A Return Visit to Bayreuth!

Gentle Readers:

Over the past 10 months, TheCulturedTraveler has presented fresh content for every blog entry. However – and for the 1st time ever – I’m reblogging and updating a post from last November in honor of the start of the Bayreuth Festival in the little town of Bayreuth, Germany. In less than 2 hours from the publication of this post, the 2016 season will be underway.

Of course, what would a Bayreuth Festival be without some gossip and lots of controversy and, of course, this season is no exception. Each year, the Festival presents one new production. This year, it’s the Meister’s ultimate work, Parsifal, which is replacing a landmark production by Stefan Herbeim, retired in 2012. This year’s production was to have been conducted by Andris Nelsons but, less than 4 weeks before the premiere performance, which starts this afternoon at 4:00 PM Bayreuth time, he abruptly walked out of the production and out of Bayreuth.

Read about it here:

New York Times
And something a little more dishy here:
Slipped Disc
 
So I hope you enjoy our little trip down Bayreuth’s memory lane. Here goes:
There is a opera house in Bayreuth (pronounced bye-roit) Germany, which was built between 1872 – 75 for the express purpose of presenting Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ring, Wagner spent over 20 years composing these 4 operas or, more specifically, a Prologue (Das Rheingold) with 3 operas to follow (Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). If nothing else, the audacity of an artist creating an entirely new style of music and operatic presentation spread over 4 evenings (and 15+ hours) has to be respected. This grand work would be presented as a Festival and, indeed his theatre is called the Festspielhaus (Festival House). The demands (and, hopefully, the rewards) of presenting the Ring placed upon the singers, orchestra, designers and, not least, the audience, would be unprecedented.

Bayreuth - R Wagner
Richard Wagner – The Meister

Why Bayreuth? Wagner wanted a location that was far away from virtually anything that would interfere with the audience’s complete concentration on and attention to his Ring. Additionally, he needed a huge stage on which to present the operas. There is another opera house in Bayreuth that Wagner thought might work, as the stage was unusually deep. However, when Wagner saw the opera house, he thought it was too rococo for him and the Ring. He wanted something much simpler that, again, would not distract his audience from what he had called his Gesamtkunstwerk, defined by Webster as “an art work produced by a synthesis of various art forms (such as music and drama)”.

Bayreuth - the Other Opera House
The other opera house – too rococo??

And another challenge that continues to this day: Bayreuth is not easy to get to (unless you live somewhere in Europe and like to drive). The first time I attended the Festival, I was able to fly from New York to Frankfurt and then fly on a “puddle-hopper” to Bayreuth. Nowadays, you’d need a private plane to fly into Bayreuth, which, in the alternative, leaves you with a 4+ hour train ride from Frankfurt (with a change of train in Nuremberg). Or you could fly from Frankfurt to Nuremberg and then train it to Bayreuth. Any way you slice it, it’s a LONG trip!

Bayreuth Map
Getting to Bayreuth

In order to get his theatre built, Wagner finagled the funds from mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was entirely under Wagner’s spell ever since he had seen a performance of Lohengrin as a child. (Wagner had that effect on many people. He was, by most accounts, a specious person but, also, he was extremely seductive when he wanted something from you, and Wagner was, arguably, the most important and influential artist of the 19th century.)

Bayreuth Ludwig
King Ludwig of Bavaria

The theatre was unique when it was built and still is. Inspired by the Greek amphitheaters, the main floor is fan-shaped and has 30 rows. Behind and above are several sections (loge and balcony) and, of course, a royal box for the Swan King (Ludwig). There are 1,900 seats altogether and no boxes for the “important people”. Seating was intended to be entirely democratic.


