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Bayreuth Festspielhaus
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Merz

What to expect at the Bayreuth Festival

Rick Fulker
July 25, 2019

The festival steeped in tradition has announced generational change: In 2020, the "Ring" will be produced by an extremely young team. This year's staging of "Tannhäuser" is predicted to be opulent — and amusing.


The Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth kicks off on July 25 with a new production of Wagner's opera Tannhäuser. 

But a day before the premiere, plans for 2020 were already in the spotlight. Festival director Katharina Wagner gave the long-awaited announcement of the production team for next year's Ring of the Nibelung: The four-opera cycle is to be staged by Austrian director Valentin Schwarz, who turns 30 this year, and the conductor, Pietari Inkinen from Finland, is only nine years older.

The announcement came as a surprise. With a touch of irony, Wagner thanked the assembled press for the many suggestions they'd volunteered as to who should undertake the mammoth project — and observed dryly that those two names hadn't come up yet.

Read more: We found some things in common between Wagner and Rammstein.

Valentin Schwarz won the Ring Award 2017, an international stage directors' competition. He has staged Mozart's Così fan tutte at the Theater an der Wien and Maurizio Kagel's Mare Nostrum at the Cologne Opera but has otherwise worked mainly in medium-sized cities like Karlsruhe, Cottbus, Graz and Montpellier — and has not tackled a Wagner opera thus far. 

Neither is Pietari Inkinen widely known, having been the principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Symphony, the Orchestra of the Ludwigsburg Castle Concerts and the German Radio Philharmonic of Saarbrücken and Kaiserslautern — none of them Class A orchestras.

Joachim Sauer and Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel is usually joined at the festival by her husband, Joachim Sauer, who otherwise only extremely rarely makes public appearancesImage: picture alliance/dpa/T. Hase

Maestro fatigue?

"There is only one star in Bayreuth, and his name is Richard Wagner": That declaration by Wolfgang Wagner is still quoted today. To mark the 100th anniversary of the former festival director's birth, a commemorative event took place the evening before the festival opening.

Read more: Debunking the myths about the Wagner Festival.

That doesn't mean that big names are banned from the "Green Hill" however. Two of them this year come from Russia: the conductor Valery Gergiev and the soprano Anna Netrebko. While the latter will arrive in Bayreuth a couple of weeks later to sing the role of Elsa in Lohengrin, Gergiev springs into action on opening day, conducting Tannhäuser.

Gergiev is renowned for keeping everyone in suspense, showing up hours late to rehearsals — or not showing up at all, which is why journalists asked at the press conference: Did the maestro come to all the rehearsals? The festival director's answer was something of another surprise: "Yes, he appeared for all the contractually appointed rehearsal dates, although he came late twice."

An exciting, funny Tannhäuser

With all the talk about names, roles and teams, it was almost overlooked that this year's festival begins with a new production. "Exciting" and "at times even witty" is how Katharina Wagner describes the staging of Tannhäuser by Tobias Kratzer, who is expected to integrate the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and moments from the long history of the festival founded in 1876 into his mise-en-scene and action.

In sheer physical terms, it is expected to be one of the most elaborate productions ever in Bayreuth: 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) of material have been used to make costumes, 600 of them for the choristers alone.

"Richard Wagner had contradictory approaches to life," explained Kratzer. "On one hand, he was an anarchist and participated in a political revolution. On the other, he wanted to canonize his works and institutionalize them. This contradiction is expressed most clearly in his opera Tannhäuser." The story is in fact about an artist who goes against the grain and violates social norms and yet longs for home, community and love.

Yearly rituals — and deviating from them

The pre-season got off to a bad start with a mishap during rehearsals, leading the injured Russian soprano Ekaterina Gubanova to pass on the role of Venus to her countryperson Elena Zhidkova. Whether Gubanova will perform before the end of the season is unknown.

Man holds a spear in the shape of a lightning bolt before a pale blue backdrop
Neo Rauch's subdued and aesthetically pleasing stage set is one of the main attractions in "Lohengrin"Image: Bayreuther Festspiele/E.Nawrath

Besides Tannhäuser, another four operas from already familiar productions are on the 2019 playbill: Lohengrin, in which the American stage director Yuval Sharon works on sets created by the artist Neo Rauch; Christian Thielemann is the musical director. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, as directed by Barrie Kosky, is currently the most wildly celebrated production in Bayreuth; the conductor here is Philippe Jordan. Parsifal(staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg and conducted by Semyon Bychkov) and Tristan and Isolde (stage direction: Katharina Wagner, conductor: Christian Thielemann) round out the program.

Yearly rituals in the 10-year-old era of Katharina Wagner include the live transmission of the performance on opening day to about 100 movie theaters in German-speaking countries.

Another tradition is opera for children: This time, The Mastersingers are being offered in a version for opera-goers aged 6 to 12.

For the somewhat more mature, the festival hosts masterclasses in conducting and singing, while the off-stage "Discourse Bayreuth" offers discussion panels and a play about Siegfried Wagner, the onetime festival director and son of the composer and festival founder Richard Wagner.

Siegfried's son Wolfgang and his 57-year tenure as festival director are being documented in an exhibition at the Wagner Museum in House Wahnfried.

Man wearing a grotesque mask parades onstage
Barrie Kosky's take on the "Mastersingers" is highly celebratedImage: Bayreuther Festspiele/E. Nawrath

With very few exceptions, only works by Richard Wagner have been performed in the 143-year history of the Bayreuth Festival. One of those exceptions is a work Wagner adored: Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which has been performed in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on special occasions.

To mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in 2020, the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra will wrap up next year's season with a performance of the "Ninth" — and then move on to Bonn for a repeat performance at the Beethovenfest — at the suggestion of that festival's director, Nike Wagner, a cousin of Katharina Wagner.

The latter revealed another tidbit in the run-up to the season: in 2021 a woman will conduct in Bayreuth for the first time in festival history. The Flying Dutchman is the work that will be turned over to a maestra. Who she is, Wagner declined to reveal at this point: "After all, I want you to come back next year."

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