Three decades at the Bayreuth festival: personal account | Music | DW | 27.07.2020

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Three decades at the Bayreuth festival: personal account

A lot is to be seen and heard in 29 seasons at the Wagner festival. This year's edition called off, DW's Rick Fulker has found the time to pull up memories.

The year was 1986 – that was the year of my first visit to the Bayreuth Festival. Another 28 were to follow. How did that first visit happen? It seems that a ticket to the opera "Siegfried" was left over in DW's press package - and no one else wanted to go.

I remember the train lumbering into the station in the small city. The myth and legend of the Wagner festival was so overwhelming that I was almost expecting to see BAYREUTH in giant letters on a hill overlooking the town, like the HOLLYWOOD-sign in Los Angeles. But the city in Franconia turned out to be rather tame and small enough that you can reach most of it by foot.

Rick Fulker in Bayreuth

DW music editor Rick Fulker

In 1989, I was sent there to cover a new staging of Richard Wagner's "Festival Work for the Consecration of the Stage," the opera Parsifal. The director was Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson, the conductor James Levine.

One unforgettable moment was Waltraud Meier in the role of Kundry. From the most subtle, delicate timbres to volcanic vocal eruptions, she had it all. Added to that: an orchestral sound streaming like a force of nature out of the "mystical gulf," which is how Richard Wagner himself described the orchestra pit in his self-designed festival theater, the Festspielhaus, with its incomparable acoustic.

Read more: 8 similarities between Wagner and Rammstein

The crave for Wagner

I was hooked. Earlier, I'd shunned the emotionality of Romantic music. But now Richard Wagner's sounds entered my ear, found a receptive region in my brain and nestled in there for good. 

Wolfgang Wagner at the Bayreuther Festspiele 2008

Wolfgang Wagner at his going-away ceremony in 2008

It became what a colleague of mine sniffingly called my "yearly wallow." But it was more than just the passion in the music. Wagner's dramas provide plenty of food for thought. His stories and characters reflect universal issues in the human condition, yet are surprisingly modern and familiar.

Most friends and colleagues were skeptical of Wagner and his festival though, associating Bayreuth with the procession of celebrities on opening day. Germany's foremost society event has always been a meeting place for the rich, the beautiful and the powerful. Some people meanwhile had uncomfortable associations with Richard Wagner, his Germanness somehow inextricably entwined with the celebration of the composer during the Nazi era

For my part, I found Bayreuth to be a surprisingly friendly and relaxed place – if you go by the rules. And there were many. Who today still knows, for example, that it's a faux pas to applaud after Act One of Parsifal? Hardly anyone; the audience has changed.

Drama onstage and off

Wagner is hard work. By 1991, I was attending the first cycle of performances. That year, Deutsche Welle offered all seven operas of the season in ready-for-broadcast productions for public radio stations in the US – a total of 31 hours of programming.

That meant recording a marathon of interviews: from festival director Wolfgang Wagner – friendly and very lengthy in his Franconian accent – to Harry Kupfer and Daniel Barenboim, the director and the conductor of the then-shown production of the four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.

For my listeners, Barenboim summed up the story of the 16-hour spectacle in five minutes, relaxed and concentrated. I was to witness five more "Rings" over the years: by the stage directors Alfred Kirchner, Jürgen Flimm, Tankred Dorst and Frank Castorf, conducted by James Levine, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Christian Thielemann and Kirill Petrenko and premiering in 1994, 2000, 2006 and 2013. There was supposed to have been a new "Ring" production this season. Postponed until 2022 now – due to the pandemic.

Crunch the numbers? Better not

How many hours of Wagner music did I absorb in Bayreuth? How many liters of perspiration shed, perched on the narrow and only slightly upholstered seats in the non-air-conditioned theater in those mostly hot summers? Better not to even try to quantify these. Or afterwards, parched for liquids, imbibing a Bavarian brew, Brünnhilde's final apotheosis still ringing in the echo chamber of the head and knowing that in a couple of short hours, I'd have to up to write a report or prepare the next interview.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer seen at the 2002 edition of the festival, three years before she became chancellor

What stays in memory? Everything, actually. But early impressions being what set us off in a certain direction, I need to mention the 1993 production of Tristan and Isolde. Heiner Müller, Germany's most renowned living playwright, had come to present his first opera staging. It was a scandal. Right into the final note, an ugly chorus of boos broke out like a dam burst.

