This doc is Wagner for Dummies, and I mean that in the best sense: I can't imagine a more engaging basic introduction to the composer whose work still fills opera houses and starts arguments around the globe, 200 years (as of this May 22) after his birth. If you wonder why Wagner's operas have been a cornerstone of Seattle Opera's repertory, and why his music inspires such fanatical devotion, both positive and negative, British actor/raconteur Stephen Fry may offer some insight as he travels Europe exploring his fascination with the composer.
Fry starts in Bayreuth, where Wagner, not content to merely dash off scores and hand them over to others to stage, built an opera house to his own specifications: "Stratford-upon-Avon, Mecca, and Graceland all rolled into one," Fry calls it, which gives you an idea of the level of unabashed hagiography we're dealing with. From Switzerland to St. Petersburg to Nuremberg to England he goes, outlining Wagner's life, dropping in on rehearsals, and discussing the music's hold on him—a fraught question, considering Fry himself is Jewish and lost relatives to the Holocaust, and Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite and the Third Reich practically built its entire aesthetic identity around him. (Nuremberg is the site, not by coincidence, both of Hitler's most infamous mass rallies and of Wagner's most fervently patriotic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.)
At last Fry talks with cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, whose musical skill saved her life when she was assigned to play in the Auschwitz camp orchestra. Despite this searing experience, which spiritually broke many musicians, Lasker-Wallfisch claims that "music is not sullied for me." Her unsentimental rationale for refusing to banish this most politically tainted of composers from her life: "How much do we grant the Germans in their quest of destroying everything?"