Asher Fisch: Breaking the Wagner ban in Israel

How the Principal Conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra hopes to perform 'forbidden' Wagner operas.

I’m an Israeli citizen, born in Jerusalem in 1958. My parents had Brahms on ’78s, but no Wagner. I never heard the name at home and I really didn’t know a lot about the controversy in Israel at the time. In short, it was never an issue for me.

My Wagner journey began when Daniel Barenboim came to Israel on the eve of the first Gulf War. Tenor Siegfried Jerusalem was supposed to sing in Das Lied von der Erde but he cancelled because he didn’t want to come if missiles were going to be flying in from Iraq. They called in a strange tenor called Louis Gentile and, because I was the pianist at the opera, they asked me to play for the rehearsal. Daniel liked it and said: “come to the rehearsals with the Israel Philharmonic”. So I sat there and one day he turned around and said, “Asher, I would like to hear the balance – can you please conduct a little bit?” It was shocking, because I was not prepared and the orchestra was not prepared. But I did it and then a few days later I got a call at 6pm: “Daniel Barenboim is sick and says that the only person who can jump in is you”. Well, they said, “Asher cannot conduct Das Lied von der Erde – why don’t you do the New World Symphony or something?” And I said, “No. If I do it, I do only Das Lied”. Until today it’s not clear whether Daniel was really sick because the next day he was perfectly fine! Anyway, Daniel was just negotiating with the Opera in Berlin and he asked me if I would like to come and be his assistant and I said “yes”.

Daniel taught me everything I know. “Your first task”, he said, “is to prepare Parsifal”. I was again in total shock – running rehearsals for Parsifal when I’d never heard it before. I was almost 34. When I look back I feel like when Mahler heard Parsifal for the first time in 1883. I’m not comparing myself to Mahler but he was around the same age and it was a life-changing event for him. After that he wanted nothing but Wagner – and that’s what I felt. And being around Daniel, of course, I had the opportunity. We did the Ring, we did Lohengrin, we did Meistersingers. And, of course, learning about Wagner I started to read and understand the problem. Over the last 20 years I’ve been dealing with the issue and I’ve become an advocate of breaking the ban in Israel.

Zubin Mehta has tried but gave up. Zubin is not Jewish, so he felt like he was pushing and now he’s saying “as long as the last survivors are still alive I’m not going to conduct Wagner”. Daniel made a huge mistake in my opinion when he tried to break the ban with a German orchestra. I was there and it was excruciating. It was really difficult to see an orchestra being driven into this situation. He was going to play the Tristan Prelude as an encore, and when he rehearsed it the cor anglais player played a wrong note on the Tristan chord. He stood up and said: “this is my way to protest you trying to make us play Wagner in Israel”. And he was absolutely right. In the evening, when Daniel started to talk to the audience, the orchestra was sitting there and all they could hear is, “whisper, whisper... Nazi... whisper whisper... Hitler...” – can you imagine what they were going through? It was simply a mistake. I never told him this but I think he made it go backwards a little bit. He made the controversy more political than it was before. I think had he not done this in 2001 we would have had better chances. But the ban went in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons. It’s such a difficult thing to change now but I hope that I will be the first conductor (if I’m still alive) to do Wagner in Israel. It’s up to me, and it’s waiting to happen.

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Asher Fisch: Breaking the Wagner ban in Israel
Asher Fisch: Israeli citizen and Wagner campaigner
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