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In 1834, in Magdeburg, Germany, conceited opera conductor and composer Richard Wagner meets actress Minna Planer, who gives up her career to marry him. The luxury-seeking Richard takes conducting jobs to provide financial security, but his ambition is to write innovative operas that reflect a new world order. When no one in Germany will perform his work, the Wagners journey to Paris by ship, which is the only mode of travel that will accommodate Richard's beloved dog. On board, Richard conceives of a new opera, The Flying Dutchman . In Paris, hoping to connect with influential people, Richard meets with German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. At Meyerbeer's home, surrounded by his students and admirers, Meyerbeer listens to Richard's idea of a "music drama" without traditional ballets, arias and duets to interfere with dramatic action. Although many there scoff at Richard's concept of writing his own librettos and composing musical themes for each character, Meyerbeer asks Franz Liszt, a virtuoso pianist, to play the music Richard has brought. Although impressed by the richness of the music, Meyerbeer states he is too busy to take up Richard's cause and warns that Richard is at a disadvantage because he has no recognizable "name" in fashion-conscious Paris. Later, Franz, who is also a composer, tells Richard that Meyerbeer is not opposed to his ideas, but that Paris is a city flooded with competing talent. In reply, Richard vows to have Paris "in my pocket" in a year's time. Instead, the following year, Richard is serving time in debtors' prison, while awaiting a response from German theaters to which he sent his completed "Dutchman." He is almost resigned to composing music in prison solitude, when Minna tells him that the Dresden Court Theatre has agreed to perform his work, which gives him the cash to pay his debts and be released. After its first performance, the King of Saxonia appoints Richard to conduct his Royal Opera Company. Although he has good relations with the king, Richard makes enemies with Minister von Moll, when he tries to "reform" the company. The Wagner home becomes the site of political discussions by revolutionaries August Roeckel and Michael Bakunin, who distribute a handbill demanding a constitutional government, free press and free elections. When the king brings in Prussian soldiers to arrest the dissenters, Richard barely escapes by fleeing the city. Henceforth, Richard and his music are banned. Leaving Minna behind, Richard goes to Franz for help and meets his daughter Cosima, one of Richard's most knowledgeable fans. After helping Richard escape to Zurich, Franz recommends him to wealthy businessman Otto Wesendonk, whose wife Mathilde's professional admiration soon turns amorous. In a cottage on the Wesendonk estate, where Minna joins him, Richard begins a new opera, Tristan und Isolde . After Napoleon orders a command performance of his Tannhäuser , Richard goes to Paris, where he is convinced, by the whim of the emperor, to add a ballet to the opera. When Richard insists on placing the ballet in the first act, Franz explains that fashionable Parisians dine late and will not arrive until the second act, in which they expect to see the ballet. On opening night, as Franz feared, spoiled and arrogant members of the exclusive, late-arriving Jockey Club shout for the dancers, disrupting the performance. After three nights of their disruption, rather than move the ballet, Richard cancels the show. Back in Zurich, Richard presents a copy of his completed Tristan und Isolde to Otto, who gives him ten thousand francs to continue composing. After intercepting a love letter between Richard and Mathilde, Minna shows it to Otto, and then returns to Germany, where she later dies without ever reconciling with her husband. Asked to leave the estate by Otto, Richard proceeds to Venice to wait for Mathilde, whom he calls his "Isolde," and becomes despondent and deeper in debt. Cosima, who has married Richard's friend, musician Hans von Buelow, convinces Richard not to destroy himself over Mathilde, who will never sacrifice her security for him. Still exiled from Germany, Richard wanders for many years, until he is granted amnesty. Upon returning to Germany, Richard again escapes from his debts, when eighteen-year-old King Ludwig II of Bavaria, an ardent lover of Richard's operas, offers patronage. Eager to support Richard luxuriously, Ludwig finances Richard's extravagant lifestyle and joins in his dream of building an opera house scaled to the grandness of Wagnerian operas. When Richard hires Hans as conductor, the von Buelows join him, but Cosima, who recognizes the danger of being consumed by the "magic" of Richard's "fire," tries to protect the reverently loyal Hans from becoming his slave. After the opening of Richard's next opera, Franz acknowledges that Richard is a "devil, but a genius." Seeing Richard's opulent lifestyle, Roeckel suggests that he has betrayed his dreams of a new world, but Richard replies, "I have created my new world in my operas." Von Moll, now an official in the Bavarian government, is appalled by Richard's arrogance and profligacy, and rallies the Bavarian State Council to demand Richard's dismissal or Ludwig's abdication. With regret, Ludwig accepts Richard's forced resignation, hoping that he will return when the political climate changes. Cosima decides to leave Hans and accompany Richard to Switzerland. Despite public censure, they are living contentedly, when Franz, who is now a priest, visits them. Cosima concedes to her disapproving father that Richard is extravagant, egotistical and betrays his friends, but she believes in what he has given the world. She then divorces Hans and marries Richard. After war breaks out, Richard is compelled to return to Germany. In Bayreuth, with Ludwig's assistance, he develops a music festival and builds an opera house, where his largest work, The Ring of the Nibelung , has its premiere. Because of Richard's ill health, he and Cosima move to Venice, where he works on Parsifal , which contains religious themes. When religious groups, concerned about how Richard will treat sacred matters, send Franz to intervene, Richard explains that Parsifal expresses what he has learned from life: suffering, sacrifice and renunciation. Soon after, Richard dies.