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The rambunctious actor Simon Callow has carved a career out of exulting in monstrousness. His acclaimed biographies of the behemoths Charles Laughton and Orson Welles followed his career breakthrough in the role of Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, written and portrayed as an unruly hellion one step away from Tourette’s Syndrome. More recently, Callow excelled as a freakish Pozzo in a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and his best-remembered screen role probably remains the outsized buffoon Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral. All this suggests that opera lovers should not expect a musicological treatise from him on the Master of Bayreuth, but rather an entertaining, gossipy account of an extravagant histrión’s feelings about the composer.

Following up on a one-man-show, Inside Wagner’s Head, recited at London’s Royal Opera House in 2013, Callow preserves some of the verve of a spoken presentation on the printed page. He focuses less in the book version than onstage about how repelled he is personally by Wagner’s anti-Semitism, which is presented here as only part of the composer’s monstrosity. In previous rather more straitlaced musical presentations such as the 2006 television series Classical Destinations and its accompanying book, Callow was somewhat restrained by politeness and respect. On the subject of Wagner, he is let loose to express himself.

The result is a refreshingly candid and lively narrative, unafraid to focus on negative aspects of Wagner’s life and work. That is because, as Callow pertinently observes: ‘All [Wagner’s] life he provoked, almost flirtatiously, love and hate simultaneously. You never knew where you were with Wagner, which was how he liked it. Destabilisation was his primary modus operandi, in life as in art.’

Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will is free from the sort of pious cant experienced when another thespian, Stephen Fry, expresses himself at length on Wagner. Only occasionally does the excited praise seem over the top, as when Callow opines that Wagner’s memoir My Life is as ‘vivacious and candid as the greatest artists’ autobiographies, every bit as compelling and stimulating as Benvenuto Cellini’s or Berlioz’s.’ Had Callow studied all three books in their original languages, it is unlikely he would persist in this generous view.

Callow may be a luvvie but he is not a pseud. Only occasionally do his readings of biographical details, however well-intentioned, go awry. He takes literally Wagner’s claim in My Life that his supporters in London, the German pianist Carl Lüders and French violinist Prosper Sainton, ‘lived together as man and wife’, Whereas only five years after seeing Wagner in London in 1855, Sainton would marry the English contralto Charlotte Dolby. As Callow implies elsewhere, someone as perfectly egoistic as Wagner was not a perceptive observer of those around him, nor could he appreciate the concept of disinterested friendship. Yet Callow segues from noting how Lüders and Sainton cared for each other to remark: ‘Sex seems always to have been in the air when Wagner was about. He was notably relaxed about homosexuality, and throughout his career owed a great deal to gay enthusiasts of his work.’ This forcibly pulls the Wagner circle into our era of marriage equality rather than leaving them amid murkier Victorian emotions. Callow may also underestimate gayness when he claims that King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner’s patron, had ‘(severely repressed) homosexual inclinations.’ Ludwig’s intimate relationships with the groom Richard Hornig and the actor Josef Kainz, among others, are matters of historical record.

Despite such caveats, this book fulfils its purpose of presenting an alluring image of an essential, inescapable opera composer. Possibly following the precedent of Dickens, a previous subject for a one-man show by Callow, the subject’s death scene is an especially prolonged and vigorous passage. Detailing the cause of death, Callow amusingly concludes: ‘In other words, Wagner died of being Wagner.’

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing