Simon Callow gets Inside Wagner's Head

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A one-man show at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio provides fascinating insights into a complex composer

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Simon Callow'Dreadful music, dreadful man!'

This was the response that greeted actor Simon Callow when he told a musician friend that he would be performing a one-man show about Wagner.

'Why does Wagner's music offend people so much?' Callow asked the audience gathered in the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio. What followed was his 100-minute exploration of the possible answers. On a stage littered with every imaginable prop, from a stuffed parrot (Wagner had a pet one, we learned) to a dress-making mannequin, Callow told the story of Richard Wagner's life, mentioning his tendency to burst into tears as a schoolboy and re-creating scenes from the composers's stormy relationship with King Ludwig II of Bavaria. 

After the fashion of Callow's previous one-man show on Dickens, 'Inside Wagner's Head' – which is part of a mini festival at Covent Garden focusing on Verdi and Wagner – feels more like an animated lecture with the world's most engaging expert than a play. And even Wagnerphiles will discover new gems – like the fact that the dragon for the first performance of the Ring cycle in Bayreuth was made in London and shipped over to Germany… but the neck was missing because it had accidentally been sent to a different town.

For Wagner-sceptics, this is an excellent introduction to his work, told by 'a devotee' but not an 'addict', as Callow writes in the programme. Nor is there any attempt to soften Wagner's image or brush over his rampant anti-Semitism – Callow suggests the composer delved so deep into the subconscious that he was bound to come up 'with as much sh*t as gold'.

The video projections weren't always especially successful and sometimes I wished we could hear more of the music that peppered Callow's performance. But in the end, and most importantly, Callow's enthusiasm for Wagner's operas is infectious and I rushed home to dig out my recording of Lohengrin.

'Inside Wagner's Head' runs until 28 September and is part of the Royal Opera House's Deloitte Ignite Verdi/Wagner series, curated by Stephen Fry. Photo: Catherine Ashmore