Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wagner’s Mastersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz (EuroArts, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out a DVD from EuroArts Video called Wagner’s Mastersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz, a documentary originally produced for German TV and issued in a package with a sample of Lorenz singing Wagner’s opera Siegfried in Buenos Aires in 1938: a CD containing the entire first act and a substantial chunk of the second. The reviews I’d read of the package warned of terrible sound quality on the Siegfried CD, but aside from a couple of speed glitches (the recording machine unaccountably slowing down and then speeding up again) the sound was quite good for a 1938 broadcast and certainly listenable enough that the glories of Lorenz’ voice came through stunningly. The documentary was made in 2008 and was a précis of Lorenz’ career that stressed the fact that his peak years as a performer, 1933 to 1944, overlapped the Nazi regime in Germany and World War II.

He was born in Düsseldorf, Germany on May 10, 1901 and his real name was Max Sülzenfuß (that ornate character at the end is what the Germans call an “S-set” and indicates a double-S, and “Sülsenfuss” was a ridiculous enough name even among his fellow Germans that when he started his stage career he rather arbitrarily picked “Lorenz” as a stage name). He was the son of a butcher who wanted him to go into the family business and couldn’t have cared less about his artistic ambitions, but his mom slipped him money from the family cookie jar (or whatever the equivalent they were using) to go to the theatre and study the stars of his day. All he ever wanted to do was sing, and after a couple of teachers he described as “very average” (he lasted long enough to do a series of interviews on German TV and recount his past) he lucked out and studied with Ernst Grenzebach, who was both one of the leading voice teachers in Germany in the early 1920’s and a person with plenty of connections with the major opera companies that he used to place his students and get them jobs. Lorenz landed an audition at Bayreuth in 1925 and Wagner’s son Siegfried cast him in the supporting role of Walther von der Vogelweide in Tannhäuser, only Lorenz lost his voice at the end of an exhausting rehearsal schedule and Wagner Sohn told him to go study some more and try again another year.

In 1927 he landed a contract with the Semperoper in Dresden, and in 1928 he sang the murderously difficult tenor role in the world premiere production of Richard Strauss’s opera The Egyptian Helen (based on a variation of the Trojan War myth in which the real Helen of Troy is hidden out in Egypt by the gods, who send a replica in her place to Troy, so when the war is over she and Menelaus can be reunited because she hasn’t “really” been unfaithful to him; in the version librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl wrote for Strauss, that doesn’t really happen but Menelaus is hypnotized into thinking it did). That got him an offer from the Berlin State Opera to repeat the role in 1929, and the Berlin company hired him as a permanent member; he also got offers outside of Germany, including one from the Met in 1931 in which he sang five roles by Wagner, the composer who would become his specialty. (He sang non-German operas, too, including Verdi’s Aïda and Otello, but he sang them exclusively in German — which probably explains why the Met hired him only for operas that were written in German in the first place.)

In 1933 Winifred Wagner, Siegfried’s widow (he had died in 1930 and she had taken over the Bayreuth festival after his death) and also a close friend of Adolf Hitler, hired him for Bayreuth, this time singing Wagner’s insanely difficult leading tenor roles — and from there until the end of the war Lorenz remained the leading tenor and Germany’s favorite Wagnerian, despite two aspects to his private life that ordinarily would have been the kiss of death — literally — under the Nazis. First, in 1932 he had married his manager, Charlotte “Lotte” Appel, who was Jewish — which wasn’t a big deal then but became a very big deal later on, especially in 1943, when it took the personal intervention of Hermann Göring, Lorenz’ patron among the Nazi elite, to keep her and her mother from being sent to the death camps (this, the film explains, was right after a popular actor named Gottschalk and his Jewish wife had committed joint suicide after she got an order to go to the Terezin camp) — and second, he was actively Bisexual. In 1937 he was actually arrested after being caught in flagrante delicto with one of his male lovers, and Hitler said that no matter how the court case turned out, Lorenz was no longer allowed to sing at Bayreuth — whereupon Winifred Wagner told him that if she couldn’t have Lorenz sing at Bayreuth, she’d have no choice but to close the festival down because without him, “Bayreuth can’t be done.”

Lorenz ended up in the same ambivalent position as Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler and a lot of other basically decent people trying to pursue their careers under Nazi rule: he went along with the regime in public but did what he could behind the scenes to save his family members and anyone else he could. The film touched on (in 52 minutes’ running time it could do little more than touch on) the dilemmas facing him in his relationship with the Nazis and the unfairness that a man who’d put himself at risk defying the Nazis was hampered in his postwar career by being considered “the Nazi tenor.” It also contained interviews with major singers, some contemporaries (like soprano Hilde Zadek) and some later singers inspired by him (baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and tenors René Kollo and Waldemar Kmentt), who proclaimed Lorenz the greatest Wagner tenor of all time, and while I would disagree with that (to me, quite frankly, Lorenz’ contemporary Lauritz Melchior — who, by the way, was also Bisexual — was the Wagner tenor, then and since), certainly he was a very, very good one, as good as anyone can be in these voice-straining and stamina-draining parts.

