Alice Burdick Schweiger Special to the Jewish News
Heading to NYC this fall? Check out this play written by a Jew, based on an opera by an anti-Semite that was conducted by his close friend, a Jew.
Above: Amalie Materna, Emil Scaria and Hermann Winkelmann (right) in the 1882 premiere production of Parsifal in Bayreuth, 1882
For years, playwright and screenwriter Allan Leicht had wanted to tell the story of composer Richard Wagner, a known anti-Semite, and his Jewish friend who conducted his opera Parsifal. The three-act Christian opera was based on the 13th-century poem “Parzival” by Wolfram von Eschenbach, about Arthurian knight Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail. But Leicht was busy with his acting and writing career and had to put creating his dream play on hold.
Five years ago, the time seemed right, and Leicht penned the play My Parsifal Conductor. After teaming up with a production company, presenting a few staged readings and putting together a stellar cast and director, it’s now running Off-Broadway in New York City at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater through Nov 3.
Leicht, a native New Yorker who has written for numerous television shows including Kate and Allie, Mariah, The Thorns, Ryan’s Hope and the acclaimed TV film Adam, about kidnapped Adam Walsh, had been curious about Wagner growing up.
“Years ago, I read about Hermann Levi, who was the son of a rabbi and one of Wagner’s most important conductors,” he says. “I was fascinated about their longtime friendship. Some thought Levi was disloyal becoming one of Wagner’s conductors, but the relationship between Wagner and Levi was complicated.”
When King Ludwig ll of Bavaria insisted that Levi conduct Wagner’s final masterpiece, Parsifal, Wagner’s wife, Cosima, was very much opposed. Levi was a huge star in the 19th century, a very fine pianist and composer himself, comparable to Leonard Bernstein, but she felt strongly he should not be the one to conduct it.
“Cosima didn’t mind that Levi conducted her husband’s other operas, but Parsifal was different,” Leicht says. “Cosima was a deeply religious woman and was tormented by the idea of having a Jew conduct an opera that she considered to be an expression of the mysteries of Christianity. It was no mere music-drama but ‘a festival play for the consecration of the stage.’”
In the end, in 1882, Levi did wind up conducting the opera. When writing the play, Leicht, who is Orthodox, thought the best way to portray the story was through humor. “I thought because of its incongruity — anti-Semitism, Judaism and German opera — that’s the stuff of comedy — a comedy about anti-Semitism. About the irrationality of anti-Semitism,” says Leicht, who has won Emmy and Writer’s Guild Awards.
In Leicht’s play, Wagner and Cosima find themselves in a moral, political and musical dilemma, and she spends her last night on Earth reliving her past and contemplating her afterlife. Levi causes Cosima and Wagner to try and control their anti-Semitic views.
When asked what he hopes the audience will walk away with after seeing his play, Leicht says that they ask questions. “I hope audiences leave with questions. What is prejudice? Bigotry? How do we tolerate it? In this case, it’s anti-Semitism, but it could be any kind of prejudice.
“It’s very difficult to admit that we admire people like Wagner or Dostoevsky or poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, who were gifted artists and at the same time genuine anti-Semites. We like bad guys to wear black hats. But, in this case, we have Mr. and Mrs. Wagner, who were both very intelligent, sensitive people. He was arguably the most important artist in the Western world, but had this bad side. Where did it come from?”
When Leicht, who lives in New York City and is also an Israeli citizen, isn’t working, he is busy with family. He has three children and two grandchildren. His wife, Renee Lippin Leicht, is an actress who appeared in the Woody Allen films Stardust Memories, Celebrity and Radio Days, starred in the 1972 film Portnoy’s Complaint and was on the Bob Newhart Show.
After the Off-Broadway run, Leicht hopes his play will get moved to a production in a larger theater. “I think it’s a fascinating story that people can relate to today,” he says. “For one thing, Richard Wagner was not exactly monogamous and left many an affair in his wake. He would be a candidate for the ‘MeToo’ movement, except that most of his conquests seem to have been quite willing. It may not be for me to say, but My Parsifal Conductor is a very funny play. Look, two unapologetic anti-Semites in close friendship with the descendant of a long line of rabbis. As Cosima says, ‘Twelve rabbis conducting Parsifal.’”
My Parsifal Conductor runs through Nov. 3 at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater at the West Side YMCA (5 W. 63rd St). Tickets are available through Ovationtix.com.