As the author of one of the most infamous anti-Semitic tracts in music history, Richard Wagner seemingly contradicted himself by having handpicked Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, to conduct the premiere of his last and most "Christian" opera Parsifal. Levi was born in the Hessian town of Giessen. As mentioned, his father was a rabbi who had sent him for education at the Mannheim Gymnasium where he had music lessons with Vincenz Lachner.
He showed sings of musical talent and was given musical studies. He entered the Leipzig Conservatory in 1855, remaining there until 1858. His teachers there were Hauptmann and Julius Reitz. He studied briefly in Paris and embarked on his first permanent job as music director in Saarbrucken in 1859. This put him firmly on the traditional path for a budding conductor in Central Europe. He was musical director in Saarbrucken, assistant Kapellmeister of the Mannheim National Opera, Kapellmeister of the Rotterdam Opera, and Hofkapellmeister in Karlsruhe, all in about 13 years. In Karlsruhe, he became a friend of Clara Schumann, who lived in nearby Baden-Baden and led a distinguished performance of Robert Schumann's difficult stage work Genoveva in 1869.
In 1872, he was appointed Hofkapellmeister in Munich. Levi had gained a reputation as an adherent of Brahms in the divisive, press-fuelled feud between Brahms' supporters and Wagner. Levi's accepting a position in Munich was suspect, for Munich was the capital of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner's great royal patron. A conductor there would be expected to champion Wagner. When Levi began doing just that, Brahms, to put it bluntly, began to suspect that Levi had in some way been "bought." As a result, he severed their once cordial friendship and refused to talk to him. Richter retained his position in Munich until 1890. He continued to conduct Brahms, led some important performances of Mozart operas, and, above all, was one of the leaders (with Hans Richter) in spreading Wagner's late works throughout Europe. When Wagner appointed Levi to prepare and conduct the world premiere of Parsifal, his last music drama, anti-Semitic opposition grew. Parsifal is based on the legend of the Holy Grail and has as its central symbols the spear that pierced Christ's side on the cross and the cup in which the first communion was served. Accordingly, the opera has always been considered by many as a "Christian" work. (In fact, its religious content is strangely pagan and mystical, with some connection to Buddhism in that Parsifal has to gain knowledge and compassion for all to attain the enlightenment that will allow him to save the Grail Knights.) This appointment of Levi is a central argument by his supporters to deny that Wagner was actually anti-Semitic, despite the nasty things he wrote about Jews in general. It can just as easily be taken as proof that Wagner was willing to set aside any of principles once he recognized what was best for himself. And Levi, a conductor whose performances were known for a strongly spiritual quality, was the man for the job. In fact, once Wagner had obtained Levi's agreement to undertake Parsifal, Wagner attempted to get the conductor to convert to Christianity, at least to the extent of accepting a token baptism. Levi refused, but Wagner did not give up. He showed Levi an anonymous letter, attacking Wagner for permitting Levi to conduct the sacred Christian music drama. The letter also scurrilously suggested that Levi had become the lover of Wagner's wife Cosima. The composer evidently hoped that Levi would convert in order to spare Wagner any more such criticism, a move that offended Levi, who asked to be released from his commitment. At this point, King Ludwig, who admired Levi, insisted that Wagner patch up things with the conductor and thus Levi led the premiere on July 25, 1882, less than a year before Wagner's death. He remained the sole conductor of Parsifal (which for years was only given in Bayreuth) until 1894, except in the year 1888, when Cosima replaced him with Felix Mottl. Levi was noted for the simplicity and directness of his beat and his eschewing of extravagant gestures. He was somewhat erratic and could lead a performance of transcendant, unearthly spirituality one night and the next fail entirely to take off. He retired from conducting in 1894 and later appearances, rare because he was already ill and suffering from a nervous disorder, were largely unsuccessful.