Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., is a retired specialist in addiction medicine and a cofounder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The first person to write about AIDS in the U.S. press, he is the author of Homosexuality and Sexuality: Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution, Volume 1, and Homosexuality as Behavior and Identity: Dialogues of The Sexual Revolution, Volume 2. He is also the author-editor of an anthology, We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer, and the author of a memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite: Being Gay and Jewish in America. The sequel to that memoir is the collection On the Future of Wagnerism: Art, Intoxication, Addiction, Codependence and Recovery.

Mass has long brought into dialogue his specialization in addiction medicine with gay rights activism and a decades-long practice of musical listening, especially to the operas of Richard Wagner. The following is taken from a written correspondence followed up by a Zoom conversation, and has been edited for length, order, and clarity. We talked about how and why addiction serves as a helpful lens for understanding Wagner, and what it means for the musical world to come to terms with the composer’s legacy.

Lawrence D. Mass, M.D.

VAN: Much of your work has involved using the language of addiction medicine to make sense of music, especially Wagner. When and how in your own musical listening did this approach emerge?

Lawrence D. Mass: Addiction medicine is a relatively new field, a brand new speciality. It used to be managed by psychiatry, which didn’t want it, though there is a subspecialty, addiction psychiatry. [Addiction] is a paradigm and perspective that we are continually learning more about and that will prove increasingly applicable in the worlds of opera, music, and culture.

Common addiction terms such as intoxication and bewitchment were also common in the world of Wagner and Wagnerism. In common vocabulary and parlance, Wagnerites will acknowledge this more than you find in other musics. There is no comparable term like Wagnerism for any other composer, an idea like a cult. The cult of Wagnerism simply has no precedent in scope and power. There isn’t anything else in all of [classical] musical culture comparable to it, in view of which the havoc it wrought is not so surprising. Nor should its potential to do so again seem so unlikely, as the current global turn to authoritarianism gains momentum.

I wondered about being an addict to Wagner when I considered myself a Wagnerite. At the time I started attending recovery, while in medical training, I had [an increasing amount of] Wagner memorabilia in my environment. I was overwhelmed and seduced by sensual experiences that occupied more and more space. This is what we call “progression,” as with alcoholism where there is a gain in momentum and strength. This period in the early ‘80s coincided with the AIDS epidemic and gay activism, while I began to practice as an anesthesiologist in community medicine. At the time I met and fell in love with [the professor, author, and activist] Arnie [Kantorowicz], a pioneering figure in gay liberation. I brought him back to my apartment, and there were five pictures of Wagner on the wall. He asked me, “How come you don’t have a picture of Anita Bryant?” [The American popular music figure who became an anti-LGBTQ crusader—Ed.]. That got the ball rolling. I realized there was something strange about being such an intense Wagnerite.

How do you see Wagnerites behaving like addicts? Why is the notion of addiction helpful for understanding the hold Wagner has on people—rather than less clinical terms such as intoxication and bewitchment? 

We use addiction rather casually: I’m a shopaholic, I’m addicted to television. This is common terminology. There is even a magazine [called] Opera Fanatic. It seems like a normal descriptor, rather than [something] pathological: It’s descriptive of eccentricity. Clinically, addiction would imply that it interferes with lives, denies personal milestones and family obligations. Addiction interferes with balance and self-awareness. Wagnerites surrender to the experience and do not stop to take stock. Like Parsifal in Klingsor’s garden, they are diverted to an extent they are not aware of, and are more endangered than they realize. In addiction, you stop paying attention to things you should be more sensitive to. 

I saw “Parsifal” in Wieland Wagner’s last year at Bayreuth in 1966. Walking around the grounds, I saw the Breker busts, from the Nazi court sculptor, and I felt like I was the only person talking about the busts… It is a symptom of intoxication and addiction: When one is opiated by the whole experience, pertinent questions do not get asked.  

Stravinsky once wrote that Wagner “inflicted a terrible blow upon music itself” and that his “system never ceased to undermine and finally debase it in the most paradoxical fashion.” Do you agree? 

