Bayreuth festival draws to a close, rings the changes | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 28.08.2009
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Bayreuth festival draws to a close, rings the changes

The world's most famous opera festival, the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, ends Friday. This year marked a new departure for the traditional event - are its troubles now behind it?

Irene Theorin in the role of Isolde and singer Robert Dean Smith as Tristan during a rehearsal of the opera Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner

In Bayreuth, it's a tug-of-war between old and new

The mystique of Bayreuth appears to have survived undented the new era just beginning under the co-direction of Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, and the event's popularity shows no sign of waning. This year saw 50,000 tickets to the festival sold and eight times that many requested - from fans willing to spend up to ten years on waiting lists.

Visitors flock to the south-eastern German town to experience Bayreuth's legendary tradition - a tradition jeopardized in recent years as infighting between Richard Wagner's descendents over control of the festival reached a climax. Last year, long-time director Wolfgang Wagner - who turns 90 on Aug. 30 - finally stepped down after over 50 years at the helm, and cleared the way for the younger generation.

No sooner had the board ruled that Eva and Katharina, Wolfgang's daughters from different marriages, should both be given a seven-year contract to direct the festival, calm appeared to be restored. The current season was steeped in a palpable sense of relief that the eight-year tug of war over the succession issue is finally over.

But in the storm of controversy swirling around the event, the Green Hill itself has always been the eye of the hurricane, said conductor Sebastian Weigle:

"I must say it's very calm and professional," he added. "These two ladies are unbelievably nice; they try to work together and share the responsibilities. I have an extremely good feeling."

Singer Adrian Eroed agrees. "The singers, the chorus, everyone is there, like in a big family, and you don't have the impression that it's something very big until you see the stage and the audience; then you realize, we're in Bayreuth!" he said.

Not everything goes over well

A scene from The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

Audiences don't come to Bayreuth to see avant-garde opera

Nonetheless, boos for the stage director are a tradition in Bayreuth, even - or particularly - if that director has the name Wagner.

Despite the sense of novelty surrounding this year's festival, there were no new productions in the 2009 season. It was perhaps just as well, as the more reactionary members of the audience are still struggling to come to terms with Katharina Wagner's controversial staging of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," which she premiered in 2007 and revived this year.

The irreverent modern-dress staging features an opera production team incinerated in a metal bin and a graffiti artist who morphs into an antiseptically clean TV casting show star. The character of Hans Sachs is portrayed as a demagogue from Germany's past, while an invisible crowd on the darkened stage forcefully intones a glaring ode to "holy German art."

Traditionally, Bayreuth is no place for experimentation, so Katharina Wagner's direction is not to everyone's taste. But she says her message is a serious one:

"That is what happened to this piece, to Bayreuth, in the Third Reich, and I have to show that," she said. "It's my responsibility to talk about that."

Innovations on stage

Children at the opera

The kids' program was a resounding success

Meanwhile, a minor sensation took place on a side-stage: a production of "The Flying Dutchman" for Wagnerians-to-be, aged six to ten. The show was a success, said Bayreuth Media Inc. manager Alexander Buesche, who adapted the story for children:

"I get lots of e-mails, the sponsors are happy, and people come up to me and say if you need any help we will find some money," he said.

The Wagner for Children program was just one of the many innovations apparent in Bayreuth under its new management, from live streaming to public viewings. And there are even more ambitious plans for the future.

In 2013, the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth, there will not only be a new production of the four-opera "Ring" cycle, but also a staging of Wagner's three early works, not in the Festspielhaus itself but in a different Bayreuth theater. New stagings of "Lohengrin," "Tannhaeuser" and "The Flying Dutchman" have been announced for 2010, 2011 and 2012. The conductors will include new faces in Bayreuth: Andris Nelsons and Thomas Hengelbrock, while the "Ring" in 2013 will be conducted by Kyrill Petrenko.

But not all the festival visitors welcome the changes.

"I just want to listen to the music and the concept of the opera," said audience-member George Rollinson: "I think (they) should be careful not to reconstruct something when there is not a great deal wrong with what it is right at the moment. Just leave it alone!"

Lifelong Wagnerian William Fulton, on the other hand, said he's "all for demystifying opera's reputation of inaccessibility and making the performances more open."

Ticket prices to rise

Wolfgang Wagner

Wolfgang Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, is turning 90

That's certainly the plan. The festival has finally arrived in the 21st century in terms of its artistic agenda, and it also has a different, more contemporary business structure. In the past, there was a single head of Bayreuth Festival, Inc. Now there are four, three of which are public entities.

Just before the season began, overworked and underpaid stage hands threatened to strike - a shock development at a festival which has long relied on devotion and sacrifice to the cause. This era, at least, has probably come to an end, so in one respect at least, there are clouds on the horizon.

Earlier this week, management announced that ticket prices would be raised next year as a consequence of the strike.

Author: Rick Fulker (jp)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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