Antoine Wagner: How I Came to Know My Family Heritage

Audio: The Composer's Great-Great-Grandson on Appreciating his Music

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - 06:00 PM

Antoine Wagner Antoine Wagner (Kim Nowacki/WQXR)

Antoine Wagner, a photographer and filmmaker living in New York, has long had a special passion for shooting landscapes and nature. But it wasn’t until he investigated a famous distant relative that he came to see deeper roots to his professional interests.

Wagner, 30, is the great-great-grandson of Richard Wagner, as well as the great-great-great-grandson of Franz Liszt. As the son of Eva Wagner, the co-director of the annual Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, he was steeped in family history as a child.

"Growing up my mother used to work late so I’d go and hang out with her at the opera," Antoine Wagner told WQXR. “I’ve always had the opportunity to learn more about it and be part of discussions about my ancestor. But this was the first time I feel where I got a connection that was so strong."

Earlier this year, Antoine Wagner produced and starred in a documentary film with the director Andy Sommer called "Wagner: A Genius in Exile," a musical road movie in which he is shown retracing his great-great-grandfather's flight to Zurich, Switzerland after he became enmeshed in the Dresden revolutions of 1848 and 1849.

"On the barricades in Dresden, he got threatened with imprisonment and possibly the death penalty," Antoine Wagner explained. “So he packed up his belongings, got a fake passport from his friend Franz Liszt, headed to Lindau overnight and crossed Lake Constance and got to Rorschach." The composer spent nearly a decade in Switzerland, during which time he started his most important works – Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde and portions of the Ring. "He basically manages to cross over the glaciers, frozen peaks and from hut to hut in Zurich."

Antoine Wagner says he was particularly interested in exploring the shielding and inspiring effect of the mountainous Swiss landscape on his relative's music and psyche. "The first sets in Bayreuth were basically copy-pastes of Swiss landscapes,” he noted.  

After reading about the composer's travels and studying maps of northern Switzerland, the filmmakers constructed a route that would take place over five weeks in the summer of 2012, extending from Lake Constance to Zurich. They also interviewed numerous musicians, scholars and other experts. The finished documentary debuted on German television in April and the filmmakers say it will be shown in 14 or 15 countries this year.

During the filming, Antoine Wagner also developed a forthcoming book of landscape photography called Wagner in Switzerland as well as a traveling exhibition of "photo sculptures" that will tour Europe this year. While his previous work has included a tour documentary about the rock band Phoenix, he says he now feels closer to his famously complex relative. "Before, I saw him more as an ancestor with a real distance, whereas now, I feel like it’s quite inspirational, it’s quite interesting to think, 'how did he do that?'"

The filmmaker has also come to realize that listening to Wagner requires an effort that goes beyond background listening. "It can't be ambient music and the soundtrack of your life," he said. "The amount of concentration required due to the subtexts and the amount of layers is endless."

Does being a Wagner provoke any special curiosity here in New York? Antoine Wagner says that since moving to the U.S. from his native Munich 15 years ago, he has often anglicized the pronunciation of his surname, if only for practical reasons. Even so, "here it doesn’t click that often — unless I go to the opera."

Produced by:

Jenny Houser


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Comments [7]

pieter van den berg from baarn, netherlands

Dear mr Antoine Wagner,
I really feel honored to send a message to a direct relative of Richard Wagner and even Franz Liszt.
We are sincerely deeply touched by your brilliant performance in creating your documentary movie Wagner , genius in exile. The artistic but also natural impression of the swiss atmosphere and scenery is beyond words. You made so clear what did drive our most admired composer in creating his musical total works, through which an revelation of deep emotion and beauty emeges and at the same time a view in universal profound humanlife principles and dillemmas.
Thank you for this project achievement

Oct. 13 2013 08:24 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music DRAMA Institute, Boonton, NJ

For specificity's sake, I have sung trhe complete Wesendonck Lieder in my two ALL-WAGNER solo concerts, the first on June 18th, 1995 and the second one named WAGNER-THE EPIC AND THE LYRIC on May 28th, 1998 in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall in 1995 and recorded them cpmplete with the Sofia [Bulgaria] Philharmonic Orchestra of the National Opera House, Saturday April 6 thru Thurs April 11th, 1996 conducted by Maestro Nenov, a total of 6 recording sessions The recordings were of my singing excerpts from Parsifal, Siegfried, Tannhauser and the Gotterdammerung Siegfried besides the complete Wesendonck Lieder.