There is so much craziness and ridiculousness and inconsistency [in Wagnerism]. Can you imagine if you were interviewing Wagner right now about his theories and writings and asked him whether [his theories] were in his work, and he would respond with, “What I feel most deeply is not in my work”? Can you imagine him saying that? [Being] opiated by the great works of Wagner leads to thinking ridiculous and contradictory things. If we take Kundry, the most extreme toxic antisemitic stereotype in a work of high art, this satanic demonization of committing the worst sin of laughing at Christ on the cross… This also doesn’t get talked about in more general non-academic circles. The discourse is not rational and can’t be trusted; one must look beyond the surface.

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How did your involvement with gay rights activism in the era of AIDS influence your attitudes toward Wagner and musical listening practices more generally? 

I began to look at those around me in the worlds of opera and Wagner. I became more interested in critical platforms. For instance, I began to question James Levine, who never talked about being gay and Jewish. My love affair [with Wagner] was getting old, and I stopped going to the opera as regularly. I lost interest in the performance value, in evaluating singers, and instead focused on what these operas were all about, what was actually going on in the text. At that time, we were really besieged and beleaguered by homophobia from every conceivable standpoint. There were no civil liberties, neither recognition nor respect. The closet was a real aspect; there were many prominent outstanding stars, none would come out, because of the risk. They were not willing to be counted among us.   

In his book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, critic Alex Ross posits a kind of generic love ideal at the center of Wagner. You see something darker. 

When one rationalizes and dilutes, you lose the perspective of toxicity. This is a search for equipoise—for equal players—where it is not clear who are the heroes and who the villains. Can you imagine how deluded that is, where somehow Alberich is not the arch villain undoing the whole world and the universe?

And then basically anyone can find any place and space at all in Wagner, even turning the “Ring” into an immigrant allegory with Hunding [in a Stefan Herheim production of “Walküre.”—Ed.]. I find that it is Wagnerites wanting to get past all of this, where they do not have to have these discussions. They want to have their colosseum to appreciate it, without having to bother their conscience about slavery and brutality. They are impatient to get out of what Ross called “the Nazi rut.” It is almost as if the onus to do the forgiveness is on the Jews. The whole immediate Wagner family were war criminals, given light wrist taps. Let’s remember the 30,000 murdered in Flossenburg [the concentration camp that had a satellite forced labor camp at Bayreuth, where Wieland served as “deputy civilian leader.”—Ed.], as Gottfried Wagner has so well reminded us of.

Even [Barrie] Kosky, who is outspoken and articulate about a love-hate relationship [with Wagner] and who has made rich and indicting productions… one can still imagine that if he truly committed, there is a way to [change the repertoire more]. However critical—however stinging and indicting some of his work—his-star turn “Meistersinger,” and likewise [Yuval] Sharon‘s “Lohengrin,” remain overarchingly in the service of preserving the status quo of Wagner in Germany, at Bayreuth and in the wider worlds of opera.

[Directors] remain grateful to Bayreuth, legitimizing the status quo, even if their output is critical and laudable. The bottom line on Wagnerites is that they remain intoxicated. I think Wagner would be thrilled to find Jews are still endlessly arguing about him and his legacy, still enthralled no matter how much we protest… If we’re really cured of the disease of Wagnerism, why are we doing all this? Why aren’t we finally walking away from it all without looking back? In my own case, it’s a story I simply had to tell, but the reason for that may be primarily about addiction—which, as you must know, is not a curable condition. It can be arrested and treated, but not cured. No addict has ever been cured.

You have often mentioned the cases of Judy Garland and Maria Callas, towering icons of gay culture who never spoke out on behalf of gay civil rights. You described how gay audiences and listeners believed they were more significant than ultimately was the case. Arguably the case of Wagner and Jews is even worse, as he did speak about Jews on several occasions but only to attack them. 

I think of Wagner now as the first love of my life. I don’t know too much detail about Ted Bundy, but apparently he was handsome and charismatic. Once I had awoken to the reality of Wagner, it was like a woman with Ted Bundy, waking up and realizing he was a serial killer. Wagner was very sadistic in picking out these images of Jews, especially those trying to assimilate; it is especially searing in the “Ring.” Once it is seen, it cannot be unseen. ¶

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Adam J. Sacks

Adam Sacks is a cultural historian of modern Europe and a part-time classical music reviewer. He writes on the politics of memory, public history, and cultural interpretation and criticism.