The Festspielehaus

Bayreuth - Interior
Inside the Festspielhaus

The most unusual feature of the theatre is that the orchestra pit is famously and entirely concealed from view of the audience. Wagner intentionally designed it this way so that there would be no distractions when watching his grand works. Additionally, Wagner’s theatre was the first ever to present the operas with the house lights entirely turned off, an innovation at the time. In this way, the audience, sitting entirely in the dark, couldn’t “yoo-hoo” at friends and frenemies during the performance and had to pay attention. The beginning ofDas Rheingold with its ominous E-flat bass notes which morph into the music of the Rhine river is played in complete darkness, so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Imagine what that must have been like for audiences accustomed to a totally different experience when attending the opera. It was nothing less than revolutionary.

Bayreuth Orchestra Pit
The invisible orchestra pit

Wagner originally had the crazy idea that he would build this theatre, the Ringwould be presented and, afterwards, the theatre would be torn down. Well, that didn’t happen, did it? Wiser heads (including his own) prevailed and after the world premiere of the completed Ring in 1876, plans were immediately made for another Festival at which all of the mistakes of the first year (and there were many, many mistakes) would be corrected.

But it was another 6 years before the next Festival and, as it happened, the Ringwas not presented. Instead, it was the world premiere of Parsifal that the audience heard and which Wagner had composed with the Festspielhaus’ unique acoustic in mind. This time, Wagner had a complete triumph: the perfect opera, with the perfect cast and a perfect production (perfect, at least, for 1882). Buoyed by this success, plans were made to get the Ring back into the theatre pronto. And then, 6 months later, Wagner died in Venice.

It took several years, but the Festival was eventually resurrected by Wagner’s widow, Cosima (who, incidentally, was the daughter of Franz Liszt).

Bayreuth R Wagner Cosima Siegfried
Family Portrait: Cosima, Siegfried, Richard

Over time, certain traditions were created that continue to the present day. It was decided that, in addition to the Ring and Parsifal, only the Master’s matureworks (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde) would be presented. Without fail, the Festival would open each year on July 25th and close on August 28th. The Festival would be a workshop, at which each production would be presented for several years and, in each successive season, return to the rehearsal studio to refine, improve and rethink each opus.

After Cosima’s death, the Festival was handed over to her son, Siegfried (who, by the way, was GAY, but people didn’t talk about such things back then). Upon his premature death in 1930, the Festival was taken over (stolen??) by his widow (wait – he was MARRIED????), Winifred, who presided over the Festival for the next 14 tumultuous years.

You see, during the 1920s, she had become friends with this up and coming politician of whom she was much enamored. In fact, she was so bewitched by this charismatic young man that, or so the story goes, she provided him with the paper on which he wrote his most famous book: Mein Kampf. And that’s how Adolf Hitler – who was Richard Wagner’s #1 fan – came to be a fixture at Bayreuth through the 1930s and, finally, the 1944 Festival, after which the theatre shut down (almost for good).

Bayreuth - Hitler
Winifred, Adolf and Wagner Progeny

But wait: Siegfried and Winifred had 2 sons – Wieland and Wolfgang who, after the war (and after being denazified), were allowed to reopen the Festival in 1951. Because there was no money, and because there could be no compromises on the presentation of the music, Wieland caused another revolution by what he put on the stage which was, basically, nothing except the singers, some very simple set pieces (such as a circular platform for the presentation of the Ring) and the most effective lighting that had to that time been seen in a theatre. It caused a sensation: although the old guard was outraged at what they were (or more correctly, weren’t) seeing, there were others who were enchanted and, in fact, relieved not to be seeing all that Teutonic stuff strewn all over the stage.

I think it was a masterstroke of luck that the Festival was practically bankrupt after the war, which enabled Wieland and, to a much lesser extent, Wolfgang (who didn’t possess anywhere near the talent of his brother) to create a new style of presenting their grandfather’s work, which completely severed it from any connection to Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, Wieland was solely responsible for ushering in “Der Neue Bayreuther” or New Bayreuth.

Compare and contrast:

Bayreuth - Original Rheinmaidens
The original Rhinemaidens, 1876

Bayreuth - Chereau Rhinemaidens
Patrice Chereau’s Rhinemaidens, 1976

Since 1951 and the reopening of the postwar Festival, there have been more revolutions: the Centenary Ring in 1976, staged by the late, great Patrice Chereau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was Chereau’s concept to present the operas in Wagner’s own time (and during the Industrial Revolution) and to focus on the evils of capitalism and anti-Semitism. Chereau, who had directed only one opera before taking on the Ring, was a masterful director who had no preconceived notions about these operas and worked from the text. The singers in this production who most benefitted from working with Chereau – Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, Donald McIntyre as Wotan, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Heinz Zednik as both Loge and Mime – gave the performances of their careers and presented acting that was so natural and believable that it created a very special experience for the audience.

Bayreuth - Chereau ca 1976
Patrice Chereau, ca. 1976

Bayreuth Chereau Rheingold

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure Jones Hofmann

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure

Bayreuth Chereau Gotterdammerung
Images from the Chereau Centenary Ring, 1976

Some interesting anecdotes about these premiere performances:

The initial performance of each opera was broadcast around the world and the audience got more and more testy as each production unfolded. Now it wasn’t necessarily unusual to hear booing at the Festspielhaus at the end of a performance, but how about at the beginning of Act III of GötterdämmerungDURING THE MUSIC?? You can actually hear the opening of the act, imagine the curtain rising and, then, there it is – LOTS of boos, along with some segments of the audience “shushing” the dissenters, or were THEY the dissenters?? The production was so controversial that it’s hard to tell.

My favorite report from that premiere Ring season – perhaps apocryphal – is the story of the two grande dames – middle or late age, impeccably dressed, of some importance – who got into a bit of an altercation at the conclusion of one of the performances. What began with some pushing and shoving and lots of verbal abuse, quickly escalated when one of them decided to pull off the other’s earring, not realizing that the other dame had pierced ears. Yes, you got it: she removed not only the other dame’s earring but the earlobe as well. Yes, Wagnerites are so passionate about the Master’s works that blood will be spilled.

Fast forward to the Festival of 1980 and the retirement of Chereau’s Ring. I happened to hear the very last performance of  Götterdämmerung on a radio broadcast and what a difference 4 years makes. At the conclusion ofGötterdämmerung, the curtain calls (and cheering, no boos this time) lasted for something like NINETY minutes! Whatever it was that repelled and outraged the audience in 1976, they were now completely under the spell of a masterful and game changing production.

So, after all that, you wanna go to Bayreuth? Any opera lover worth her salt should make that pilgrimage at least once. Hold on. It’s not that easy.

Remember when I said that the theatre had 1,900 seats? Generally speaking, there are 30 performances presented each year for a total of 57,000 available seats. However, attendees to Bayreuth are not going to travel all that way to see one show – they’ll probably want to see everything presented that season (usually the Ring and 3 other operas).

So, there are 57,000 available seats. But each year, the Festival gets something like 250,000 requests for seats. And each of those people wants to see everything, too. In the past, ticketing was managed by the “Wagner computer” and, if you applied every year without fail (you’d be punished if you missed even one year), the typical waiting period to actually get seats was about 10 years!!! Nowadays, some tickets for each season are available on the internet at the Festival’s website and, if you’re fast and lucky enough, you might even secure seats. These intrepid souls may actually hop to the front of the line and get in, and good luck to you!

2016 UPDATE: I just happened to go onto the Festival’s website this past weekend and – lo and behold!! – it was possible to snag a pair of excellent seats for the 2nd Ring, which starts in about 2 weeks. Over the past few years – due, in part to the German government’s intervention – tickets to the festival are becoming somewhat easier to obtain. If you are an intrepid (and somewhat obsessed) Wagnerite, you can now get to Bayreuth without waiting 10 years for the Wagner computer to admit you. Ho-jo-to-ho!!!

