racist to point that out.

Racism is about believing that one race (to the extent that race exists at all) is better than another. Pointing out racial differences is not the same thing as expressing racism.

Also, it seems obvious to me that these Germans aren't racist, or they wouldn't have hired Nagano.

Unknown said...

Richard Wagner & Redemption? For all you musicology minded and Richard Wagner addicts: Is it a well-known or ignored fact that so many of Wagner's works end in Plagal Cadences (one could argue that the cadence has historically been related to atonement if not redemption itself)? Is Ricky consciously or unconsciously looking for something vis-a-vis his own wretched lifestyle? He we go with some plagal endings:

Tannhauser (Overture & Act III;

Dutchman (Overture & Act III - implied in fiddles);

Lohengrin (Overture, Act II - minor subdominant, Act III);

Meistersinger (Overture); (Act III);

Tristan (Act III)

Parsifal (Prelude, Act I, Act III)

Walkure (Act I - minor subdominant)

Gotterdammerung (Act I, Act III - the mother lode!)

Edmund Dantès said...

The matter is quite simple. Asians growing up in many parts of the non-Asian world are made fun of by other children (and, apparently, really stupid adults) for their eyes. It's a marker of difference. The gesture is not made out of good-nature fun; it's done to be mean. To point out difference in such a way is inherently marginalizing and to do so based on a racial feature is, by definition, racist.

Höhr and Anonymous's inability to understand this merely exposes their very limited experience in life and their inability to think analytically, logically, and universally. They should experience growing with other people constantly making fun of their innate physical traits (or perhaps they already have and their comments come from latent self-hatred?). Wagner died many years ago and he's not what's at issue. The issue is the extraordinarily dumb people who created the advertisement and those who condone it. Put in other terms, this is not a matter of political sensitivities; this is a matter of sheer stupidity.

If Höhr and Anonymous object, let me suggest that they not be offended by a person making fun of their intrinsic mental characteristics - i.e. their lack of mental capacity.

Anonymous said...

I agree with M. Dantes. My godchild is Chinese American. I was shocked when she recited some of the ignorant, racist comments her schoolmates have made to her. And this in NYC, arguably the most international of U.S. cities. Luckily she is a very confident girl who knows that the person saying these things is the fool. But that such behaviors persist is appalling. This Wagner ad continues the inappropriate mockery, and should be condemned.

Anonymous said...

Wow, same insensitivity in some of the comments as in the ad. I've been shocked to learn in Europe that racist abuse is routinely hurled by fans at black football players, but that's sport. One would think opera would be above that. Opera appeals to people who intelligent, sophisticated-- guess NOT. No way this would happen in the US. I'm sure the conductor is shocked and rightfully pissed. To think that some of you can't see the obvious racism of making fun of a conductor's appearance like this, wow. This city must be about 50 years behind the US on this stuff.