Robert Gutman: The Gentle Man Banned from Beyreuth

Richard Wagner
Robert Gutman's biography of Richard Wagner would secure his reputation and destroy his friendships.

My friend Robert Gutman was born on September 11, 1925 and died on Friday, May 13, of this year. It is tempting to read symbolic meaning into these arbitrary markers. Surely, a life that was bracketed at one end by a date that is now synonymous with mass murder and at the other by the day traditionally regarded as inauspicious would have been fated to be particularly tragic or turbulent. Only a terrorist or a drug lord or a gangster would have a biography book-ended by the murderous and the unlucky. And while Robert certainly had his share of tragedy, familial conflict, and public controversy, they were no more than most highly successful people of his type experience and a great deal less than most humans on this planet. It was an enviable life that I want to remember and celebrate here.

Robert was best known for writing Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music, his 1968 biography of the German composer and theater impresario that set out to prove that Wagner hadn’t merely been co-opted by the Nazis as the soundtrack for deadly anti-Semitism but had, in fact, himself held racist animosities towards Jews. The book became a best-seller and infuriated many of Wagner’s most ardent admirers. It destroyed his relationships with the composer’s numerous descendants, and aspects of his scholarship’s methodology and conclusions have been subsequently criticized as lacking rigor while unfairly demonizing Wagner.

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Despite these objections, nearly 50 years after its publication, it remains essential reading for anyone interested in the composer’s life and its complex intersections with the European politics, cultural production, and intellectual currents of his time. Robert would subsequently go on to produce an equally thorough book on Mozart. (Our mutual friend James L. Paulk has written a tribute to Robert’s scholarly work that you can read here.)

From the publication of his book until his death, Robert Gutman was never again permitted inside Beyreuth.
From the publication of his book until his death, Robert Gutman was never again permitted inside Beyreuth.

Beyond its usefulness as music theater history, Robert’s work held deeper personal meanings for me. Most notably, it showed the value and the pitfalls of speaking one’s truth and sticking to one’s guns to permanently change the conversation about something despite the potential blowback. We used to joke that he had been “banned in Beyreuth” (where Wagner built the theater that presents the annual summer festival in his honor), but I think it was also quite painful for him to have lost several friendships over the book and to never again be allowed to attend a performance in a place that had given him so much pleasure over the years.

Robert proved that you can piss people off and yet not be a jerk. The word “courtly” comes to mind. And while he embodied many of the problematic categories of class and race that term brings to mind, in all of our outings over the years, I never once witnessed him treat a service professional like a servant. He saw the humanity in everyone around him, and this shone through in all of his interactions. If someone this accomplished, knowledgeable, and kindhearted had let me into his world, maybe I did have something to offer after all. For a working-class kid trying to negotiate privileged cultural spaces, this meant everything.

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[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]He saw intelligence behind the boy toy. [/pullquote]

I met Robert in 1995 through a significantly older man I had very briefly dated who was a friend of his. Despite the fact that our sexual relationship had ended after a few encounters, he continued to invite me to be his date at numerous cultural events, primarily the opera. (It was one of those situations where I thought we were now just friends, but I was perceived among the gay men in his social circle as his paramour, and it took me years to correct that initial impression.)

The word "courtly" came to mind whenever I thought of Robert.
The word “courtly” came to mind whenever I thought of Robert.

It was out of these social occasions that my friendship with Robert developed. He discerned an intelligence behind the “boy toy” role I had been cast in, and whenever I would offer my tentative opinions at dinner about something we had just seen, he would actually take my observations seriously. He might not have agreed with them. He might challenge me to be more articulate about them, but he never outright dismissed them. I had also recently lost my partner Jonathan to HIV lymphoma. Robert’s first lover, Ted, had been killed in a car crash many years earlier, and we bonded over this shared experience of early loss. He acknowledged my grief as real, and that was even more important to me than treating my ideas as legitimate.

Robert was at times conservative in his tastes to an almost humorous degree, and a large part of the dynamic of our relationship involved me teasing him about an production we had both seen that he felt took too many liberties with a classical play or opera. Paradoxically, he could also be remarkably open-minded and supportive about even my weirdest projects. When I directed “The Bed” in Peculiar Works Project’s site-specific OFF Stage: The West Village Fragments, Robert walked the entire route at the age of 81 without a word of complaint.

My favorite story about him relates to his, at times, comic indignation over postmodern directorial transgressions. In 2000, City Opera presented choreographer Mark Morris’s staging of the Jean-Philippe Rameau opera Platée. Written in the mid-eighteenth century on the occasion of a French royal wedding, the plot basically concerns the god Jupiter’s scheme to mess with his wife Juno by emotionally terrorizing the title character, a notoriously unattractive swamp nymph.

Jean-Paul Fouchcourt lounging as Platee in her Louis Quinze swamp. Photo: Bill Cooper
Jean-Paul Fouchcourt as Platée lounging in her Louis Quinze swamp. Photo: Bill Cooper

Morris undercut the misogyny of the premise with camp humor, most notably through Isaac Mizrahi’s drag queen/monster costume for Platée. After she realizes that the gods have tricked her into thinking the King of Heaven wants her for his bride, countertenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt slowly walks offstage in humiliation, silent except for the slapping of his flippers against the floor.

I thought the production brilliantly combined physical comedy with heartbreak and exquisite singing. Robert, on the other hand, was outraged. “Copulating frogs? I mean, REALLY.” When I pointed out that the opera was set in swamp, his reply was quintessential Gutman, “Yes, my dear, but it’s a Louis Quinze swamp.”

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[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I aspire to be an old queen like him.[/pullquote]

In the at-times cruel parlance of gay slang, Robert was an “old queen,” the type of man who is often shunned in social spaces catering to young queers since he is an uncomfortable reminder of where they are all headed. He probably would be called out to check his privilege by students today if he were still on the faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he taught and was the founding dean of its graduate division. He could at times be infuriatingly ignorant about any aesthetic culture that wasn’t European-based. I recognize his limitations, and I’m still honored to have been his friend. His surname is apt: He was indeed a good man who blew up the cult of Wagner. I guess you could call that a terrorist act of the mind. I’m going to miss him terribly. I aspire to be an old queen just like him someday.