And even if you should be one of the chosen few, Wagner never factored comfort into the design of the theatre. What do I mean? Well, for instance, the seats are pretty uncomfortable (not much padding and no arm rests) and the theatre is not air conditioned. This may not seem like much, but I’ve been to Bayreuth during incredible heat waves and the temperature inside the auditorium rises to over 100 degrees. In the old days – I don’t know about now – formal attired was REQUIRED, so there you were in your tuxedo with the sweat running down your back.

And did I mention that Wagner’s operas are LONG?? Das Rheingold, the “prologue” to the Ring, runs anywhere from two hours, fifteen minutes to two hours, forty-five minutes (depending on the conductor) and is played in ONE ACT!!!!! No intermission!!!!!!! No bathroom breaks – no one would DARE to attempt to leave the theatre during a performance, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to!!! And in a theatre in which, during a heat wave, you could bake a cake!!!!!

But guess what? It’s totally worth it. On the right night, with the right singers and conductor, and with a director who knows what s/he’s doing, you will have the most magical, inspiring and moving experience you’re likely to have in an opera house.

CULTURE TIP: Bayreuth Festival Website

A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part Two: Not Your Parent’s Figaro

In 1784, La Folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s sequel to his hugely success The Barber of Seville had its delayed premiere at the Comédie-Francąise – delayed as the author had written the play from 1775-78, but the Parisian censors wouldn’t allow the play to be produced until then.

Remember that these were the years leading up to the French Revolution, and a play in which the main themes are social inequality and outright contempt for the nobility and, not least, portraying the servant class as more humane than and able to outwit the aristocracy, made for a very dangerous evening at the theatre.

Figaro - 01
Print from early production of the Beaumarchais play

A scant two years later, Lorenzo Da Ponte reworked the play into arguably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro. As is always the case when translating a play into an opera, Da Ponte brilliantly condensed Beaumarchais’s provocative play into tight narrative and, in doing so, deleted most of the politics and revolutionary ideas. What remained was a work of art from which future generations of operagoers could enjoy a “light” entertainment about how the servant outwits his master and all is forgiven at the end of the evening.

Figaro - MET - 01
From the Met’s current production of the opera, as seen in the 2014-15 season

(It should be pointed out that Da Ponte’s libretto was totally at the liberty of the Viennese censors, who demanded that he delete or play down the more controversial aspects of the play so that Mozart’s sponsor and patron, the Emperor Joseph II, could not possibly be offended.)

What’s interesting is that, when it came time to present the opera in Paris (in 1792), the French Revolution was at its height. As a result, it was decided to reinstate the more controversial aspects of the original source material. As Mozart was now dead, revising the opera was out of the question. Instead, Beaumarchais was brought in to decide which parts of his play were to be included. In order for the opera to have a manageable length, Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s recitatives were excised and, in their place, Beaumarchais inserted dialogue from the play.

Mozart’s charming opera would now become a highly-charged political amalgam of the play and the opera. Let them eat cake, indeed.

It cannot be denied that Beaumarchais’s play was a pungent satire with a striking political edge, and that Mozart’s opera downplayed the more controversial elements while retaining its punch for those who were able to see past the charm elements. However and, perhaps, most significantly, both the play and the opera conclude with the Countess generously forgiving the Count his transgressions and the evening ends on a hopeful note of reconciliation.

It’s probably difficult – if not downright impossible – for 21st century audiences to appreciate what it might have been like to attend the earliest productions of the play and opera. The aristocracy was probably outraged and not a little bit nervous over what they were seeing, while the general population may have felt validated to see people like them standing up for themselves and daring to talk back to their masters.

Interestingly, modern audiences now have the opportunity to encounter an updated version of the story: ¡Figaro! (90210), Vin Guerrerio’s uproarious “revisal” of the Beaumarchais/Mozart/Da Ponte source material. Originally presented under the auspices of LA Opera Off Grand, you have until Saturday, April 3rd to see this witty and extremely relevant iteration at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City.

Figaro 90210 - 01

Set in modern day Beverly Hills, Figaro and his intended, Susannah, are now undocumented illegals; the Count and his Countess are now Paul Conti, a somewhat shady real estate developer and his Botox-ed actress wife, Roxanne. The Count’s page, Cherubino, is now the aspiring hip-hop artist, Li’l B-Man. You get the idea.

