Making Wagnerian converts

Tom Sutcliffe on Simon Callow’s model exposition

In his new and marvellously engaging one-man show about Wagner at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio, Simon Callow does not really have to act at all. He is a fine actor but it is only one string to his bow. He is also a writer about acting and actors, and a director of opera and plays (and one film). Had he been born a century earlier he might have been an actor manager. Dealing with Wagner, a sublime genius as he rightly holds him to be, for whom he has a deep enthusiasm and respect, Callow’s performance of his 95-minute truly excellent text (cut, moulded and polished during the months it took him to prepare this phenomenal show commissioned by Kasper Holten, director of the Royal Opera) revealed a genuine and surprising sense of humility and wonderment – alongside the inevitable admissions about Wagner’s less attractive aspects as a human being.

The show was beautifully lit by Rick Fisher and very sensitively directed by Simon Stoles. It used a great array of strange visual props, bits of furniture, bird-cages (one with a stuffed parrot, one with a canary), a Siegfried sword of course. There were music examples in floods of gloriously amplified sound. There was a swirling cinematic backdrop for The Flying Dutchman, and at times a bust of the composer viewed from a deeply unflattering angle. But fundamentally what Callow delivered was a lecture that shared with us, and drew us into, his very personal and sincerely felt Wagnerian advocacy and devotion.

Warts and all

What was wonderful about Inside Wagner’s Head was the balance it achieved between being factual and being promotional. Callow gave us Wagner warts and all – and the warts (as is well known) are large and pustulating even today. The composer and theatrical pioneer was, as well as being extraordinarily voraciously creative, a compulsive philanderer, a spendthrift, wastrel and sponger, and virulently anti-Semitic. Callow brings us persuasively up against the sheer improbability of the whole Wagner story. Not just the uniquely inexplicable originality of his music, but the way his astonishing legacy was created – twice involving lacunae of many years when he was not composing any music at all. Nor was Wagner initially a gifted musician.

Where did it all come from?

Composers that matter are all intensely individual, with recognizable aural fingerprints. But the overture of The Flying Dutchman really is unprecedented, and once Wagner’s language jelled it simply became more expressively free in harmonic terms – but always with a dominant melodic leading. Actually one can hear something characteristic of Wagner even in the melodic material of his first two operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot (based on Measure for Measure), while Rienzi is definitely semi-Wagnerian. All three fledgling works are more like Wagner himself than like his favourite model Weber, or like Meyerbeer or the belcanto composer Bellini whose operas he loved. But what Wagner did differently from any other composer before him was the mixing of the material – associating melodic phrases, sentences and paragraphs in an orchestrally polyphonic way but entirely without recourse to the self-conscious techniques of variation which sonata form had come to involve over the previous century and a half – which had been most fully exemplified in the music of J.S. Bach and which had provided the linguistic stability that underpinned the whole classical era from Gluck through Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven.

In Wagner text and orchestration control the foregrounding and backgrounding of the musical fabric, and the structures are almost never about key-shift modulations for their own sake – though harmonic shifts are constantly happening according to the predominant musical need of projecting a particular image in instrumental or vocal terms.

Incredible saga

One did not need to be a musician to appreciate Callow’s narrative. He was not pretending to be Wagner in any way, though he did adopt a North Country accent for direct quotations of Wagner speaking so that we could appreciate how Wagner’s notoriously downmarket Saxon accent would have sounded to Germans who did not share it. Callow projected himself inside Wagner’s head to tell us the story, and I think feels himself to be somewhat like Wagner in stature – and also being a bit of an outsider, and not a joiner.

He helps us to understand how unlikely it was that Wagner would repeatedly find himself equipped with money to realize his dreams – thanks on one occasion to the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck with whose wife he was to have an affair while being provided with a house and whole establishment, and on another to the young Bavarian monarch Ludwig II.

The saga is simply incredible, and Callow in his illustrated lecture brings it totally and colourfully alive – but always with a suitable critical sensibility to provide a perspective distancing from the subject. He is the perfect lecturer, giving an ideal Wagnerian sermon.