Jul. 29 2013 01:06 AM
joe from NY

LOL. Wagner the hipster!

Jul. 28 2013 02:01 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

FRANZ LISZT who had been a friend of Wagner for many years and had transcribed many of Wagner's choicest selections maintaining their essence and allowing for virtuoso display with elan, also prepared LOHENGRIN's world premiere when Wagner was for political reasons unable to participate. COSIMA, Liszt's daughter became Wagner's second wife and was intimately involved in all matters that touched on Wagner's aspirations and enterprises. Just as BACH's music is performed by all sorts of instrumental ensembles , even the MOOG, so Wagner's music may be thoroughly enjoyed in piano arrangements, but their original versions with singers are the definitive versions. The incandescent beauty and intoxicating spirituality are so transformational in Wagner's oeuvre that any religious belief may be accommodated and synthesized to replicate the sense of selfless empathy for the welfare of others that the sacrificed UNICO represents to us all. That may explain why so many famous JEWISH singers GEORGE LONDON, RICHARD TAUBER, HERMANN JADLOWKER, MELANIE KURT, FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ALEXANDER KIPNIS, EMANUEL LIST, JONAS KAUFMANN, OTTILIE METZGER, LILLI LEHMANN, HERMANN WEIL, DESZO ERNSTER, HERTA GLAZ, MARGARETE MATZENAUER, SOPHIE BRASLAU, WALTER OLITZKY, GERHARD PECHNER, ESTELLE LIEBLING, MONA PAULEE, GUNTHER TREPTOW, PAULA LENCHNER, ALMA GLUCK, ADOLF ROBINSON, IRENE JESSNER, MAX BLOCH, ERNESTINE SCHUMANN-HEINK, HERMANN SCHRAMM, SIEGFRIED JERUSALEM, PAUL KALISCH, ETC], conductors LEONARD BERNSTEIN, JAMES LEVINE, BRUNO WALTER, ALFRED HERTZ, DANIEL BARENBOIM, GEORG SOLTI, WALTER AND LEOPOLD DAMROSCH, ARTUR RODZINSKY, RICHARD FRANK GOLDMAN AND HIS FATHER THE FOUNDER OF THE GOLDMAN BAND THAT PERFORMED BRASS INSTRUMENT VERSIONS OF THE WAGNER "REP," FRITZ REINER, SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY, FABIEN SEVITSKY, ERICH LEINSDORF, and HERMANN LEVI, the conductor whom Wagner himself appointed to premiere PARSIFAL at Bayreuth, Levi's father being a rabbi, and Levi reportedly denied Wagner's request for him to turn Christian, still Wagner decided LEVI was the best one to cinduct his work, ETC. and stage directors HERBERT GRAF AND LEOPOLD SACHSE dedicated the fullest portion of their careers to performing Wagner's music dramas.

Jul. 25 2013 07:22 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard W2agner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

