DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. The great German Wagnerian tenor Max Lorenz isn't as well remembered in this country as several of his colleagues, maybe because he stayed in Germany during World War II and had a reputation as Hitler's favorite tenor. But a new documentary suggests that his story is more complicated.
Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.
Mr. MAX LORENZ (Tenor): (Singing in Foreign Language)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The German tenor Max Lorenz had several strikes against him in Nazi Germany: he was both homosexual and married to a Jewish woman. But he had one thing going for him � he was the greatest German-born tenor of his day.
After its bitter defeat in World War I, Germany � and the Nazi party � were looking for heroes. Lorenz's heroic singing and size - he was more than six feet tall - made him a national symbol. Remaining in Germany during World War II, he not only survived the war unscathed, but he had the power to help those close to him. This is part of his complex story in a new biographical documentary, "Wagner's Mastersinger � Hitler's Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz," directed by Eric Schulz and Claus Wischmann, which is now out on DVD, along with a thrilling CD of extended excerpts of a live 1938 performance of his most famous role: Wagner's Siegfried.
The documentary, mostly in German but with English narration and subtitles, weighs Lorenz's considerable artistic achievement against his poignant biography. Max Sulzenfuss, Lorenz's real name, was the beefy but shy and conflicted son of a butcher. Among the talking heads are a handful of important German performers, including world-renowned baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. All of them show boundless admiration for Lorenz's performances. One compares him to a lion pouncing on the notes, another says his voice went through you like a red-hot sword. Alongside Lorenz, one tenor says, all the others were wimps.
He didn't just produce the notes, Fischer-Dieskau says, he embodied them, and sang everything to the hilt, and that you could hear his intensity and expressive power in the clarion timbre of his voice. Here's an exciting clip of Lorenz as Siegfried with the legendary Wagnerian soprano Frida Leider as Brunnhilde in the 1934 film made at the Bayreuth Festival, the annual Wagner Festival begun by Wagner himself.
Mr. LORENZ: (Singing in Foreign Language)
Ms. FRIDA LEIDER (Soprano): (Singing in Foreign Language)
SCHWARTZ: Lorenz was the major German tenor at Bayreuth. During the war, the festival's CEO was Winifred Wagner, who was born in England and married Wagner's homosexual son Siegfried. She was not officially a Nazi, but she seemed to have adored Hitler, who spent a great deal of time at Bayreuth. In an interview, she talks about Lorenz being arrested after being caught in flagrante with one of the Bayreuth vocal coaches.
If Lorenz were found guilty and forbidden to sing, she says, she threatened to shut down the theater. But Hitler loved Bayreuth, and Lorenz's trial ended without a guilty verdict. Once, the SS came to Lorenz's house to remove his Jewish wife and her mother. But she had Goering's sister's private phone number, and 10 minutes later the SS men left the two women unharmed. The following night, the outraged Lorenz canceled a performance in Vienna at which Hitler was the guest of honor. After the war, he became an Austrian citizen. Still, the question remains why Lorenz didn't leave Germany. As one performer says in this film, many German artists were idealists, and things in Germany might have been different if more artists had shown greater interest in politics.
After the war, many people assumed Lorenz had been a Nazi. Maybe he'd be better remembered if, like the other great Wagnerian tenor of the period, the Danish-born Lauritz Melchior - surprisingly unmentioned in this documentary, he had shifted his career to England and the United States.
(Soundbite of documentary, "Wagner's Mastersinger � Hitler's Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz,")
Unidentified Man: By 1943, it was too late to leave the country. Lorenz was lucky. Only on stage was he stabbed in the back.
Mr. LORENZ: (Singing in Foreign Language)
SCHWARTZ: Among the most moving moments of the film are the sequences in which the interviewed singers are listening to Lorenz's extraordinary recordings, nodding, or mouthing the words along with him with expressions of pure bliss.
BIANCULLI: Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the documentary "Wagner's Mastersinger � Hitler's Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz."
Coming up, we remember a former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving who died yesterday. This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.