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11 things to know about Wagner and Bayreuth

Rick FulkerJuly 22, 2016

This year's Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth begins on July 25. There's no lack of information available about the composer, the festival he founded and the approaching season. We've sorted some of it out.

Richard Wagner bust in Bayreuth. Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images

1. Celebrities

The "Green Hill" overlooking the mid-sized Franconian city of Bayreuth has been populated by top-tier celebrities in years past: German presidents Richard von Weizsäcker and Joachim Gauck, Prince Charles and former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev are a few examples. And of course, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is practically a regular. This year, a scheduling conflict will keep her away on opening day, but she will return to Bayreuth later in the season with her husband to imbibe Wagner as a "private citizen."

Otherwise heading the guest list this year are Bavaria's Governor Horst Seehofer, Gloria of Thurn and Taxis -, several ministers in the German government, and TV stars. It will be a somewhat disappointing lineup for spectators, but local police are breathing a sigh of relief in light of enhanced security measures.

Angela Merkel. Copyright: picture-alliance/Eventpress
Proving that she really loves Wagner, Angela Merkel will attend the festival this year in an unofficial capacityImage: picture-alliance/Eventpress

2. Security

During this season's rehearsal phase beginning in June, eyebrows were raised by pictures of Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus theater behind a security fence. It was reported that star tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, wearing am olive-green uniform - his costume for the new production of "Parsifal" - stepped out of the theater for a moment and was not let back in without his identity card. Even festival director Katharina Wagner, who'd forgotten her ID, was turned away by security personnel and had to go home to get it.

Before, during and after performances at this year's festival, automobiles will no longer be permitted to drive up the "Green Hill" to the Festspielhaus. Moreover, the local press recently reported that police have even classified 35 people employed by the Bayreuth Festival as security risks and have recommended that they no longer be permitted to work there. Is it all hysteria, or hypersensitivity to a possible terrorist threat? In any case, the car-free grounds made for a more relaxed atmosphere.

3. Publications

It's been said that more has been written about Richard Wagner than any other historic figure apart from Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte. True or not, space does not suffice here to mention even the 10 most important books - and more are added every year. The season's most interesting new publication is by Oswald Georg Bauer and is titled "Die Geschichte der Bayreuther Festspiele" (The History of the Bayreuth Festival). In two volumes, with 1,600 pages and 1,100 illustrations, it's probably a standard-setting work.

As the long-term former spokesman for the Bayreuth Festival, Bauer has an insider's knowledge and was commissioned to compile the tome by former festival director Wolfgang Wagner, who specified that it be based "only on original sources." Over a quarter of a century later, Bauer now quips that had he known what he'd be getting into, he never would have started the gigantic project. The anthology is a must-have for Wagnerites. It's not clear whether an English translation is planned.

This year's other newsworthy release is bilingual between the two covers. And at 176 pages with over 200 illustrations, it's more snackable. "Wahnfried - The Home of Richard Wagner" is the work of authors Markus Kiesel and Joachim Mildner. Wagner's onetime residence, now a museum, underwent elaborate restoration and was reopened last year. This volume provides an inside look for those who haven't made it there yet.

Rick Fulker at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Photo: Anastassia Boutsko, DW
Wagner's Festspielhaus is currently undergoing extensive restoration, and the structure is obscured behind a textile facadeImage: DW/A. Boutsko

4. Tradition

The Bayreuth Festival has Germany's oldest festival tradition, and 2016 marks its 105th season. Founded by Richard Wagner in 1876, it has continued on the original premise ever since: presenting the composer's operas - 10 of them are considered "worthy" of the festival - in the very theater Wagner himself designed for them. "All Wagner, all the time" might sound like a stale concept, but Bayreuth has, at some points in its long history, also been a place of innovation in opera production.

5. Sound

The secret ingredient is: wood. From floor to ceiling, the interior of the Festspielhaus is wooden. That even goes for the pillars of the proscenia. They look like they're made of plaster, but they are made of wood, too, and hollow inside. Not to mention the stage, the orchestra pit and those notoriously narrow, hard and uncomfortable seats in the auditorium.

All that wood resonates with the sound, and the effect has been described as similar to sitting inside a musical instrument. Some of the wood was in fact already decades old and cured before it was even used in the construction of the Festspielhaus. Then there's that famous orchestra pit deep under the stage whose sound is reflected first by a hood onto the stage, where it blends with the singers' voices and then emanates into the auditorium. That unique mix has never been recreated anywhere else and gives a special meaning to hearing Wagner "at the source."

