The Fiery Conformist
From the day of his birth, 22 May 1813, Richard Wagner would seem to have been destined for a life in the theatre. His father, Carl Friedrich Wagner, an actuary with the Leipzig police, was a skilled amateur actor; the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann met him once in a tavern and found him "an exotic character . . . an adherent of the better school [of acting], un poco exaltato after imbibing a lot of rum." 1 The elder Wagner died a mere six months after Richard's birth in a typhus epidemic that broke out after the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Leipzig. Soon after, his wife, Johanna, married Ludwig Geyer, a close family friend who may have been Richard's natural father. Geyer was a professional artist of all trades: a portrait painter, an actor, a singer, and a playwright. His most successful piece, Der Bethlehemische Kindermord (The Massacre of the Innocents, 1821), despite its title a comedy about an artist's marriage, was quite widely performed in its day and even praised by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. While Johanna was indifferent to theatre, her children were not. Her eldest son, Albert, became a singer, and three of her five daughters, prior to their marriages, made respectable careers as actresses or opera singers. Not surprisingly, Richard, the youngest of Johanna's three sons, gravitated toward the theatre for his livelihood as well.
From his mother's and Geyer's marriage in August 1814 until the latter's death in September 1821, Richard lived in close association with the actors and musicians of the Dresden Court Theatre where his stepfather was employed. When he was three years old, he even appeared on stage in a festive play celebrating the return of the King of Saxony to his capital