An honest appraisal of the controversial composer
By Lynden Barber
Most people’s introduction to the music of Richard Wagner probably came via Bugs Bunny’s co-option of The Ride of the Valkyries (“kill the wabb-it…”). A few years later the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now erased those rabbit associations for good. Who has not thrilled to that music in Coppola’s war masterpiece?
So it was with a shock that a few years ago, while watching a grey Sydney Opera House production of the composer’s Ring Cycle opera, die Walküre (The Valkyrie), this reviewer discovered that in context, the famously stirring theme came and went in a flash – buried in the middle of what seemed like interminable turgidity, both musical and theatrical.
I don’t claim this to be an informed or defensible view of the opera. I do say it was a stolid production in an acoustically problematic venue that did nothing to entice this film reviewer in the direction of any further acquaintance with Wagnerian opera – though this engrossing and ultimately inspiring British documentary has prompted a rethink.
British TV personality, writer, author and polymath Stephen Fry has a considerably more informed and passionate view of the famous German’s music. That alone makes him a perfect guide for this BBC-produced feature documentary. But Fry is also Jewish, with relatives who died in the Holocaust, and the thing Wagner is most famed for other than his music is his vicious anti-Semitism and the fact his operas provided personal inspiration for Adolf Hitler.
The sell-line, then, is that this is a film in which Fry tries to reconcile his love of the composer’s music with his revulsion at his racism, though the film doesn’t quite play out that way. While Wagner’s anti-Semitism doesn’t sit comfortably with Fry – how could it? – he seems to have decided long ago that this would not interfere with his reverence for the music. Any struggle the presenter may have had as a young man, torn between twin poles of attraction and horror, appears to have largely dissipated. But while that may remove a little of the film’s potential for personal drama, it is clearly an honest appraisal – something that works in its favour.
The film opens with Fry arriving excitedly at Bayreuth, the Bavarian opera house the composer had especially built for his productions – it’s the Holy Grail for all Wagner fans – then segues into a lively potted biography. Skipping Wagner’s childhood, the first half takes up the story from when he was exiled to Switzerland due to his nationalistic German activism (this during a period of revolutionary European political turmoil). Here he plotted his future career and developed his ideas for a Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art that would bring the fundamental elements of opera (a word he hated) back to the people. Switzerland was also where he met his first wealthy patron and wrote a withering essay, Jewishness in Music.
Fry is quick to contextualise this by pointing out that anti-Semitism was widespread at the time, and that Wagner seemed to be motivated by intense hostility for two Jewish rivals, Felix Mendelsohn and the largely forgotten Giacomo Meyerbeer. He does this not to excuse Wagner, though many Jews may feel differently. Later he visits the parade ground at Nuremberg, where Wagner was performed before the Nazi rallies. Finally an interview with a remarkably philosophical Holocaust survivor, who played cello in the Auschwitz prisoners’ orchestra, swings the argument when she explains that for her, “music isn’t sullied” by evil. Great music, she seems to be saying, is its own thing, in and of itself. Fry clearly agrees.
This roughly 90 minutes film was first screened in the UK in an edited, 60 minute version on BBC television, so Australian cinema-goers will want to know, does it need to be seen on the big screen or is it essentially televisual? The answer is that fortunately director Patrick McGrady has brought a cinematic sensibility to the material. On a visual level, Wagner & Me is magnificent, from its early shots of the Swiss lakes and mountains (a key inspiration for Wagner), to its carefully composed explorations of the interiors of Bayreuth and other opera houses. Fry is present throughout – not just as narrator, but frequently on-screen. He makes an immensely engaging guide – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, articulate and thoughtful.
The conundrum of a love of music tainted with Nazism
By Don Groves
Stephen Fry has been in love with the music of Richard Wagner since he was 11 years old, which would be a case of “so what?” if the German composer hadn’t been an avowed anti-Semite and thus an affront to Fry’s own Jewish faith.
Wagner & Me is the English actor-writer’s deeply personal account of his quest to try to reconcile his passion for Wagner’s musical genius with the man’s anti-Jewish beliefs, compounded by Hitler’s veneration of Wagner.
If you’re an opera fan and an admirer of Fry’s talents, this documentary will be a must-see, an entertaining and insightful blend of biography, political history and music. However his lack of experience as an interviewer leaves several key questions unanswered and his child-like awe and enthusiasm for his subject can be a bit grating.