Figaro 90210 - 03

Mr. Guerrerio’s brilliant and cleverly reimagined libretto is performed in English and “Spanglish”. Most importantly, it once again makes the story relevant, but in a highly entertaining way. Indeed, this is not your parent’s Figaro.

So, within the space of 3 days, we saw a hugely entertaining production of Puccini’s Tosca at a former bus terminal in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and, now, a “ripped from the headlines” and highly relevant production of ¡Figaro! (90210).

Opera is very much alive and thriving in New York.

CULTURE TIP: ¡Figaro! (90210)

 

 

A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part One

Greetings and Salutations! Yes, we’ve been away for a few weeks, but now we come roaring back. I hope everyone made it through the winter and is enjoying some milder weather and the expectation of warmer things to come.

We’ve been very busy ourselves, although we haven’t been out of the city since our return from Antarctica and Buenos Aires. The cultural scene has been extremely busy and will continue for the next month or so.

I thought you might be interested to know what we’ve been up to over the past week. It’s been all culture and eclectic culture at that. The accent has been mostly on opera. However, it hasn’t been your mom and pop’s opera, as you will soon see.

Last Saturday night, we returned to Brooklyn to attend LoftOpera’s first production of the year, Puccini’s Tosca. You may recall that, this past December, we visited LoftOpera for the 1st time to see their production of The Rape of Lucretia and were pretty much blown away by the audacity of the experience.

In the first place, LoftOpera has made a commitment to take the “elite” out of opera, without sacrificing what’s important: great works being performed by talented up and coming singers in unusual surroundings at affordable prices and with a real party vibe.

Tosca - AAC
AAC CPA arrives with the ArcAngel Michael over his shoulder

Did I mention that the audience is mostly comprised of youngsters (i.e., the under 30-crowd) looking for a great night on the town?

Or that, one of LoftOpera’s sponsors is the Brooklyn Brewery, so that beer is available throughout the performance? (One of the more piquant enjoyments of this Tosca performance was to hear the tinkling of beer bottles tipping over now and then and yet again.)

Oh, and did I mention that Tosca was presented in an old bus depot in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in so isolated a part of town that even Uber had a hard time finding the place?

Tosca - Opera Sign
How we found the bus depot – this sign in the darkness

Or that, during intermission, the beer continues to flow freely while house music blasts over the speakers?

Tosca - Audience
The cool and young audience enjoying culture and the party atmosphere

Or that, most importantly, this Tosca was the best production of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” on the opera scene in New York (and I include a certain production of the work in the repertoire of a certain opera company located at Lincoln Center).

Oh yeah, and tickets are $30. Yes, you read that right: $30 will get you an opera.

Backed by a 32-piece orchestra and energetically conducted by Dean Buck, this Tosca took flight. The cast, headed by Eleni Calenos in the title role (diminutive in appearance, but packing a huge soprano voice well versed in the verismo style), James Chamberlain (our Cavaradossi with his beautiful upper register and thrilling high notes) and Kevin Wetzel (the perverse – and I mean that in a good way – Baron Scarpia) put it all out there at what was the closing performance of the run.

Tosca - 01
Cavaradossi and Tosca, Act I

Tosca - 01a
Baron Scarpia – Act I (Te Deum)

Tosca - 02
Tosca takes matters into her own (bloody) hands

Tosca - 03
Tosca and Cavaradossi – Act III

Tosca - 04
Spoiler Alert: It ends badly for everyone

And I have to give a shout-out to Jordan Pitts as Scarpia’s head henchman, Spoletta (and one of the creepiest and most threatening Spolettas I’ve ever witnessed – you wouldn’t want to run into this guy late at night in Bushwick!). Normally a comprimario role that disappears into the scenery, this Spoletta was a junior Scarpia in training.

