Wagner at the Y

Wagner at the Y

Scenes from “My Parsifal Conductor,” with playwright, Allan Leight, upper right.
Scenes from “My Parsifal Conductor,” with playwright, Allan Leight, upper right.

Allan Leicht has a rich, hearty boisterous laugh — and a good sense of irony.

An Orthodox Jewish writer, his play, “My Parsifal Conductor,” is in the midst of a world-premiere engagement. About the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner and the Jewish conductor foisted on him for the opera’s debut, it runs through November 3 at the Majorie S. Deane Little Theater.

And, yes, theater aficionados, that playhouse is located in Manhattan’s West Side YMCA, prompting speculation that Wagner himself likely is chuckling from his grave. “I hadn’t thought of that,” Leicht tells me in a telephone interview, followed by that laugh.

The play is set in Cosima Wagner’s bedroom in 1930, in Bayreuth, Bavaria. Cosima is delirious on her deathbed and imagines herself appearing before a celestial court to defend herself from, among other things, charges arising from her virulent anti-Semitism.

Making appearances are her long-deceased husband, King Ludwig II, Herman Levi, and even Friedrich Nietzsche, Cosima’s long-time and platonic admirer.

Much of the story is based on fact. The Bavarian ruler did agree to fund the Parsifal’s premiere at the second Bayreuth Festival, but only under the condition that Levi, the son of a rabbi and a respected musician, conduct it. The Wagners objected in part because of their anti-Semitism, but also because they considered it a Christian religious work. Their protests went unheeded, and the opera was considered to be and still is thought of as being Wagner’s magnum opus.

Playwright Leicht is a multiple Emmy Award-winner. He’s written for a couple of soaps, the comedy series Kate and Allie, and most notably he wrote the movie “Adam,” about the kidnapping and murder of young Adam Walsh.

He became interested in the subject of “My Parsifal Conductor” about a decade ago when he read a book by German-American critic and scholar Peter Gay. In a book of essays called “Freud, Jews and Other Germans,” Gay was critical of Levi, who, he argued, “didn’t do Jews any favors by being Wagner’s most important conductor and by becoming close to Wagner and Cosima.” Though he was anti-Semitic, “Wagner had a lot of Jewish friends and good relations with individual Jews.”

The dichotomy stayed with Leicht. “I’m a big opera fan and of Wagner’s operas, which puts me in the same position as Levi: loving the music but not liking the man. I wanted to examine this.”

It took a while to percolate, but when he came up with the idea of telling the story on the night of Cosima’s death it all jelled. “I can do what I want,” he said. “I can bring anyone I want into the room. In an early draft Adolf Hitler came into the room.”

A few days earlier, I attended a preview performance of the show when Leicht walked into the room. We’d never met, but I was pretty sure it was him, since he was the only person in the YMCA wearing a kippa. Normally I would have walked over to introduce myself, but during intermission he was busy huddling with the other creatives, presumably fine-tuning his work. It’s a subject that came up during our phone conversation.

I’d asked how he would categorize his show, and he said as a comedy. Then he asked what I thought and I told him: I thought the actors who played Wagner and Cosima, Eddie Korbich and Claire Brownell, went too far farcically, over the top.

“The audiences haven’t been laughing wildly,” he admitted. “But we’re getting more and more laughs with every performance. They’re all finding their way and the audience is giving them a great deal of guidance. I think this happens in the early stages of almost every play. It takes a while. I’m hoping it evolves and finds its way.”

So did I, especially when I discovered we grew up in the same neighborhood (at different times) briefly attended Taft High School (at different times), and even had the same biology teacher, Mr. Dragoon (at different times).

Before Taft he’d gone to Israel Salanter Yeshiva (now SAR), but he was not Orthodox. He became baal teshuva around 1980. Married with young children, working in theater and television, he and his family moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “I realized I have a bank and a I have a doctor and I ought to have a rabbi,” he said. “I went around shopping for a shul, because I had to make a decision about where our kids are going to go to school.”

He settled on the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where “I was awakened to a kind of Jewish life I didn’t know existed.”

Another factor in his transformation was a son’s illness. “I was desperate for help and for the first time in my life I started praying. And he became okay. All this coalesced at the same time.”

It was also around the time he was working on the film “Adam.” “I had to deal with the idea that there was a person in the world who would actually kill a 6-year-old boy and accept the fact that there was real evil. But I decided if pure evil exists there must be pure good.”

Since then he moved briefly to Israel, produced animated features about Rambam and Rashi, and now is working on a film about the Lubavitcher rebbe.

And of course there is his Jewish play in a YMCA located “just a block and a half away from the Metropolitan Opera.

“That couldn’t hurt.”

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