The film features a clip from a 1934 German newsreel showing a couple of minutes of Lorenz and Frida Leider on stage at Bayreuth in the Dawn Duet from Götterdämmerung that powerfully displays what charisma and intensity they must have projected (a pity even the Wagner-mad Nazis weren’t about to greenlight the filming of an entire Wagner opera!) as well as a clip from a 1943 film called Altes Herz werd wieder jung (which I think means something like “Old Hearts Were Always Young”) showing him in a performance (in German, of course) of Verdi’s Otello. It probably also helped that Lorenz looked, if not totally like the image of a Wagner hero (the film includes a clip of Paul Richter as Siegfried from Fritz Lang’s 1923 film and suggests he was Lorenz’ model for how he wanted to look on stage in the operatic version of the role), certainly better than most of the Heldentenors since (and quite a bit better than Melchior, who for all the eloquence and unsurpassable power and richness of his voice really did live up to Jonathan Tolins’ jibe in the play Twilight of the Golds that you were supposed to believe Siegfried was a superhero when he “looks like Ed Asner in a loincloth and a blond wig”) — and the film (written by Eric Schulz and directed by him and Claus Wischmann) shows a drawing of Lorenz early in his career by a Gay artist named Stassen which, it’s suggested, helped launch his career by depicting Lorenz as the Germans’ collective dream of an Aryan hero.

The film also makes the rather odd assertion that the Bayreuth Festival was in desperate artistic straits when Winifred Wagner took it over and cleaned up its scenery (by hiring Emil Preetorius as her set designer) and musical values (by hiring Heinz Tietjen, whom Lorenz credited as being a tough taskmaster but also one who improved him greatly as a singer, as her musical director) — which is belied by the quality of the Bayreuth recordings made by British Columbia in 1927 (excerpts from Parsifal and orchestral bits of the Ring), 1928 (an abridged but substantially complete Tristan) and 1930 (an abridged but substantially complete Tannhäuser) as well as the daring hiring decisions made by Siegfried in his last years, including hiring Arturo Toscanini in 1930 as the first non-German ever to conduct at Bayreuth. (The orchestra musicians derisively called him der Italiener.)

Walter Legge’s memoir On and Off the Record contains his on-the-spot review of the 1933 Bayreuth festival that paints a very different picture, largely because many of the non-German artists Siegfried had invited either were fired or quit when Hitler took over and announced a policy of “German Artists for German Art.” Toscanini, who in 1931 had been beaten by a Fascist mob in Italy for refusing to conduct the Fascist anthem “Giovinezza” before one of his concerts, wasn’t about to yield to Winifred Wagner’s pleas that he ignore the politics and just come and be an artist, and Legge wrote that “consequently the performances of Die Meistersinger and Parsifal were considerably inferior to those that most of us expected when, five or six months ago, we bought our tickets. The fault is not on Toscanini’s side — no one can blame him for his withdrawal.” Legge praised the work of Tietjen and Preetorius, and said he was pleasantly surprised that the Bayreuth orchestra had not audibly suffered from the order to fire its Jewish members, but he listed all the great foreign-born musicians and singers the German audience would no longer get to hear under the Nazis’ policies and wrote, “Musically, at least, the fanatical nationalism of Germany is to a great extent a fear-induced protection of inferior home products against superior foreign competition.”

As for Lorenz, he continued his career after the war, moving with his wife to Vienna and even taking Austrian citizenship, and he starred as Joseph K. in the 1953 world premiere of Gottfried von Einem’s opera based on Franz Kafka’s The Trial (making a pun on the meaning of “Einem,” which is “one” in its ordinal form, one reviewer covering the premiere of Einem’s 1947 opera Danton’s Death and finding the music highly derivative of other composers, wrote, “Nicht von Einem sondern von vielen” — “Not by one but by many”) and ultimately worked down to character roles; he retired in 1962 (though the following year he made a brief appearance on Austrian TV singing the death scene from Verdi’s Otello with piano accompaniment) and died in Vienna in 1975. After the war Lorenz is generally considered to have been past his prime — but I recently listened to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1950 Ring cycle from La Scala in Milan, in which he was the Götterdämmerung Siegfried, and though the two other star tenors in the cycle (Günther Treptow in Walküre and Set Svanholm in Siegfried) were younger, Lorenz outsang both of them and was a worthy partner to Kirsten Flagstad, who sang Brünnhilde in all three operas in which the character appears. Lorenz was certainly a fabulous tenor, far superior to anybody singing this repertoire today!