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'Mastersingers' give the downbeat in Bayreuth

Rick Fulker
July 21, 2017

The world's most prestigious opera festival starts on July 25, with the present-day Wagner family notably quiet but fresh insights into Richard Wagner's problematic stance towards Jews expected both on and offstage.

Wagner figures in Bayreuth
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Hase

Last year's red-carpet rollout on festival opening day was canceled following terror attacks in three German cities in the days and weeks preceding. This year, marking the 106th season of the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, extensive security measures have been announced as well. The festive motorcade is scheduled to go ahead on July 25, with the list of prominent guests headed by Sweden's royal couple, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia, and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, a regular guest.

Nearly as predictable as the trumpet fanfares before each act are the public quarrels that erupt between branches of Richard Wagner's descendents in the run-up to the Bayreuth Festival. This year, however, all has been quiet on the Wagner front. A spirit of cooperation has even blossomed between Nike Wagner and her siblings, the children of Richard Wagner's grandson Wieland Wagner, and festival director Katharina Wagner, the daughter of his other grandson Wolfgang.

Angela Merkel at teh Bayreuth Festival
Angela Merkel is seldom absent from the roster of guests, and sometimes she'll even unassumingly wear the same gown as in previous yearsImage: picture-alliance/Eventpress

The occasion is the 100th anniversary of Wieland Wagner's birth. The birthday fell on January 5, but to celebrate the memory of one of the 20th century's most influential stage directors, a festive event is held in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on July 24.

Read: 9 myths about Wagner and Bayreuth

For those sensitive to the mores of this festival, it marks a jaw-dropping departure from historical precedent. Although this theater has only extremely rarely seen performances of music by composers other than Wagner, this program includes compositions by Giuseppe Verdi and Alban Berg. The program was designed by Nike Wagner, the current director of the Beethovenfest in Bonn. Despite the public perception of an intractable family feud going back over half a century, "It's not as though we've always been at loggerheads," she revealed to DW.

Wieland Wagner will also be remembered at a special exhibition in Wahnfried, once Richard Wagner's private residence and now a museum, and in symposia from August 3-5.

Bayreuther Festspiele 2016 Parsifal
Last season's "Parsifal" production featured women wearking burqas - and those seemingly wearing nothingImage: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

The Wagner merry-go-round

On opening day, the eyes and ears of the 1,974-member audience occuping the unupholstered seats in the Festspielhaus will be trained on the new production of Richard Wagner's only comedy, "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" - also followed by radio listeners worldwide and those viewing the slightly delayed transmissions to movie theaters in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The work will be interpreted by Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan and Australian stage director Barrie Kosky. By his own admission, the feted director approached this problematic work by Wagner with considerable trepidation - and Kosky's Jewish faith is said to play a role in his view of the work.

Read: Rediscovered films show a 'friendly' Hitler in Bayreuth

With its celebration of "holy German art" and a supposed Jewish caricature as a central character who gets his come-uppance in the course of the story, the "Mastersingers" was a showcase of Nazi propaganda and the only work by Wagner on the festival program in the latter years of World War II. Kosky is said to thematicize these issues in the new production.

Also on the playbill are the 2016 version of "Parsifal" as staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen; "Tristan and Isolde" from the previous year with staging by Katharina Wagner and musical direction by Christian Thielemann; and the rendition of the four-opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung" introduced in 2013, directed by Frank Castorf and conducted by Marek Janowksi.

Book on the history of the Bayreuth Festival by Oswald Georg Bauer
Each season sees new publications on Bayreuth and Wagner. After last year's festival history (pictured), new releases on Wieland Wagner are announced this timeImage: Deutscher Kunstverlag

Wall-to-wall Wagner

The small, out of the way city in northern Bavaria offers little to distract visitors from Richard Wagner and his works - which was the composer's express intention when he first staged his festival there in 1876.

But beyond the Festspielhaus - also of Wagner's own design - another site that will see its share of visitor traffic this year is the Wagner Museum at Wahnfried. Apart from the symposia on Wieland Wagner there, visitors can take in lectures and panel discussions on July 28 and 29, including an examination of Wagner in the Third Reich. Under the heading "Discourse Bayreuth," the symposia are to be a yearly feature in Bayreuth.

Read: 11 things to know about Wagner and Bayreuth

Continuing a yearly tradition of children's operas initiated in 2009, this year's presentation of "Tannhäuser" is rendered in a version for children ages 4 to 12. The roles in this scaled-back and happy-ending version of Wagner's romantic opera are sung by vocalists also to be seen and heard on the big stage of the Festspielhaus.

Preparatory lectures on the individual Wagner works by Wahnfried museum director Sven Friedrich keep ears trained on Wagner - as do masterclasses in vocal performance and conducting given by American tenor Stephen Gould and Thomas Lausmann, head of music at the Vienna State Opera.

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