It started with a dream: 100 years of the Bayreuth Festival | Music | DW | 25.07.2011

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It started with a dream: 100 years of the Bayreuth Festival

Alongside the Salzburg Festival, Germany's Bayreuth Festival is generally regarded by critics as one of the world's most important music events. July 25th, 2011 marks the opening of the 100th edition of the event.

A 19th century drawing depicts guests milling about during an intermission in Bayreuth

A 19th century drawing depicts guests milling about during an intermission in Bayreuth

Richard Wagner, the renowned librettist, composer and conductor, wanted to open an opera house precisely as he saw it in his imagination.

In April 1871, together with his wife Cosima, Wagner visited the idyllic Bavarian town of Bayreuth, in Bavaria, where his patron King Ludwig II ruled. Wagner was so taken with the secluded township that he decided Bayreuth was the place to bring his dream to life.

The foundation stone for the festival house was laid in 1872. Four years later, the curtain rose on the debut Bayreuth Festival, which included the first complete performance of Wagner's opera cycle, "The Ring of the Nibelung."

However, the first Bayreuth Festival was a financial disaster and a bitter artistic disappointment. "People, create new things!" was Wagner's rallying cry to his contemporaries and advice he adhered to himself as he composed his final work, "Parsifal."

Things improved during the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. Consisting of several performances of "Parsifal," the event was an enormous success. Richard Wagner died on January 13th, 1883 in Venice.

Carrying on

A portrait of Cosima Wagner

Cosima Wagner led the festival with adherence to Richard Wagner's vision

After his death, Wagner's widow Cosima, a daughter of Franz Liszt, took over creative control of the Bayreuth Festival. The event took place irregularly in the ensuing years, introducing "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," "Tannhäuser," "Lohengrin" and "The Flying Dutchman" to the Bayreuth stage, partly under Cosima's own direction. The staging, set design, casting and vocal technique all had to pass Cosima's scrutiny, a woman who energetically applied herself to maintaining the standards her husband had set. She avoided change; events on the so-called Grüner Hügel ("Green Hill") became ritualized, at times taking on almost cultlike dimensions.

During Cosima Wagner's tenure, the artists and intellectuals around her confessed to holding strongly nationalistic views with a streak of anti-semitism running through their ideology. In part, they took their cues from an unmistakably racist tirade Wagner published in his pamphlet, "Judaism in Music." The newspaper Bayreuther Blätter contributed to making these extreme viewpoints socially acceptable.

The only son

A portrait of Siegfried Wagner

Siegfried Wagner tentatively introduced fresh elements to the festival

Even before their marriage, Richard and Cosima Wagner had three children with the only son being Siegfried. Well-traveled, cosmopolitan and cultured, Siegfried composed music and worked as a conductor. After Cosima relinquished the creative directorship of the Bayreuth Festival, there was little doubt about who would step into the role.

Siegfried brought fresh new ideas to staging and design to the festival and ensured its survival in the upheaval during and after World War I. In 1915, he married the then 17-year-old Winifred Williams.

Nazi ties

Cosima Wagner died in 1930, followed just a few months later by her son Siegfried.

Proving herself a tough and shrewd businesswoman, his widow Winifred took over creative control of the Bayreuth Festival. Winifred was a fanatical follower of Richard Wagner - and also of Adolf Hitler. In 1923, a decade before his rise to the highest ranks of German politics, Hitler visited Bayreuth. There, he felt a social and ideological kinship with Winifred Wagner, who became one of his closest friends.

Winifred Wagner

Winifred Wagner, pictured here with her daughters, was friends with the Nazi dictator

Winifred's friendship with the Nazi leader helped ensure the continuation of the Bayreuth Festival. During the first years of the National Socialist regime, Hitler was a frequent guest at Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth, the home of Richard Wagner and his offspring.

In the final festivals of the war years, only one work was presented in Bayreuth, the comedy "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." Audiences consisted mainly of invited dignataries and wounded soldiers who were reassured of the healing properties of Wagner's music.

Changing tides

Wieland Wagner (r) with the German singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Wieland Wagner (r) with the German singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1961

The Bayreuth Festival Theater escaped damage during the carnage of World War II. And it didn't take long after the end of the war for Wagnerians to try and resurrect the event tainted by its ties to Nazi ideology.

1951 brought the so-called New Bayreuth era under the direction of Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, the grandsons of Richard Wagner. The former art student Wieland introduced a simple, stark directorial style, elevating the works to a mythological level.

His brother Wolfgang, at one time a student of theatre and musicology, took care of business affairs and organizational matters. As the festival entered a new era, it once more began to attract the best conductors and soloists to Bayreuth. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, German conductor Peter Schneider said:

"This feeling that the giants of our craft have appeared here - Toscanini, Richard Strauss, Fürtwängler, Knappertsbusch and Böhm - creates an enormous sense of power and, of course, of responsibility. And indeed also a sense of nervousness that one has much to live up to."

Wolfgang Wagner

Wolfgang Wagner headed the festival for four decades

Wieland Wagner died suddenly in 1966, at which point the directorship passed on to Wolfgang, who remained at the helm of the festival for the next 42 years. A hands-on director, he had a say in everything from lighting to casting, staged works himself and also invited some of the most creative directors to work in Bayreuth.

In 1976 - a century after the foundation of the Bayreuth Festival - the Ring tetralogy was directed by Patrice Chereau. His decision to set the opera in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century attracted sharp criticism from traditionalists, but time has been kinder to the production. In the same year that Chereau caused a scandal in Bayreuth, Wolfgang and his wife Ellen divorced, and he married his colleague, Gudrun Mack.

The fourth generation

In 1973, the family house along with the festival theater were combined into a trust, whose trustees decide who will be named festival director. Precisely this question caused a rift in the Wagner family and much commotion in the press starting around 1995, amid criticism that the Bayreuth Festival was experiencing creative stagnation.

"We're not a film factory. I can't produce something sensational every year," was Wolfgang Wagner's response.

Wolfgang Wagner passed on control of the festival to his two daughters Katharina and Eva in 2008 before his death in 2010.

Katharina Wagner (l) and her sister Eva Wagner- Pasquier (r)

The fourth Wagner generation: Katharina Wagner (l) and her sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier (r)

The Bayreuth Festival - now led by the fourth generation of the Wagner dynasty - has begun to embrace the digital world: podcasts, live streams and free public viewings have emerged, bringing a fresh approach to Bayreuth.

However, the real test of the sisters' creative approach will likely come in 2013 - the 200th anniversary of founding father Richard Wagner's birth - when they will stage a new production of "The Ring of the Nibelung" together with three early works by the composer.

Text: Rick Fulker (gb)
Editor: Greg Wiser

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