What were these people objecting to? In maybe the most radical love story of all times, the protagonists had physically avoided each other, repelling each other in fact, like two magnets pointing the same way. Actually, Müller's take on Tristan was close to Wagner's dramatic statement: that absolute love is a utopia, and death is a gateway to it.

Eggs thrown and a laser tunnel

An incident just before that premiere gave a sense of what kind of people also populated the Green Hill in those days. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to the opening of the 1993 Bayreuth Festival. Just as Wolfgang Wagner was to shake his hand in front of the Festspielhaus, eggs flew. One of them hit the former Soviet president.

Flyers flew too, mobilizing against "cultural Bolshevism" and a supposed sell-out of German cultural interests: code words and silent whistles coming from a faction they then called "Old Wagnerians." Those traditionalists and arch enemies of any kind of innovative staging have mostly died out by now. 

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg production in 201

Stage director Barrie Kosky's rendition of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" in 2017 was much-lauded

Müller's Tristan and Isolde, by the way, achieved cult status within a couple of years. As did so many other Bayreuth productions: first panned, later iconic.  

Filing through the Bayreuth department in my brain, it's the images that are pulled up first, like Lohengrin's first entrance in a swirling tunnel of lasers and mist in the staging by film director Werner Herzog. Or the fresh, colorful and quirky scenes and costumes in what came to be known as the "Designer-Ring" of 1994; one never tired of seeing the inventions of stage designer Rosalie. Or the monumental scenery in the "Ring" by Frank Castorf: from a motel on Route 66 to Mount Rushmore.

Tannhäuser Tobias Kratzer, 2019

"Tannhäuser," as interpreted by Tobias Kratzer, is certain to leave a lasting impression

Also unforgotten: the stage-filling biogas factory in the catastrophically unpopular Tannhäuser as presented in 2011 by Sebastian Baumgarten; the ghostly images in blue that artist Neo Rauch devised for Lohengrin in 2018; acrobatic singers cavorting in a submarine, an atomic bomb shelter and a waste treatment plant in the Ring production by Harry Kupfer; director Dieter Dorn's magnificent Flying Dutchman, where during the love duet, an entire house levitated from the stage, hovered and turned completely around in the air; Stefan Herheim's Parsifal of 2008, where Bayreuth itself and the history of the Wagner Festival provided the fluid imagery. Nor to forget the cluttered and chaotic scenes and barrage of projected images in Christoph Schlingensief's first opera staging, also of Parsifal, four years earlier, in 2004.

Read more: Bayreuth 2019: A very good year – even without Netrebko

Clamor and glamour onstage and off

I remember an interview with Waltraud Meier, when she told me that every bar in Richard Wagner's scores leaves so many options for interpretation open that she was almost sad to have to decide on one. Meier was one of the artists who opened the world of Wagner to me.

Then there were those years in the late Wolfgang Wagner era marked by little new onstage and bitter criticism offstage. The festival director initiated a process of determining a successor in 1998 but hung on for a full ten years longer. During those years of strife in the Wagner family, and afterwards, a number of celebrated artists turned their backs on Bayreuth.

The most recent past however, with Katharina Wagner at the helm, has seen a string of successes: The Mastersingers as staged by Barrie Kosky in 2017, Lohengrin with Neo Rauch's striking imagery in 2018 and maybe the most impressive of all: Tobias Kratzer's take on Tannhäuser, 2019.

Katharina Wagner

Katharina Wagner has headed the Wagner Festival since 2008, first along with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, later alone

With the 2020 festival called off, a series of socially-distanced, small-scale outdoor performances are being given for those who wanted to go to Bayreuth anyway – if not for the operas, then for the memories and the ambience. Television and radio in Germany are broadcasting three different classic Ring productions, so Wagner addicts can get their fix. Another ray of hope for festival friends: After a serious illness, Katharina Wagner is expected to return to work in the autumn. 

It's been quite a bit, yet I'm sad to have never witnessed a staging by Wieland Wagner or seen the "Centennial Ring" by director Patrice Chéreau; never heard Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Kirsten Flagstad or Hans Hotter live. For them, I was born too late.

Apologies for the things inevitably left out of this report. It shouldn't become a book. The last thing the world needs, in fact, is another book on Wagner and Bayreuth.

And yet… It's a tantalizing thought.

Watch video 01:00

Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth


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