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From bombastic to beloved, Joachim Sauer's trip to Wagner's "grail"

BERLIN (Reuters) - In his youth, theoretical chemist Joachim Sauer found the music of Richard Wagner "bombastic". All that changed when he was in his early 20s with a chance encounter with Wagner's 'Siegfried'.
/ Source: Reuters

BERLIN (Reuters) - In his youth, theoretical chemist Joachim Sauer found the music of Richard Wagner "bombastic". All that changed when he was in his early 20s with a chance encounter with Wagner's 'Siegfried'.

Now the annual Wagner summer festival in Bayreuth is one of the few occasions when the media-shy Sauer is seen in public with his wife, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This year, the bicentenary of Wagner's birth, is a special one for the many millions of "Wagnerians" who share Sauer's passion. It was the chance to talk about Wagner's music, and only about music, that prompted Sauer to speak to Reuters.

"If you ask me what is the best good fortune in my life of course I say that I have seen in my lifespan the Wall coming down, the reunification," said Sauer, 63, who grew up in communist East Germany.

"But the second, which comes with it, is perhaps that I now can go to Bayreuth."

Sauer, considered a top expert in his field for his quantum chemical work with catalysts used in the chemical industry, and also in cars, met for an interview in English over dinner recently at the restaurant of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin where he went on to see Puccini's "Tosca".

"They see me all the time at Bayreuth and think I only like Wagner's music and it's not true," Sauer said. He also likes Beethoven, Mozart, some of the Romantic repertoire, even the music of the 20th century, and Verdi's "La Traviata", which he considers a masterpiece.

But what is it about Wagner's music that Sauer, a slender, fit and cordial man whose smiling countenance throughout the dinner of fish and a glass of white wine belied his somewhat dour image in the German press, finds so engaging, if not to say addictive?

His conversion occurred by chance when he came home one day exhausted, he said.

"I was studying chemistry and this is a physically hard job because you are in the laboratory, you work hard and you come home in the late afternoon or in the evening and you always needed a break. So I would stretch out on the sofa, switch on the radio and listen to this special radio program which has a lot of classical music and I was listening to something. I didn't know what it was but I found it very interesting.

"And at the end it turned out it was a piece of 'Siegfried'" - from Wagner's "Ring" cycle. "So I told myself, 'You're an should listen to it.' So this was how it started."

"It never ends, it's so rich," Sauer added, speaking of the appeal of Wagner's operas, which include the story of the "swan knight" in "Lohengrin", the 16-hour-long "Ring" and conclude with the quest for the Holy Grail in "Parsifal". "And they are all so very different."

He said Bayreuth, Wagner's purpose-built opera house on the "Green Hill" in Bavaria, is unique in allowing busy people like himself, with a fulltime career as a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, to get away from their daily routines and pay full attention to nothing but Wagner's operas.

"Many people would be very proud if they had invented it. Therefore I am strictly against any good advice they would give to open it to change, to open it to other composers, to do all types of things. All wrong, because this is a unique thing and don't touch it."


Like many passionate Wagnerians, Sauer more or less throws up his hands when asked how many times he has seen the various operas - regularly since his 20s and at Bayreuth every year since 1990, when East and West Germany were reunited, was his rough estimate.

He said one of his greatest Wagner moments unexpectedly was a 1990s staging by the late Brecht disciple and leftist playwright Heiner Mueller of Wagner's intensely romantic "Tristan und Isolde", in which two unrequited lovers are united in death.

"It was really the best piece I have seen in Bayreuth so far.... I often have trouble with what is called the 'regie theater' where the director takes over but in this case it made sense not only in an intellectual way but also an emotional way," Sauer said, still clearly passionate about a production that set part of the drama in a post-apocalypse world where the moribund lover Tristan, sung by Siegfried Jerusalem, wore dark sunglasses and was covered with concrete dust.

This year Bayreuth will unveil a new "Ring" by deconstructionist Berlin theatre director Frank Castorf, who has been known to dispense with whole sections of text in plays he directs, with the young Russian Kirill Petrenko conducting.

Sauer, who enjoyed the previous Bayreuth "Ring" under Wagner-immersed German conductor Christian Thielemann, is keeping an open mind. Little has been revealed about the Castorf version, apart from snippets on blogs and websites saying it will use a revolving stage and that Castorf is under orders not to make cuts.

"We take the risk. The music is still there," Sauer said, with a wry hint of humor.

(editing by Janet McBride)