Stephen Fry on Wagner

I’m approaching the end of a journey which began nearly 3 years ago.  Back then I was lucky enough to be working with Stephen Fry on a film for BBC4 about Johannes Gutenberg – the man who invented printing. As we travelled through Germany in quest of that elusive Medieval genius we found ourselves on a twisting road which ran along the sides of the River Rhine.  In the backseat of the crew vehicle Stephen was plugged into his ipod when a mysterious sound filled the van.  “Rhinegold!  Rhinegold!”  The great man was singing (sort of) to the music of his favourite composer – the legendary, controversial, Richard Wagner.  And what better choice for this impromptu burst of karaoke than Wagner’s opera, Rhinegold, the first instalment of his famous quartet of operas The Ring, which kicks off with a scene played out in exactly the landscape we were driving through? As the journey continued the singing ended and the talking began, sowing the seeds of our next collaboration with Stephen. The result is our film Stephen Fry and Wagner, which goes out on BBC4, Tuesday May 25 at 9pm.


Stephen’s loved Wagner’s music since he was a child but over the years his passion for it has also grown more complicated. It’s no secret that his enthusiasm for Wagner was also shared by Hitler, or that Wagner himself was outspokenly anti-semitic. Stephen is Jewish, and he lost members of his family in the Holocaust, so those have always been hard facts for him to stomach. This film is his opportunity to tackle that dilemma head-on – an attempt to salvage the music he loves from its dark association with the Nazis.


It’s also an opportunity for him to realize a lifelong dream by attending the Bayreuth Festival – an annual extravaganza of Wagner’s music held in a theatre, the Festspielhaus, designed and built by the composer himself (never a man to trust a job to others that he thought he could do better himself).  You can’t really understand what made Wagner tick without visiting this extraordinary venue, so it was crucial for us to film there.  But access was tough to negotiate. The Festival is still run by members of Wagner’s family, who are notoriously cagey about letting the press roam free, especially in the run up to the Festival, which is a time of intensive rehearsal and preparation.  When we first approached them with our request the boss was Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang.  By the time we finally persuaded them to let our cameras in, the baton had passed to his daughters, Eva and Katharina.  It took more than a year of meetings and discussion to agree the deal. We first visited in the snows of Winter and then, more than a year later, in the early Spring sunshine.  We finally began filming in June 2009, a few weeks before the Festival began. But it was worth the wait just to be there to film Stephen’s first arrival at this legendary venue and watch him tiptoe his way into the rehearsal room with Wagner’s extraordinarily powerful music in full swing, and the composer’s great-grand-daughter Eva keeping an eagle eye on proceedings in the corner.


Over the next few days we had a chance to explore every nook and cranny of this amazing place – perhaps the most famous music venue in the world – and to eavesdrop on the singers and musicians as they prepared for the Festival. There’s something slightly surreal about hearing the Ride of the Valkyrie being hammered out on an upright piano whilst a gang of spear-wielding sopranos choreograph their movements in what looks like a school sports-hall.  But when they start to sing, the hairs on your neck stand to attention – even though we later discover that they weren’t giving it full throttle quite yet, but saving their voices for opening night. 


There were plenty of other treats in store after that – including a chance for Stephen to play on Wagner’s piano (like Eric Morecambe he managed the right notes but not necessarily in the right order), and to leaf through the original score of his opera Gotterdammerung. As we took a breather between takes, the archivist put the velvet-bound book down on a sidetable before casually informing me that it was worth upwards of 10 million euros – an interesting piece of trivia which I decided to share first with our sound recordist, Steve, who’d placed his coffee cup  - still half full - perilously close to the score itself. Most film crews spend a fortune on coffee, but this could have been the costliest latte in history.


Away from Bayreuth we also called in at Neuschwanstein – the fairytale castle built by another Wagner fan, ‘mad’ King Ludwig, as a tribute to his hero. Our schedule was tight, and the traffic was bad, so we arrived a couple of hours later than planned before making a whistlestop tour of this ludicrously kitsch masterpiece in the fading evening light. After racing through room after room inspired by Wagner’s work we called time on the day’s shoot and headed back to the hotel.  I was worried that perhaps we hadn’t done justice to the location but later discovered that my concerns weren’t shared by Stephen.  According to his twitter account, he felt that we had, in fact, “shot the arse off it”.


Our filming also took Stephen to some darker places, as we explored the way Wagner’s music was later appropriated by the Nazis. In Nuremberg – scene of the infamous Nazi propaganda rallies – Stephen grappled with the stain placed on Wagner’s music by this association with the Hitler regime.  Every year, on the evening before the rallies began in earnest, a gala performance of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger was staged in the city’s Opera House.   According to a historian we met, Hitler loved this opera so much that he would whistle the tunes – and what tunes they are - to his guests.   On the steps of the famous stadium, which is now slowly decaying and overgrown with weeds, Stephen thought aloud and very movingly about the quandary which faces any fan of Wagner’s music, comparing it to an extraordinarily complex and beautiful tapestry with one indelible stain - a stain which can’t be washed out. It was a powerful moment – not something which could be scripted or prepared in advance but the result of a lifetime’s engagement with the music and the issues which surround it. Just a few yards from where we filmed stood the podium from which Hitler would harangue the assembled masses. In the time we were there, scores of visitors climbed to this famous vantage point to take in the view. Stephen wondered if I wanted him to go there too.  I said it was up to him. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.  Minutes before we left, an almighty thunderstorm broke out drenching us all in the minute or two it took us to dash across the parade ground to our vehicle.  We needed a change of clothes before setting up in our next location.


Before returning to Bayreuth for the first performance of the Festival, there was one final visit for Stephen to make – another encounter with a special resonance for him. In London he called on Anita Lasker-Wallfisch who was once an inmate in Auschwitz, the camp in which members of Stephen’s family died.  Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch was a teenager when she was imprisoned.  She was also a cellist whose love for music probably saved her life, when she was recruited into the inmates’ orchestra at the camp (a story which is told in her book, Inherit the Truth). The orchestra was forced to provide entertainment for the guards, and you might think that performing under such appalling conditions would have corroded her love for music.  But, as Stephen discovered, that wasn’t the way things turned out, and after the war she had a very distinguished career as a cellist. Stephen also wanted to find out more about one of the darkest aspects of Wagner’s legacy – the suggestion that his music was used as a psychological weapon against the prisoners on some of the camps. He was relieved to discover that this wasn’t something which she experienced, although there is plenty of evidence to show that it did happen in some camps. Stephen’s conversation with this remarkable woman is, for me, one of the most powerful moments in the film.


Our film ends, just as our journey did, with the opening night of the Bayreuth Festival itself. This is one of the hottest tickets in classical music, a high point of the German social calendar.  On the balcony above the main entrance, a band of musicians summon the audience to their seats as they have done since the very first Festival 1876 and the audience – dressed in everything from traditional black tie to eurotrash chic - clutch their hired cushions to their chests in anticipation of the five hours of music to come (Wagner operas are famously long) and make their way into the auditorium.  The lights dim and the opening bars of the music emerge from out of the darkness. After spending months immersed in the story of this extraordinary composer – genius, tyrant, egotist  and mythmaker – it’s a memorable experience to sit in the theatre he dreamed of building and give yourself over to the music.  I can only begin to imagine what it must feel like for Stephen, who first fell in love with that music when he was just a child.