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August 21, 2009

Documentary examines complex life of heroic tenor Max Lorenz during Third Reich

It has become so difficult to catch up on the CDs and DVDs that get released (you’d never know that the classical record industry was dead, judging by the ever-expanding pile-up of discs on my desk). I regret to say that I usually just stare at them and figure that I’ll never get to check them all out, so I might as well not try any of them and go back to doing stuff that really matters – like catching up (via blessed Netflix) on the first two seasons of “Mad Men,” so I can finally get in on the conversation around the newsroom.

However, one early morn this week, my eye fell upon a DVD called “Wagner’s Meistersinger, Hitler’s Siegfried: The Life and Times of Max Lorenz” (couldn't they have put a few more words into the title?), and decided that’s what I would watch while doing the treadmill thing. Time very well spent.

This Medici Arts release provides a fascinating glimpse into an entire era of German operatic life, raises anew the many vexing questions about the role of artists during the Nazi regime, and, above all, provides a welcome reminder of a truly great tenor. (I found the experience of seeing a documentary about the real Nazi era to be somehow even more meaningful than usual at a time when some Americans are shamelessly and ignorantly hurling the charge of “Nazi” at health care debates.)

Max Lorenz may not exactly have been Hitler’s Siegfried. After all, as this documentary film by Eric Schulz and Claus Wishmann points out, Hitler demanded that Lorenz be banished from Bayreuth after the singer ...

was arrested in a gay liaison (that Lorenz was married to a Jewish woman only added to his precarious situation). But there was no question that the German public saw and heard in Lorenz the personification of the heroism that Wagner celebrated in his operas. The tenor's stature and magnetism onstage were hard to beat. No wonder that Winifred Wagner, the controversial woman who ran the festival at Bayreuth and maintained a very friendly relationship with the dictator, told Hitler that if she had to fire Lorenz she’d close Bayreuth. The tenor stayed. Lorenz and, more remarkably, his wife continued to avoid arrest and managed to survive the war.

That story makes for particularly fascinating telling in this valuable film, which offers a good deal of vintage footage as it relates the singer’s career. Contemporary commentary from such distinguished artists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Waldemar Kmennt and Rene Kollo add insights into what made Lorenz such a notable tenor. I only wish the filmmakers didn’t show quite so many tight close-ups of those interviewees blissfully listening to Lorenz recordings. (Speaking of recordings, the DVD comes with a valuable bonus -- excerpts from "Siegfried" recorded live in Buenos Aires in 1938.)  

Some of the most effective stuff in the documentary shows Lorenz himself in his late years, discussing his life and, touchingly, singing music by Strauss and Verdi with a lot of vocal quality still left in him. You can feel how much he loved to sing, how much he hated to give it up.

Here's a sample of the tenor in his golden age, from a 1943 "Tristan":

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:26 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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