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?