Fry’s search starts in the opera house in Bayreuth in southern Germany, home of the annual Wagner festival, where he watches rehearsals of The Ride of the Valkyries, part of the famous Ring Cycle. That’s followed by visits to Switzerland, where the composer spent 12 years in exile after supporting a left-wing protest movement that was crushed by Saxon and Prussian troops; Russia, where he meets conductor Valery Gergiev and attends a performance at the renowned Mariinsky Theatre; and to Nuremberg in Germany, where Wagner’s opera was played at rallies on Hitler’s orders. Fry, whose relatives died in the Holocaust, can’t bring himself to stand on the podium there where Hitler once strutted.
There’s a marvellous, spontaneous moment when a pianist allows Fry to play the final note of the opera Tristan and Isolde on Wagner’s own piano and, to his embarrassment, Fry hits the wrong key.
Director Patrick McGrady lingers on the performances at the expense of fleshing out the composer’s colourful life. We learn nothing about his childhood or parents; there are brief mentions of his two marriages, multiple affairs and his long struggle with debt, and only fleeting references to his offspring. A professional biographer would have paid more attention to the subject’s domestic life.
Fry refers to Wagner’s writings including the essay Jewishness in Music, which accused Jews of being a harmful and alien element in German culture. He talks to experts who point out such beliefs were not uncommon in Germany in the mid-19th Century and that Wagner may have been motivated, at least in part, by his jealousy for Jewish composers Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.
Fry is granted an interview with Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the composer’s great-granddaughter, who is joint director of the Bayreuth Festival with her half-sister Katharina. It should have been an ideal opportunity to explore this delicate topic but Eva appears uncomfortable, the interview is rushed and Fry neglects to ask about Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Only afterwards does he relate that the sisters have called for an independent inquiry into the Wagner’s family’s links with Hitler.
In the most moving sequence, he talks to London-based Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a highly eloquent woman in her mid-80s who survived the gas chambers at Auschwitz because she was a gifted cellist who belonged to the Women’s Orchestra.
In the end, Fry likens Wagner’s music and legacy to a beautiful silken tapestry that is forever stained.
by Emmet O'Cuana
A revealing look into the life of this fascinating composer made all the more enjoyable thanks to Fry’s witty commentary and obvious enthusiasm.
Some people who hear extracts from Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung - a series of four epic operas dubbed the Ring Cycle - probably think first of Robert Duvall declaring his love for the smell of napalm, or Elmer Fudd chanting ‘Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!' Stephen Fry is not one of those people. A devoted fan of Wagner since the age of 11, Wagner & Me chronicles Fry's pilgrimage to the town of Bayreuth in Germany for the annual festival celebrating the work of the controversial composer.
In preparation, he follows in his hero's footsteps from Switzerland where Wagner spent ten years in exile, to the concert halls of Europe and Russia where the Ring Cycle first took shape. This history of the life of Wagner addresses the many troubling aspects of the composer's life, including his extravagant spending, philandering and of course his noted Anti-Semitism.
Fry is disturbed by the ties between the composer and the Nazi movement. Early in his political career, Adolf Hitler was welcomed by Wagner's family to Bayreuth and after he became chancellor, appointed himself patron of the festival. The Nazi Party even drew upon the mythical imagery of Wagner's operas to create the infamous Nuremberg Rallies.
When Fry visits Nuremberg the contrast cannot be more telling, with the archive footage of goose-stepping Nazis replaced with scattered tourist families and rollerbladers. Fry's enthusiasm for the music, however, is infectious, such as when sitting on a staircase listening to a performance of Träume, or meeting a group of Valkyries backstage.
Though distractingly decked out in hot pink trousers, Fry's witty presentation on the life of Wagner is both heartfelt and insightful.
Wagner's nasty past fails to stain beautiful music
BY KATE CRAWFORD
In his new documentary, actor Stephen Fry grapples with his passion for Richard Wagner’s music and its association with Hitler and the Nazis.
The documentary, which opens at the Cremorne Orpheum tonight, is less a biography of Wagner’s life and more an insight into the dilemma of loving the music but not the man.
In the film, Fry describes Wagner as a “nasty little man” but whose work was “on the side of the angels”.
Fry, who is Jewish, has had a passion of Wagner’s music since he was a boy but has had to come to grips with Wagner’s anti-semitism and the Nazis’ appropriation of his music.
In one scene in the film, Wagner & Me, Fry finds himself unable to mount the podium where Hitler stood during the infamous Nuremberg Rallies.
At Bayreuth in Bavaria, Fry goes behind the scenes of the theatre which was designed and built by the composer himself, and each year stages a festival to honour Wagner’s music.
Audiences don’t need to be classical musical fans to enjoy the film - Fry’s trademark wit also makes the film entertaining.
According to director Patrick McGrady, the idea for the film began when he and Fry were driving through Germany alongside the River Rhine.
Fry was listening to his iPod and singing along to Wagner’s opera Rhinegold.