KUDOS to you Antoine for your pursuit of clarifying and seeking greater awareness of Wagner's music dramas.
All composers of opera realize the importance of having singers that can represent rheir music properly.
Here a few suggestions of truly representative GREAT, LEGENDARY singers. RICHARD WAGNER's innovations go beyond the use of his introductionj into the opera orchestra of brass, for instance, the Wagner tuba, and woodwind instruments invented for the their immediate use in his galactic projects. Wagner's chromatisim in TRISTAN to enhance the sensual, his use of swiftly changing meters, tempi, and extended or shortened phrase lengths to comport with the ever changing landscape and his mentally conceived synonymous sketching of leit motives, short leading melodies to indicate emotions, persons, things or concepts was extensively utilized throughout his oeuvre. Toscaninni's DIE MEISTERSINGER performance at the Slazburg Festival of 1937 on the Andante CD label, George Szell's Met Opera TANNHAUSER of December 19, 1942 with Melchior, Traubel and Kipnis on THE RADIO YEARS CD label, Artur Bodansky's Met Opera TRISTAN of January 2, 1937 with Melchior, Flagstad and Huehn on THE FORTIES CD label, Fritz Busch's Met Opera LOHENGRIN of January 25th, 1947 with Melchior and Melchior and Traubel on the Walhall CD label, Melchior's final Met Opera broadcast LOHENGRIN, conducted by Fritz Stiedry with Traubel and Varnay on January 7th, 1950 on the Danacord CD label and Etich Leinsdorf Met Opera TRISTAN of 1941 with Melchior, Flagstad and Kipnis on the Melodram CD label are some of the best commercially obtainable examples of Wagnerian singing at its best. Melchior's complete performance in studio recordings of Siegmund and Siegfried are on the DANACORD CD label anfd his Gotterdammerung Siegfried recorded at a Met Opera performance is available on a Walhall label CD set. For a living, performing currently, heldentenor may I be so bold as to offer my singing, recorded live, of Otello, Tristan, Siegfried, Gotterdammerung Siegfried, Walther von stolzing, Siegmund and Parsifal downloadable from my website, going to the Recorded Selections venue.

Jul. 25 2013 02:45 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The troubles that tear asunder the prospect of REAL "echt" WAGNERIAN PERFORMANCES are primarily based on the total lack of singers with squillo, ping, ringing "juicy', not dry secco , delivery, WAGNERIAN BARKING rather than legato full-throated singing, strained, forced and flat singing, unsupported, undersized and underpowered singing, WITHOUT impressive carrying power and with throaty or nasal ugly voice production. Today's news deals with deficits and declining support for the arts. Tandem to this predicament for the talented is the perception that the current situation will continue for a long time to come. Speaking specifically how this precludes the motivation for young operatic singers who must early on choosing their life's work, many have turned to Broadway or the business world. Nowadays Broadway musicals are out for show-stopping sensationalism with laser distractions, monster sets, acrobatic feats and space age technical projections and featuring dancing over singing. So, for the real thing opera singer, Broadway musicals, outside of Phantom of the Opera and an occasional Les Miserables there is little prospect of a sustainable career . The Wagner oeuvre has suffered the most. Husky physiques, witness the iconic John McCormack, do not offer similar size singing voices in power or stamina. Heroic voices like Melchior, Tamagno, Ruffo and the mature Caruso are nowhere on today's world class stages. Instead we suffer to hear miniscule, non-charismatic, non-distinctively memor able singing voices essaying roles far beyond their underpowered, thin not orotund, singing potentialities. Why has the always controversial political or uniqueness for uniqueness's sake been the overriding context in which the Bayreuth Festival has ALWAYS manifested its presence back to the days when Hanslick then Tschaikovsky and later Verdi found it an unfriendly atmosphere or decried its "lack of melody (sic !)?" The daughters of Wolfgang Wagner like their dad have managed to incur the wrath of others either more conservative or radical in their concepts of the evolving Wagner music drama production values/concepts. It is an eviscerating condition that feeds upon confrontation rather than productive aesthetics. Kudos to the daughters of Wolfgang who I anticipate will bring on a still more evocative and compelling aspect of the panoramic, dynamic searching persona of the composer that most appropriately can don the mantel of SHAKESPEARE by nature of his genius and wide-ranging interests and perceptions.

Jul. 25 2013 10:52 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

We all may associate one's atttitudes and convictions politically and socially with the mores of that contemporary era. Wagner was in every respect as much a revolutionary figure against monarchy, yet for a united Germany as was Verdi's compatriot Giuseppe Garibaldi for a united Italy. Wagner, as many leaders against an imperial status quo governing body, was imprisoned. His opera RIENZI, a man of the people, the historical last tribune of Rome was partially written, the overture especially exciting, while Wagner was in prison. The genius Mozart, like Wagner, depended on the financial support of royalty, yet pictured them for what they were, oppressive and the Counts and Dons freakish womanizers.

Jul. 25 2013 10:06 AM

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