With Wagner’s anniversary year in full swing, Der Spiegel published a long article by Dirk Kurbjuweit on the sensitivities caused by Wagner’s association with Hitler’s politics, which they helpfully translated into English. It made for a fascinating read, focused as it was on the strong emotions felt by people on both sides of the argument. Here are some thoughts on the subject, from my standpoint as a music-loving Jew whose parents were able to keep out of the way of the Nazis.

Fundamentally, the camp who feel that Wagner’s music should not be played argue one of three reasons: (1) Wagner was a despicable human being. (2) Wagner’s works were an inspiration to Hitler. (3) Wagner’s texts contain racist, anti-semitic and imperialist sentiments that should have no place on a stage today.

I agree totally that Wagner was a despicable human being. Apart from his racism, he was vain, self-important, an inveterate scrounger and philanderer, as well as treating friends and lovers appallingly (his implacable hatchet job on the character of his benefactor Meyerbeer stands as one the nastier examples of ingratitude). But does this mean that we shouldn’t play his music? If you accept that argument, we should burn the paintings of Caravaggio (a serial brawler and a murderer), the poetry of Byron (at least Wagner’s equal in the philandering stakes) - I could list dozens of great works of art and literature created by unpleasant people. My general view is that a work of art should stand separately from the character of its creator, especially when we are viewing it centuries after his death.

Similarly, one can’t deny that Wagner’s works were a source of great delight and inspiration to Hitler. But the same reductio ad absurdum holds: I’m not prepared to ban the entirety of pre-1939 American cinema because Stalin was a major movie buff whose politburo sessions were built around showings in his private cinema, or to ban the study of Das Kapital because Stalin and Mao (both bigger mass murderers than Hitler) drew their inspiration from Marx (or, at least, purported to). Where would such an attitude end? Ban the bible because it inspired mass murder in the crusades? The Koran because of its inspiration of the Islamic mediaeval conquests?

For me, the third argument carries more weight, with some of the operas more than others. Parsifal is undoubtedly an opera which glorifies the concept of racial purity; Lohengrin plays to German imperialism - in a way, incidentally, that is historically so off the mark as to be embarrassing. The Ring, to me, is more confused: its musical architecture may be magnificently coherent, but the political and philosophical allegories are so scattered and inconsistent as to make it hard to discern a weighty message of any real importance. The casually racist (presumably anti-semitic) portrayal of the Nibelungs is depressing but hardly untypical of literature over the centuries.

Once again, though, I find myself thinking how much great literature we would lose if we insisted on compliance with our moral standpoints of today. First into the fire would be Virgil’s Aeneid, a celebration of empire and Roman racial superiority which dwarfs Parsifal in its bigotry. Next in would be Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, convicted on charges of unreconstructed anti-semitism. In cinema, virtually all Westerns would be consigned to the flames. In the opera world, the much loved Die Zauberflöte would surely follow, the Enlightenment credentials of its creator being insufficient to counterbalance its appalling misogyny. Modern audiences, I think, must be grown up enough to place a work of literature in the context of its time and creator and to make their own judgements as to how much message to take from it.

I can accept that in the years immediately after World War II, wounds in Israel were so fresh that it would have been unacceptably insensitive to perform Wagner. My father refused to set foot in Germany until the day that he died (in 1966), and I respect that viewpoint. But half a century has passed since then, which I believe is long enough that we should revert to applying general principles. And I can’t find a single general principle that would tell me to boycott Wagner. Rather, I take the opposite view: the nastiness of the man’s politics and the way his works were used should not be allowed to deprive us of the richness of his music and the excitement of his dramatic effects. As for the texts, I reserve the right to ignore the dafter bits.

Further background spice has been added by the cancellation this week, amidst a storm of protest, of a Nazi-themed production of Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf. In this instance, what I find bizarre is not so much the production concept but the choice of opera onto which director Burkhard Kosminski was attempting to graft it. If you want to make a point about Wagner's Nazi tendencies in the staging of one of his operas, the best place to start is Parsifal, which is all about the hero ensuring the survival of the fading race of Grail Knights and restoring them to their former glory. The imperialism in Lohengrin would be another good starting point. Tannhäuser, on the other hand, is about the struggle between the erotic love of Venus and the "pure Christian" love of Elisabeth, and our hero's eventual redemption.

It’s just about the last place in Wagner I would choose to make a point about Nazism, and I’m struggling to imagine what Kosminski and the Rheinoper were thinking. Surely a more powerful way to make that political point lies in staging an opera written for that very purpose, as English National Opera did last season with Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. Trouble is, the music isn’t as good...