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Bayreuth Festival faces new challenges under new management

Bavaria's annual celebration of Richard Wagner has likely avoided what would have been its first-ever strike. The tension has now been diffused - and the new directors spared major embarrassment.

A general view of the festival opera house in Bayreuth, Germany

A new dawn is breaking on Green Hill

Marathon pay talks between the ver.di union and the festival management collapsed early Tuesday, but a new round of negotiations has now been scheduled for July 22. "It looks as though the strike has been averted," Hans Kraft from the ver.di union told dpa news agency. "I am confident we'll be able to reach agreement."

Just a day earlier, the situation had looked more serious, with sixty stagehands and lighting engineers and 100 freelance workers for the event demanding a fairer wage.

"Most of the technicians earn less than around 10 euros ($14) per hour at the moment, which is some 20 percent less than the industry norm," Hans Kraft from ver.di told AFP.

Others might argue that even though non-union rates were paid by Wolfgang Wagner, the festival's director for the past 57 years, he did offer workers other perks - such as tickets to two nights of the festival, which could be sold at considerable profit. Tickets can cost as much as 225 euros per performance, with waiting lists of up to a decade.

"Delaying tactics"

But the union maintains that a more transparent system of pay, based on higher hourly rates, is long overdue.

Ver.di had warned after the first round of failed talks that, unless there was a "much better" pay offer, it might not return to the negotiating table.

"Any further delay represents a serious threat to the Bayreuth Festival - and not just to the premiere" on July 25, Hans Kraft said in a statement.

Kraft also criticized what he called "delaying tactics" by the management of the annual festival and said that employees were "extremely disappointed."

However, both ver.di and festival representatives voiced confidence that agreement could be reached.

"(The fresh round of talks) means a solution is within reach," said Kraft.

"No one wants the fronts to harden," said festival spokesman Peter Emmerich.

Paying for privilege

A scene from Rheingold in Bayreuth

Stagehands want better conditions

Many employees, however, have mixed feelings about a possible strike - which would be the first industrial action ever seen on the fabled "Green Hill."

Most employees are used to working long hours under extreme time pressure, and have done so in the past out of respect for the Bayreuth tradition and its directors.

While other operas such as the Bavarian State Opera might spend months working on a new production, the Wagners often have just a matter of weeks to perfect a premiere. Stagehands usually come from across Germany for the privilege of working on the "Green Hill" for the duration of the festival.

A stint here is considered highly prestigious as much by the backstage crew as by the musicians. And until now, they've been prepared to accept low wages and 60-hour weeks merely for the honor of adding Bayreuth to their resumes.

Making enemies

Bayreuth's mayor Michael Hohl, CEO of the festival's foundation council, naturally dreaded the repercussions of a walk-out.

"If the curtain really fails to go up, the union certainly won't have made any friends," he told Deutsche Welle. He insists that the unusual conditions in Bayreuth need to be taken into consideration.

"We operate for one season only," he said. "We are not a standard opera house open all year round."

But in legal terms, as Hans Kraft of ver.di has pointed out, there is no difference between the Bayreuth Festival and any other opera house, and employees should therefore be paid the same wages as their colleagues elsewhere.

Beginning of a new era

Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner

Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner want to rejuvenate the festival

Everything has changed since Wolfgang Wagner stepped down last year. This year's festival is the first to be co-directed by Katharina Wagner and her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, potentially marking the end of decades of family feuding.

It also marks the end to Bayreuth's status as a private business. The festival's shareholders now include the government, the Bavarian state and the town of Bayreuth. The fourth shareholder is the Friends of Bayreuth association.

While management has been shaken-up, similar revolutions are afoot in artistic terms. The two new chiefs, who have initially been given seven-year contracts, have promised to inject new life into the festival and win over new and younger audiences with the introduction of free public-viewings, Internet broadcasts and special stagings for children.

Katharina has spent most of this month on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, directing a production of "Tannhaeuser," which premiered July 11 at the Teatro Perez Galdos to critical acclaim.

While she might have been glad to miss much of the current strife in Bayreuth, the project at the struggling opera house in Las Palmas has been plagued with technical difficulties.

Now back in Germany, Katharina Wagner is proving that she has learned to deal with challenges.

"We will do everything we can to ensure that the festival goes ahead as usual," she pledged Wednesday, also expressing openness to compromise. "We plan to sign a wage agreement, and it would be good if agreement could be reached before the festival opening."

Author: Jane Paulick

Editor: Kate Bowen

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