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What to expect at the 2021 Bayreuth Festival

Anastassia Boutsko
June 17, 2021

In just shy of five weeks, Richard Wagner's famed festival takes off. Expectations are high, but the pandemic continues to cause uncertainty.

Richard Wagner opera house in Bayreuth, pink building with flower beds in the park in front of it
The famed opera house in BayreuthImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Merz

One thing is clear: the 2021 Richard Wagner Festival will take place. In keeping with tradition, it will start on July 25. 

In 2020, the annual music festival that presents operas by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But will there be an in-person audience? What are the logistics involved to stage Wagner's monumental works, with their giant apparatus of soloists, chorus and orchestra, in a safe way?

Angela Merkel gets out of a black car
The Chancellor arrives for the 2019 festival Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Karmann

Even up on the Green Hill — the site of the opera house — those details were still unclear as of mid-June 2021, but there is no doubt the festival will be different from what it was before the pandemic.

Premiere, but no red carpet

This year's Bayreuth Festival might be German Chancellor Angela Merkel's last grand social appearance, but there will be no red carpet. It would simply not be appropriate in the current situation, said Benedikt Stegmayer, the city's Culture and Tourism Officer.

Experts are still busy developing a hygiene concept for the festival that should guarantee the smooth running of the event, according to the festival management.

It is too soon to say how many of the 1,937 seats in the legendary Festspielhaus can be filled — alternatives range from the "worst case" scenario, a performance with no audience at all, to a roughly 50% checkerboard placement, which would allow about 900 Wagnerians to enjoy an in-person experience.

The final decision will be made depending on the pandemic situation in early July.

Individual niches set up for rehearsals for musicians/singers
Stay safe: rehearsal compartments at Bayreuth Image: Bayreuther Festspiele

The festival opens on the last Sunday in July with a premiere, The Flying Dutchman.

The opera by the young Richard Wagner will be staged by Russian star director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Internationally recognized as a Wagner expert, Tcherniakov revolutionized the Russian opera scene.

"This composer and his works are absolutely different from all others," Tcherniakov told DW. "To stage a Wagner, you have to experience a kind of psychosis, a nervous breakdown. Only when you sacrifice your blood, your flesh on his altar, is an approach possible."

Latvian-Armenian soprano Asmik Grigorian sings the role of Senta, a singer with depth and charisma who has already been celebrated at the Salzburg Festival.

Oksana Lyniv, the first woman director

The public is bound to have an eye out for Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv, the first woman to take the podium at the festival.

"Richard Wagner wrote supporting, plot-driving roles for women in his operas. He actually portrayed them in an extremely emancipated way," Lyniv said. "That's why I think he would also be proud that now, almost 140 years after his death, a woman is bringing his wonderful music to life on the podium for the first time."

Oksana Lyniv and Dmitri Tcherniakov
Oksana Lyniv and Dmitri TcherniakovImage: Privat

The program includes revivals of Tannhäuser staged by Tobias Kratzer and conducted by Axel Kober, as well as the celebrated Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Philippe Jordan.

A total of 23 opera performances and two concerts (with star conductor Andris Nelsons) are scheduled at the Festspielhaus through the end of August.

Everyone involved must adhere to the strict hygiene rules and undergo compulsory testing. In the large ensemble scenes, the chorus will not be on stage, but will be heard from individual rehearsal rooms.

Puppet show, installation, multimedia

The pandemic has hit one person particularly hard, and that is Valentin Schwarz.

The young German director's production of Wagner's key work, the Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy, has been postponed by two years and will probably not be heard on the Green Hill until 2022.

As a precursor to the new Ring, one of the four operas, Die Walküre, will be performed in a semi-concert setting in 2021.

While the musical part will be created by the new Ring ensemble under conductor Pietari Inkinen, Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch will accompany Wagner's music by painting on stage. "It's not that I'm setting up a production to match the 'Valkyrie,'" Nitsch said, adding his painting event probably will indirectly conform to the colorful, broadly expansive music of Richard Wagner.

Born in Vienna in 1938, Nitsch is considered the patriarch of Actionism, his specialty being the Orgiastic Mystery Theater.

Hermann Nitsch
Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch Image: Hans Klaus Techt/dpa/APA/picture alliance

The Walküre performances are framed by commissioned works in various artistic genres, which, according to Katharina Wagner's idea, "mirror, comment on, continue or make it possible to experience all parts of Ring des Nibelungen in a new way."

Rheingold is staged as a puppet show by the young Austrian Nikolaus Habjan, and a new musical interpretation by Gordon Kampe, while Jay Scheib takes a multimedia approach to Siegfried, and the Japanese Chiharu Shiota presents a Götterdämmerung installation.

Strengthened by the crisis?

The Bayreuth Festival has survived many periods of crisis.

Richard Wagner's daring project to stage a festival featuring nothing but his own works went bankrupt right after its first run in 1876 and was not revived until 1882.

The two World Wars and the international economic crisis of the 1930s also resulted in several cancellations: Between 1882 and 1944, the festival was called off 16 times.

Katharina Wagner
Festival director Katharina Wagner is the great-granddaughter of the legendary composerImage: Nicolas Armer/picture-alliance/dpa

This year "everyone will have the opportunity to feel they are young Siegfried and experience an encounter with a dragon," Katharina Wagner said.

Perhaps the dragon analogy refers to the battle against the pandemic.

Ideally, people emerge from a crisis stronger and wiser — like the legendary Germanic hero and dragonslayer, Siegfried.


This article was translated from German