Scene from 'Tristan and Isolde'
Sometimes a darkened stage can add to the mystique - such as in the current staging of 'Tristan and Isolde' by Katharina WagnerImage: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

6. Success

In years past, tickets to the Bayreuth Festival - roughly 60,000 of them every season - could have been sold four to 10 times over. Such was the level of demand, with festival visitors sometimes waiting years for their turn to come. The ratio has narrowed down considerably in recent years, however, and tickets are sometimes available online for the current season. The legend of the wildly successful festival, seen historically, is just that: a legend.

The first Wagner Festival in 1876 was a financial disaster, followed by six years of - nothing. The despondent composer called his festival theater "a fool's whim." Disappointed by his own stage presentations, he sarcastically remarked that he now wanted to create "invisible theater."

The second Bayreuth Festival, in 1882, was a success however. It consisted of 16 performances of his work "Parsifal," written with the specifics of the Festspielhaus in mind. Wagner died a year later - and three years after that, his widow Cosima tried to get the festival going again with her own staging of "Tristan and Isolde." It played to a nearly empty house. For one performance, it's said that only 12 tickets were sold.

During World War I, the festival remained closed, and subsequent years of hyperinflation impoverished the Wagner family. During the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, a friend of the family, subsidized each new production. Tainted by the association, the festival was nearly abolished forever in the early postwar years. Richard Wagner's grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang managed a restart in 1951, however, and it has been going strong ever since.

7. Family

Cosima Wagner followed Richard Wagner as director of the Bayreuth Festival. She was succeeded by their son Siegfried. Both Cosima and Siegfried died in 1930. It was the beginning of the era of Siegfried's widow Winifred Wagner, who remained at the helm until the end of World War II in 1945. Six years later came the co-directorship of Wagner's grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang. The latter remained the sole festival director after the former died in 1966. Wolfgang stayed on until 2008 - a remarkable 57 years altogether. He, in turn, was succeeded by his daughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner. Beginning in 2016, Katharina has been the sole festival director. What sounds like a smooth succession has been anything but. Each phase has met with family quarrels and controversy. One could write a book about it all. In fact, several have been.

Winifred Wagner, Adolf Hitler and Wieland Wagner at the 1938 Bayreuth Festival
Winifred Wagner, Adolf Hitler and Wieland Wagner at the 1938 Bayreuth FestivalImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

8. Nazis

As a young man, Adolf Hitler went to every Wagner opera performance he could. He was only one of many who felt personally spoken to by Wagner's music. "Hitler's Bayreuth" by historian Brigitte Hamann documents the fateful mix of the "Führer" and the Bayreuth Festival, even leading to absurdities such as closed performances for soldiers wounded in World War II on the presumption that they would be "healed" by Wagner's music. Much is known about those fateful years in festival history - but not everything. The correspondence between Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler still awaits rediscovery and evaluation by historians.

9. Media

The Bayreuth Festival has always had a certain mystique, which has only been enhanced by the mass media. Even back in the 1920s, the then new medium of radio was employed for shortwave transmissions of Wagner operas - live from Bayreuth. Beginning in the 1950s, the main media partner has been ARD, a German public broadcasting network, which has made performances available for radio broadcasts worldwide by members and associate members of the European Broadcasting Union.

As for video, recordings of rehearsals were once compiled into presentations after the fact, preserving milestone productions such as the 1976 "Ring" by director Patrice Chéreau on video cassette and DVD. That is still done, but in recent years, the trend has been towards live transmissions. Some have been relayed directly to outdoor venues in Bayreuth. This year, five works in the festival's first week will be broadcast live to movie theaters and on TV in Germany and abroad.

10. Atmosphere

"I still think that sometime we'll all be sitting together in Bayreuth and wondering how we could have managed being anywhere else," wrote Richard Wagner's friend, and sometime foe, Friedrich Nietzsche. The city in the lush green hills of Upper Franconia does have its unique charm. Artists enthuse about it - although some have been grumbling about the enhanced security this year. Visitors find the festival a friendly place - and despite the hours and hours of opera performances, a place of relaxation, even of spiritual renewal. The fact remains that at festival time, there is very little there to distract them from Richard Wagner - which is just as the composer wanted it.

Small statue of Richard Wagner. Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Hase
He still calls the shots hereImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Hase

11. Wagner is…

…one of the most influential composers in music history. A megalomaniac. A socialist, a cultivator of the nobility, anarchist, visionary, wanted man, writer, philosopher, and one of the most creative people the world has known. A man whose works provoke rage or adoration, but seldom boredom. A notorious anti-Semite. A writer of theoretical works that contradict each other. A revolutionary of music theater. And, to use modern terms, a networker and self-promoter who forced himself and his art onto a world that didn't want it - but one that is grateful for that now.