April 1, 1930: Germany is on the cusp of the Satanic, and Cosima Wagner, the composer’s widow, is dying, on the cusp of the Other World. “My Parsifal Conductor,” a new Off-Broadway play, begins with Cosima, the 92-year-old widow of the brilliant albeit anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner, feeling “the angels” are coming for her. Hallucinating, she conjures up Wagner, dead since 1883, coming from the hereafter to comfort her, to warn her. In Heaven, he suggests, she’ll see her father (Franz Liszt), and Friend Levi.
Cosima is taken aback. “Levi?”
“My Parsifal conductor,” says Wagner, referring to Hermann Levi, the rabbi’s son who conducted Wagner’s final masterpiece.
“Levi!” Cosima says, “How nice. I would like to see Friend… Wait, no. In Heaven? A Jew? In Heaven? Jews? Many?”
Yes, says the composer. “That’s why I’ve come to you tonight. To tell you — warn you: There are Jews in Heaven.”
And so we enter the most surreal yet exquisitely charming theatrical excursions into anti-Semitism, “My Parsifal Conductor,” a compelling jewel-box of a play by Allan Leicht. The limited run (through Nov. 3) at the Marjorie Deane Theater is billed as “A Wagnerian Comedy,” and Leicht tells us, “It is a comedy about the irrationality of anti-Semitism.”
Given the seriousness of anti-Semitism and the enduring Jewish taboos surrounding Wagner, this “Wagnerian Comedy” is hardly a sitcom, nor farcical like “Springtime for Hitler.” It is more akin to a Shakespearean comedy, not a string of jokes but a sometimes sad story told with wit, subtlety and introspection. Though fiction, Wagner’s connection with Jews ranging from Levi to Theodor Herzl is thoroughly rooted in the facts.
What did it mean to be an anti-Semite in the more genteel 1800s? Nazis may have loved him but Wagner was clearly not a Nazi, dying several years before Hitler was even born. The composer sincerely cared about his Jewish “Friend Levi,” but that friendship, as Wagner understood it, meant sincerely caring that Levi would be better off if Levi converted to Christianity, particularly before conducting “Parsifal,” Wagner’s explicitly Christian opera.
That a Jew, no matter how great a conductor, should wield the baton for Parsifal seemed not just sacrilegious but outrageous. And yet, Bavaria’s King Leopold II, Wagner’s patron, was running short of money and already had Levi on salary, so it was Levi conducting or there would be no show, said the king. Wagner, of course, had other plans.
“My Parsifal Conductor” is a top-flight production directed by Robert Kalfin, founder of the Chelsea Theater Center, which has won five Tony Awards and 21 Obies. He directed “Yentl” on Broadway, starring Tova Feldshuh, who assisted with an earlier incarnation of the current production. Allan Leicht, the playwright, is an Emmy Award and Writer’s Guild Award winner and frequent nominee. He was part of the Emmy-winning writer’s team for the comedy series “Kate and Allie.” He also produced two Jewish features animated in delicate, dreamlike watercolors: “Rashi, A Light After the Dark Ages,” starring Leonard Nimoy and Paul Schofield, and “Rambam, The Story of Maimonides,” starring Nimoy and Armand Assante. Leicht divides his time between New York and Jerusalem, where he recently acted in an Israeli production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Anti-Semitism, as Leicht understands it, often shuffles its alibis. One generation might not like the Jewish religion; another might not like Jewish capitalists or communists. Today, says Leicht, there are intellectuals on campus or in their arts who say that Israel’s policies gnaw at them. Wagner was not politically correct but religiously correct. It wasn’t personal, it was business. We see the composer (Eddie Korbich) and Cosima (Claire Brownwell), in a flash-back, being not just cordial to Levi but actually gracious, simply perplexed why their friend, this Jew descended from 12 generations of rabbis, won’t just convert. That’s what Jews did, as did Levi’s brother. Then Wagner would gladly have Levi conduct Parsifal.
