Cosima, reimagined

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Claire Brownell, who stars as Richard Wagner’s wife in “My Parsifal Conductor” off-Broadway, talks about the comedic role’s challenges


  • Claire Brownell, standing far right, stars as Cosima Wagner in Allan Leicht's “My Parsifal Conductor,” opening at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater later this month. Also pictured, left to right standing, are Carlo Bosticco, Eddie Korbich, Logan James Hall and Alison Cimmet. Sitting are Jazmin Gorsline and Geoffrey Cantor. Photo: Carol Rosegg

  • Claire Brownell plays Cosima Wagner in "My Parsifal Conductor," opening off-Broadway later this month. Photo courtesy of Claire Brownell

Toward the end of his life, Richard Wagner faced a dilemma. King Ludwig II of Bavaria demanded that Hermann Levi conduct the legendary German composer’s last opera, “Parsifal.” The problem? Levi was Jewish, and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite who balked at the prospect of a Jew conducting his Christian-themed opera. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is the subject of Allan Leicht’s new comedy, “My Parsifal Conductor,” which will be opening off-Broadway later this month. We sat down with Claire Brownell, the actress playing Wagner’s wife, Cosima, and talked about the rehearsal process, her home state of Montana, and the importance of the theater as a forum to discuss sensitive issues.

What initially attracted you to this project?

When I was sent this script, I fell in love with both the complexity of the character and the writing Al [playwright Allan Leicht] has given us. And the comedy is so funny and important to telling this story, which has some serious and weighty subject matter. The way the story is told is exciting to me.

What has the rehearsal process been like so far? How have you navigated the character’s anti-Semitism in rehearsal?

The first week we got together, and did a lot of table work, which we went through scene by scene. Then, the beginning of this week, we started staging. And [director Robert Kalfin] is so welcoming and encouraging, and encourages us to invest. There are a lot of lines in the play that illustrates their anti-Semitism, and he encourages us to go where we need to go. It’s a very safe space. He’s OK with us trying things, and making mistakes, and the subject matter is difficult and uncomfortable to talk about, And yet we are exploring it in a humorous way. People are doing all kinds of fun stuff. Everyone feels like they can do what they need to do.

Being given the freedom to try and make mistakes is a real gift as an actor. It’s been a good room for that.

What is it like playing someone on stage that is so anti-Semitic? How do you relate to her as a person?

It’s daunting. That’s the first thing I noticed about this project. I looked at it as a challenge. And the way Allan has written her, it’s a woman on a journey who is confronting that. In the act of confronting those opinions and confronting her own anti-Semitism, she is trying to navigate and come to terms with it. It’s not an easy journey. We are all deeply flawed people and the act of trying to understand that is something we all hopefully try to do.

I relate to her, because people are many things. Yes, she was a notorious anti-Semite. But she was also a lover of art, and the engine behind this festival that honored Wagner’s work. She was a mother. She was married multiple times. She was a lot of things.

How did you get your start in acting? Where did your journey start?

Well, I am from Montana originally. And I went to this small college in Helena called Carroll College, and I auditioned for a play because I wanted to meet people. I didn’t get it the first time. But I got [cast] the second time. I started acting there, and my mentor, Kim DeLong, encouraged me to go to graduate school. And I ended going to ACT [American Conservatory Theater] in San Francisco, and it’s a wonderful program. Then, I moved to New York City, and I hit the pavement and just started looking for work. And from the moment I visited New York, I just loved it.

With anti-Semitism on the rise in France, the Middle East and around the world, why do you think it’s important to humanize an anti-Semite on stage? Is it ultimately productive to do so, or does it endorse their behavior?

I think that discussing something is not necessarily an endorsement of behavior. And it’s important to tell stories that make us think about issues without telling us how to think about them. I do think it’s important to tell stories from this specific instance.... It’s important to have the conversation. That’s one of the most important things theater can do, to bring up topics that are hard to talk about. And whether it happens in this play or a play like it, I hope that a positive outcome comes out of discussing it. Discussion is good, and I hope it’s a productive discussion. I do.

“My Parsifal Conductor” begins performances September 25 at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA, 5 West 63rd St. Tickets can be purchased at

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