“Rhinegold kicks off with a scene played in exactly the landscape we were driving through,” McGrady said .
Stephen Fry really likes Richard Wagner. Not in a he's-seen-every-opera kind of way. More of a he's-seen-every-opera, bought-every-possible-recording and then-gone-on-a-pilgrimage kind of way. It's obvious as he arrives at the epicentre of Wagner's world in the opening scene of this engrossing documentary: bright eyed and twitchy, Fry can barely contain his excitement. Which is just as well, for without it, Wagner And Me could be just another leaden Sunday Arts programme of extremely limited appeal. With Fry, it's a roundly entertaining ninety minutes that almost justifies its feature length.
Aside from his musical genius, Wagner was well known for his published, anti-Semitic ramblings (as was the mid-century fashion in 19th century Germany), and for being the favourite of another well known anti-Semite, Adolf Hitler. When needing a musical interlude, or backing for a parade, it was to Wagner that the Reich turned. What makes this exploration of Germany's infamous songwriter a cut above ordinary is Fry's attempt to reconcile adoration of the composer and his own Jewish background. Can you love a man who'd sooner see you dead? You could probably factor in Hitler's homosexual genocide for added internal conflict.
Thus there's plenty to work with. Like Wagner's enormous capacity for debt. If it wasn't for the patronage of Bavaria's mad King Ludwig whose love knew no bounds, The Ring Cycle might not have made the light of day. And without that, there would be no opera hall in Bayreuth, without which Fry would have not fallen for the composer, and thus no Wagner And Me. There's a delightful circuity to the narrative as he travels physically, musically and emotionally; calling upon Wagner's fraternity (including a great grand-daughter in a moment of amusingly self-deprecating sycophancy) to help ease his concerns. Wagner And Me wont suit all musical tastes, but fans will rejoice.
Sins of the Wagner
By BENEDICT BROOK
In Darlinghurst the best known Wagner is probably Vanessa. But go back 150 years and it’s Richard, one of the 19th century’s most famous composers, who takes bragging rights.
Think of any old war movie, where a plucky Spitfire pilot takes aim for an evil Nazi Messerschmitt, and there in the background is that familiar tune — dee dumm dee-dee dumm dumm. That’s Wagner.
This is ironic because Hitler was one of Wagner’s biggest fans, and the composer himself was a self-confessed anti-Semite. This contradiction is explored by raconteur Stephen Fry in his new film Wagner & Me.
Through this feature-length documentary Fry, star of ABC1 panel show QI, traces Wagner’s rise, fall and meteoric rise through European society.
But, what he really wants to know is if it’s OK for a gay Jewish man to cherish the works of such a controversial figure.
“I need to be sure I’m doing the right thing,” he ponders. As you would expect from the BBC, the backdrop is sumptuous with Fry moving effortlessly from soaring Swiss mountains to bucolic Teutonic villages.
Fry wanders around backstage at the opera caressing the corsets of the valkyries and leafing through original manuscripts with all the awestruck excitement of a newly out 18-year-old left alone in Lady Gaga’s walk-in wardrobe.
But it’s a testament to Fry’s humour that he can take us deep into the dense detail of Wagner’s work and still keep the film enjoyable, as when he tells us about the soaring, urgent crescendo during the opera of tragic lovers, Tristan and Isolde, that is rudely brought to a halt as two others burst onto the stage.
“Coitus interreruptus,” he reveals.
But as Fry sits on the crumbling stone steps of the site of the infamous Nuremberg rallies other emotions take over. It was here that Hitler, to the strains of Wagner, would address hundreds of thousands of men and women, men and women who who would later have no qualms about gassing Fry’s forebears. Unsurprisingly, he cannot bring himself to stand in the same spot.
At times, however, it seems Fry is a bit too desperate to have his love of Wagner validated. When Russian conductor Valery Gergiev says, “[Wagner’s music] shouldn’t be associated with the Nazis,” Fry actually talks over him in his eagerness to agree.
Fans of classical music and Fry alike should enjoy this rambling journey through castles and concert halls. But while, at 90 minutes, Wagner & Me is brief compared to the full 18 hours of the composer’s Ring Cycle, it does begin to sag in the middle as Fry delves into the finer details of opera house architecture and fawns over the composer’s contemporary descendants.
Towards the end Fry meets Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a Jewish former prisoner-of-war who may only be alive today because she played cello in the Auschwitz camp band. Surely, if she can forgive Wagner’s sins, he can enjoy the music without regret.
But she turns the tables on Fry and begins interviewing him.
“I would never have the patience to sit for five hours and listen to so much noise,” she shrugs. “What happens to you?”