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9 myths about Wagner and Bayreuth

Rick Fulker
July 25, 2016

Was Richard Wagner a Nazi and is Bayreuth the focal point of German culture? DW music expert Rick Fulker busts these and other myths surrounding the legendary Bayreuth Festival.

Bayreuther Festspiele, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

1. Richard Wagner was a Nazi.

Historically impossible; he died in 1883. But did he pave the way for the Third Reich? True, Wagner was a proven anti-Semite and German nationalist with a streak of xenophobia. But at various times in his life, he was also an anarchist, a leftist revolutionary, a European cosmopolite, a theoretician, and many other things. His writings are full of polemics, many of them contradictory. One of them is that unspeakable tirade, "Jewry in Music."

After Wagner's death - and in his name - Bayreuth did become a focal point of Nazism. Long before it became fashionable, Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred (whom he never met) and his son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain were ardent Hitler followers. The Führer himself was a welcome guest in Bayreuth - both before he came to power and afterwards.

But do Wagner's music dramas contain a seed of Nazi ideology? Some say yes, others no. In any case, that would be impossible to prove.

2. The festival is owned by the Wagner family.

Wrong again. The Richard Wagner Association has been the legal owner since 1973. Various descendants of Richard Wagner sit on the board, as do several public entities. The festival director has always been a Wagner, however, either a blood relative of Richard or married into the family.

3. Bayreuth is something like the center of German culture.

No, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is a theater, and the festival a seasonal affair. German culture is highly decentralized. But the world's most important Wagner archive is located in Bayreuth - at Wahnfried, Richard Wagner's onetime residence. On July 26, 2015, the museum housed there since 1976 reopened after extensive restoration and with expanded facilities. There are cultural events in Bayreuth outside the festival season as well - but only negligible ones compared with those in your average big city in Germany.

Richard Wagner statue, showing the composer conducting. Statue by Orlowski Ottmar Hoerl. Photo: REUTERS/Ralph
In the final analysis, he still calls the shots hereImage: Reuters

4. Most people wait years for an expensive ticket, while the chancellor and other celebrities simply get theirs from the festival organizers for free.

No. The city of Bayreuth acquires a batch of tickets and uses them to invite certain famous people. After all, there's nothing wrong with a little glamour on opening day. The city's ticket package comes in return for its financial support. Together, the city, regional, state, and federal governments fund nearly half of the festival's 16-million-euro ($17.5-million) annual budget.

5. Only operas by Richard Wagner have ever been performed in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus theater.

Not exactly. After the end of World War II, Bayreuth was occupied by American forces, and musicals for the troops were performed there for a brief time. And the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven - a composer Wagner venerated - has also resounded a number of times in Wagner's festival theater, at the festival's reopening in 1951, for instance. Other than that, it's true: In 139 years of festival history, it's been all Wagner, all the time.

6. The ticket prices are horrendous.

It depends on what is meant by "horrendous." 240 euros ($263) for a mid-priced seat is no trifle, but moderate compared to other upper-echelon festivals. Seats with a limited view are even available at a price of 25 euros ($27). Those, incidentally, are the official prices, not the black market ones - which can be as high as four digits.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. (c) dpa – Bildfunk
Chancellor Merkel, a regular to Bayreuth, dared to wear the same dress in two different seasonsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

7. The Bayreuth Festival is a place where traditions are preserved down to the final dot and comma - and a reference point for conservative Wagnerians.

Absolutely not - at least not in terms of sets and stagings. Even back in the 1920s, festival director Siegfried Wagner, the composer's son, carefully broke with stale convention. And in doing so, he enraged the true Wagnerians, who wanted to see the exact same scenes and action that Richard Wagner himself had once viewed. Siegfried's widow and successor Winifred continued a process of cautious renewal.

Stagings in the "New Bayreuth" era, beginning in 1951 under the aegis of grandson Wieland Wagner, were a radical departure that antagonized conservative Wagnerites. In over 50 years at the helm, Wieland's brother Wolfgang took a pluralistic approach, with styles and interpretations ranging from conservative to radical, and from well-mannered to provocative. Now, in the era of Wolfgang's daughter Katharina Wagner, the "Green Hill" in Bayreuth has been a hub of what Germans call Regietheater- and what Americans less kindly dub "Eurotrash": directors taking liberties with the action and often updating it, while leaving the music untouched, of course.

Meanwhile, there are few left to be scandalized. The crustiest old Wagnerians are a nearly extinct species.

8. The ticket issue, again: They are passed around covertly, and always to the same people.

Not quite. Ticket packages were once distributed to travel agencies and Wagner associations - and there used to be closed-door performances for members of trade unions. But no longer. German national budget overseers saw to that. Over 60 percent of the available tickets are now on the open market, half of them sold online. Members of the Society of Friends of the Bayreuth Festival are still given preferential treatment. But the members of this sponsorship organization are also expected to make generous contributions.

Bayreuth Festivial: Tristan und Isolde, main characters, 2005 staging by Christoph Marthaler. Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath
The stage is no longer populated by protagonists wearing horns, helmets and bear skinsImage: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

9. Wagner's music is loud and long, and onstage they bellow out arcane, antiquated stuff about heroes and gods and whatnot.

That would be taking a rather simplistic view. Sitting through five hours of "Tristan," "Parsifal" or "Twilight of the Gods," one also experiences beautiful, delicate and tender moments. And while Wagner's stories derive from Germanic myths, medieval sagas and fairy tales, the situations in them are all-too-human. These are tales about inner and outer conflicts, hate and love, loyalty and betrayal: thoroughly up-to-date and understandable. And whoever gives the music a chance may experience what Wagner meant by the "emotional understanding" of his works. But watch out: That music can be addictive!

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