Cosima kneels in prayer for the Jew, “anything,” she says, “to prevent an unbaptized Hermann Levi from conducting the scared mysteries of Christianity.”
Wagner offers to cynically perform the baptism himself, pouring water by surprise on Levi, who remains resistant.
Back in the present tense, the dying Cosima is afraid: “Jews in Heaven! They’ll hate me! They may punish me! … If there’s a place for Richard, there should be a place for me, too, no?” She wonders, “if there is one, one angel, only one in a thousand to come to my defense, I will have found atonement.”
For her defense, she appeals to none other than Levi (Geoffrey Cantor), her favorite Jew, stoic and dignified. There is an aureole of sadness around Levi. Unlike others in the seven-character play who come and go through Cosima’s imagination with flair and comedic flourish (‘Fritz’ Nietzsche, who has a crush on Cosima, enters and exits like puffs of smoke from under Cosima’s bed; King Leopold, dashing and quirky, steps to life costumed exactly as in his life-sized portrait over Cosima’s fireplace), Levi, dressed in black, watches from his loneliness.
Cosima asks, “Friend Levi? Do you think I am an anti-Semite?”
Levi replies, “You, Cosima? What a question. Yes.”
“I don’t mean any harm,” says Cosima.
“I’m sure you don’t,” says Levi. “… But don’t worry, Cosima, some of my best friends are anti-Semites. And some of them are Jews. You don’t have to be a gentile to be an anti-Semite.”
“I want to save you, Levi, truly,” says Cosima.
Levi, Leicht tells us by phone, was the leading conductor, “a Leonard Bernstein of his day. And Wagner was a rock star in our parlance. He was very charismatic, with a lot of critics, and a lot of champions. He suspected some critics of being Jewish. He suspected anyone he didn’t like of being Jewish. And yet he was surrounded by a lot of loyal Jews, who supported him financially, as well.”
Leicht adds, “The character of Levi fascinated me,” as did Leicht’s discovery that although performing Wagner is taboo in Israel, because of his association with anti-Semitism, such as his notorious essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Judaism in Music), and his elevation during the Third Reich, the fact is that Theodor Herzl loved Wagner as much as the Nazis did. Herzl wrote to Cosima, asking permission for Wagner’s music to be performed at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. Wagner’s publisher turned Herzl down, but in the play the old Cosima discovers a long-ago letter from Herzl: “I appeal to Frau Wagner directly,” writes Herzl. “Were he alive, Meister Wagner would approve of our nationalistic aspirations and allow us to open our Congress with the mighty overture to “Tannhauser,” to inspire the Congress as it inspired me when I was in Paris writing my book.”
While Herzl was covering the Dreyfus trial and writing “The Jewish State,” says Leicht, he would ofttimes seek out Wagner’s powerful music that inspired Herzl’s nationalism as it inspired German nationalism.
“And what was my reply?” asks Cosima of her maid who read to the widow what Cosima’s dim eyes no longer could. “I didn’t let the Jews play ‘Tannhauser,’ did I?”
Cosima’s maid found a second letter: “A thousand thanks, Frau Wagner!”
Cosima can’t believe what she’s hearing. “Thanks! Thanks means I said ‘yes.’ Angels, do you hear? I let the Jews play the overture to ‘Tannhauser’!”
Perhaps Cosima found atonement, after all. And what of Levi? Did he feel the need for atonement when the Nazis appropriated Wagner, let alone “Parsifal”? For 13 years after Wagner’s death, until Levi’s own death, says Leicht, Cosima, “committed herself, with the indispensable help of Levi, to the establishment of Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival, which became the favorite destination for Adolf Hitler and leading Nazis. They loved everything about Bayreuth,” not realizing that the festival was the legacy not only of Wagner but his Parsifal conductor.
“My Parsifal Conductor” is playing at The Marjorie Deane Little Theater (10 W. 64th St.), inside the Westside Y, through Nov. 3. Tickets are $32, $47 and $67. For more information, call (212) 630-9600.