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Israeli Orchestra Breaks Cultural Taboo, Plays Wagner in Germany

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The Israel Chamber Orchestra is set to perform a work by Adolf Hitler's favorite composer, Richard Wagner, in a taboo-breaking concert in Germany.

The concert in Wagner's hometown alongside the 100th annual Bayreuth opera festival on Tuesday will mark the first time an Israeli orchestra has played Wagner in Germany, Nicolaus Richter, the head of Bayreuth city's cultural affairs department, told the Associate Press Monday. Israel has observed an informal ban on Wagner's music because of its use in Nazi propaganda before and during World War II.

Leading the orchestra will be Roberto Paternostro, whose mother survived the Nazi genocide. He is a friend of Katharina Wagner, a great-granddaughter of Wagner and co-director of the Bayreuth festival.

Other conditions surround the concert. It is set to begin with Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," and will also feature music by Jewish composers banned by the Third Reich, including Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.

In addition, the orchestra started rehearsing the Wagner piece, the Siegfrid Idyll, only upon their arrival in Germany Sunday due to the sensitivities in Israel. "They didn't rehearse it at home in order not to create any resistance," Richter told the AP.

Wagner was a fervent anti-Semite, a fact reflected in many of his writings. When Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance of an excerpt from Tristan und Isolde in Jerusalem in 2001, dozens of audience members stormed out.

Ten years on, the Israeli concert is not part of the official Bayreuth Festival program but it has nonetheless set some tempers flaring. Elan Steinberg, deputy head of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, condemned the performance as a "disgraceful abandonment of solidarity with those who suffered unspeakable horrors by the purveyors of Wagner's banner."

The Israeli Chamber Orchestra was invited to open the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, but after outrage spread last fall, Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter and festival head to withdraw the invitation. Later, the mayor of the city of Bayreuth invited the ICO to perform there, though not at the festival itself.

The Bayreuth festival is Germany's most important festival for classical music. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and many other prominent personalities regularly visit the annual event, which was founded by Wagner himself in 1876.

Weigh in: What do you think? Is it okay for Israeli musicians to play Wagner?