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The Wagner festival: Why it is mythical

Gaby Reucher
July 29, 2021

Wagner fans go to great lengths to attend the Bayreuth event. The composer himself contributed to building the myth surrounding his opera festival.

Bayreuther Festspiele 2021 I Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Image: Enrico Nawrath

As the saying goes — some countries have royal houses, Germany has Bayreuth.

The rich, the beautiful and the famous meet at the annual Richard Wagner Festival for all the latest gossip, and it all literally takes place behind the scenes.

Even before the first note has sounded and the lights are dimmed in the auditorium, the person sitting next to you has likely told you which singers are having problems with their voices or who couldn't make it in time because of coronavirus restrictions.

High-ranking politicians make a point of being seen at the festival in the Bavarian town. Performing in Bayreuth is an honor for many singers, conductors and theater directors.

That's why top-class productions feature most importantly in the Festspielhaus auditorium, completed by the opera composer Richard Wagner himself in 1876.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, at the 2021 opera event Image: Daniel Karmann/dpa/picture alliance

The productions are most likely the main reason why thousands of people will go to great lengths every year to experience the myth of Richard Wagner's music dramas first-hand in Bayreuth.

Last-minute options due to COVID

"I just tried to get tickets online and it worked right away," said Silvie and Jeff, still incredulous. The French couple had never been to Bayreuth before and interrupted their vacation in Corsica just to come to the festival.

It was also the first time for Julio Correa Berger from Argentina.

The coronavirus pandemic freed up tickets: Many foreign guests canceled their visit due to the difficult pandemic situation, which led to an online sale of returned tickets.

Portrait Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner, visionary and egomaniacImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Ever since he was 16 years old, Berger has been enthralled by Wagner's music. He has heard all of the operas in concert halls around the world, the only place still missing was Bayreuth.

Aged 76 and seriously ill, Berger said a visit to Wagner's own music theater was at the top of his bucket list. "I am overjoyed. Everything here is so authentic, so German," he said during the intermission of Barrie Kosky's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Master Singers of Nuremberg) production.

'Powerful aesthetic experience'

Usually, people need to make reservations for tickets in Bayreuth long in advance, often waiting for years before they actually get one.

It took Moritz four years. The 28-year-old from Saxony was introduced to Wagner by his grandfather. "For me, this mystique is a mixture of the music and the venue, combined with my childhood memories of my grandpa," he told DW.

His friend Franziska was looking forward to the festive event, too. "I'm just impressed how Wagner was able to build such a festival hall and that it's still like it used to be."

Getting there, getting tickets, choosing clothes, even reading the libretti — it all takes a long time of preparation, says Moritz, who listens to recordings of the opera before each concert.

Front of a house with a Wagner statuette in front of it
Visitors can take a Walk of Wagner tour to learn more about the composer Image: Gaby Reucher/DW

Sven Friedrich, director of the Richard Wagner Museum, has been studying Wagner, his life, his works and his ideology for decades. You have to work to get Wagner, he told DW. That's why Wagner built his theater in Bayreuth, he added. "After all, he wanted people to come here like pilgrims, to free themselves from their everyday lives, to take home a powerful aesthetic experience."

That experience includes the performance, and the whole mood, he said. "When young people hear Wagner for the first time, it's like a rush, like a drug that you can't and don't want to let go of." Having been involved with the subject for as long as he has, he added, he has had to create a professional distance in order not to go insane.

Wagner not only wrote and composed the libretti for his stage works, he was also a writer, at times focusing on socio-political issues or promoting his antisemitic views, attacking Jewish artists in essays.

Focusing on the music and not taking a look at Wagner's ideology is not enough to really grasp Wagner, according to Friedrich.

Wagner, wherever you go

Wagner is present throughout Bayreuth — visitors can stop by his favorite pub, the Eule, where he liked to drop in at dusk for a pint of beer, or the Steingraeber & Söhne piano factory, where Wagner had his pianos tuned. His former residence, Villa Wahnfried, now houses the Richard Wagner Museum, with Wagner's grave in the garden.

Inside the Festspielhaus, detail of wooden panelled walls
Wagner designed the opera house, reowned for its acousticsImage: Gaby Reucher/DW

The famous Festspielhaus, the concert hall built according to Wagner's designs and sound ideas, is at the center of the Bayreuth myth. The wooden seats contribute to the unique acoustics, as do the entire wooden construction and the columned fan-like wall projections on the sides of the hall.

The audience, seated on the hard seats without any leg room to speak of and decked out in what is likely to be uncomfortable evening dress and pinching heels, is doomed to suffer.

Master-Singers in the living room

Wagner aimed for a Gesamtkunstwerk, the unity of text, music, stage design and architecture under his direction in his own Festspielhaus. "By promoting himself, Wagner himself worked on his myth during his lifetime," said Friedrich.

Director Barrie Kosky took up the idea of Wagner's self-promotion in his Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by letting the opera begin in a recreated version of Wagner's living room. That is where the composer was "the general director of his fame," according to his friends.

"Wahnfried was where Wagner sang his own operas for family and friends, where his children dressed up as characters in his opera," Kosky wrote in the program booklet.

The Master Singers of Nuremberg on stage, a crowd of men in a room with shelves of books and wood paneling
A scene from The Master-Singers of NurembergImage: Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele

In Kosky's production, the Wagner character unwraps valuable gifts during the overture and plays his latest ideas on the piano for his wife Cosima and friends. Later, the Wagner character slips into the role of the cobbler and master singer Hans Sachs, who wants to help a young singer gain admission to the illustrious circle.

In real life, too, Wagner allegedly liked to compare himself to the singer and playwright Hans Sachs. "The opera justifies Wagner's claim that 'My life is a play written by me'," wrote Kosky. "It is a theater of 19th-century longing and nostalgia, in that he plays all the roles and directs."

The critics praised Kosky's production in 2019, and the audience rewarded him with endless applause again this year. The Wagner myth still lives on.

The fascinating Bayreuth Festival


This article was translated from German.

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