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Wagner's legacy

July 24, 2010

The fanfare from the Bayreuth Festival, opening on July 25, summons an audience ranging from prominent politicians to die-hard Wagnerians. Composer Richard Wagner's legacy has magnetic power.

Visitors to the Festspielhaus
Visitors at the FestspielhausImage: AP

Apart from political and show business celebrities, the Bayreuth Festival audience includes many for whom simply being there means that a dream has come true. Christian Thielemann, the conductor of the current production of the four-opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung," told Deutsche Welle that this enthusiasm is shared by the artists as well.

"They are completely focused on these works by Wagner, and they sacrifice their summer vacations just for the privilege of being here," said Thielemann, "Nobody comes to Bayreuth who doesn't truly want to."

Held this year for the 99th time, the Bayreuth Festival continues to fascinate and intrigue: It is the high point of the festival summer in Germany, the world's most prestigious opera festival, a Mecca for Wagnerians, a mega-event.

It began with a dream

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner: a small man with big ambitionsImage: dpa

The festival opens with a new production of Richard Wagner's romantic opera "Lohengrin," marking the Bayreuth debuts of stage director Hans Neuenfels and conductor Andris Nelsons. This season's line-up also includes recent productions of "Parsifal," "The Mastersingers of Nuremburg" and the tetralogy "The Ring of the Nibelung."

"Richard Wagner writes operas for a theater that doesn't exist," a contemporary of the composer once noted. Rather than bowing to reality, Wagner achieved his dream of a festival theater of his own design. It was to be provisional, yet set standards for the future. The opposite happened instead: Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus still stands and remains unique.

"I think it was a clever idea for Wagner not to place his Festspielhaus in Munich but in a small town in a beautiful countryside, here in Bayreuth, where there are no distractions," said Tankred Dorst, the stage director of the current "Ring" production in Bayreuth. "You always see people walking around with their nose buried in a libretto."

The magic Green Hill

Bayreuth, population 72,000, is in Upper Franconia in the state of Bavaria, not far from Nuremberg. The Festspielhaus is located just outside the city, a short drive up the so-called "Green Hill." That drive is a ritual that has been performed countless times by Wagnerians, opera heavyweights and amateur spectators alike.

"This 'Green Hill' is of course a very special location, and not only for artistic reasons," said 84-year-old Dorst, "It has a mythological dimension itself that belongs to German history - the good, and even more so, the bad parts. When I drive up the hill to rehearsals in the morning, it reminds me of that time in German history when Wagner and his works played a different role, during the Nazi regime."

Bayreuth's Festspielhaus in 1897
Bayreuth's Festspielhaus, pictured in 1897Image: ullstein bild - histopics

The composer had died half a century before the Nazis came to power in the 1930's. Festival director Winifred Wagner was a member of the Nazi party and a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. Since the founding of the Bayreuth Festival in 1876, it has been led exclusively by members of the Wagner family. Richard was followed by his widow Cosima, son Siegfried, daughter-in-law Winifred, grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang and now, since 2008, great-granddaughters Eva and Katharina.

No other festival can boast a comparable dynastic tradition. "The history of this family itself is almost like a Shakespearean drama," said Juergen Flimm, stage director of "The Ring" from 2000 to 2005.

Described by German author Thomas Mann as "probably the greatest artistic talent in human history," Richard Wagner continues to have a polarizing effect on people. Whether the Festspielhaus audience applauds or boos doesn't necessarily depend on high expectations or performance quality.

"People in Bayreuth tend to go slightly ballistic, which is very interesting and sometimes rather alarming," said Flimm. "This is, after all, a theater, and what occurs onstage is strongly subjective. You might respond by saying, 'That's different - I don't like that,' but not 'That's wrong!' In art, there is no such thing as right or wrong."

Man and myth

"In his gods, man paints a picture of himself," observed German author Friedrich Schiller. Richard Wagner understood the meaning of myth as a reflection of human qualities on a meta-level. His sources of inspiration included Greek mythology and literature, where the gods are equipped with human weaknesses and failings.

German author Tankred Dorst
German author and director Tankred Dorst has also written complex epic dramasImage: AP

In his own stories, Wagner lent human attributes to Germanic gods like Wotan, Fricka and Loge. He made tales and myths of the Holy Grail comprehensible through character development - adding the sensuous, emotional quality of music.

Wagner's music dramas are complex, multi-layered and lengthy. Understanding and appreciating them requires repeated exposure to the plot and the music.

Over time, Wagner and his works themselves have become cult. The opening of the festival to modern mass media in recent years, with public viewing, internet streaming and podcasts from the Festspielhaus, hasn't reduced public interest in the festival.

Opening day on July 25, with the familiar ritual of celebrities, security personnel and spectators, will be followed by 29 additional performances, concluding on August 28.

Author: Rick Fulker

Editor: Kate Bowen

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