Although the performance was sold out with over 500 people attending, the performance space allowed for an intimacy between the characters and the audience that would be impossible at almost any other venue. I’m not kidding when I tell you that there were times that the singers were literally within 2 feet of where we were sitting. And, in fact, the performance was SO sold out that there were about a dozen people sitting on the floor in front of what would be the first row.

(In fact, the company’s executive producer (and set designer for this performance), Daniel Ellis-Ferris, was sitting directly in front of us (on the floor) as he synchronized the projected titles onto a screen over the set.)

Tosca - Titles
How the titles work (Thanks, Dan!)

The production was imaginatively staged and authentic to the creators’ opus, notwithstanding a number of anachronisms that were both witty and yet, somehow, appropriate (although I doubt that Spoletta would have received the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo via his cellphone).

Bottom line: kudos to Dan and Brianna (LoftOpera’s general manager), the cast and all involved with this very successful production of Tosca.

NY Times on LoftOpera’s Tosca

Next up for LoftOpera: Rossini’s Le Comte Ory in June. Stay tuned or, better yet, order your tickets as soon as they go on sale!

CULTURE TIP: LoftOpera

Buenos Aires – Day Four

Culture, culture, culture! Today was about visiting one of the world’s preeminent opera houses, the magnificent Teatro Colon. It’s an easy 20 minute stroll from our hotel, the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt hotel, along Avenue Libertad.

The original theatre dates back to 1857 but, within 30 years, it became clear that a new theatre was needed and, following a 20-year period, the new theatre made its debut in 1908, with a performance of Verdi’s Aida.

Considered one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world and with perfect acoustics, all of the great singers from Maria Callas to Luciano Pavarotti performed there well into the 1980s, after which the theatre fell into disrepair. In order to return the opera house to its former glory, a complete restoration was undertaken from 2006 – 2010.

Speaking of Pavarotti, the great tenor feared performing at Teatro Colon because – he said – the acoustics were so excellent that any mistake on his part would be clearly heard by the audience. No place to run, no place to hide. Talk about performance anxiety!

Guided tours in English are available during the day, and more information can be found at the opera house’s website. If you’re planning a trip to Buenos Aires, it should not be missed. Even better, if you’re visiting from February through November, it’s possible to see an opera or ballet performance there.

Teatro Exterior - 01
Entrance to the magnificent Teatro Colon

Teatro Foyer
Staircase in the foyer

Teatro Stairway
Stairway detail

Teatro - Leslie & AAC - 02
Leslie and AAC CPA admire the sights

Teatro Golden Hall - 01
The Golden Hall

Teatro Venus & Cupid
Statue of the Secret: What is Cupid whispering to Venus?

Teatro Auditorium
Inside the auditorium 

Teatro Auditorium Ceiling
Auditorium ceiling as seen from the President’s box

Callas Buenos Aires Turandot
Archival photo of Maria Callas as Turandot at Teatro Colon, 1949

CULTURE TIP: Teatro Colon

Following this excellent tour, we returned to the hotel, had a spot of lunch and relaxed for a few hours on the beautiful hotel grounds. It was a perfect summer day, warm but not too much and with very low humidity.

Lunch
That’s a yummy cold tomato and cucumber soup with langoustines

Tonight’s dinner was at the excellent Don Julio in the Palermo district. Unlike last night’s disappointing experience at La Cabrera, we could not have asked for a more delightful meal. The service was impeccable and the food was delicious. Once again, we split several cuts of beef and pork with various side dishes and shared the inevitable bottle of Malbec.

Don Julio
Inside Don Julio

2016-01-11 21.24.05
Carnivores delight at Don Julio

(See all the wine bottles going up to the ceiling? Customers write notes on the bottle labels.)

I haven’t yet mentioned it but, for those of us who are used to eating out in New York or in San Francisco, the price of dining in Buenos Aires is a great bargain. Tonight’s meal, which included 2 appetizers, 3 different cuts of beef, 2 side dishes, 1 dessert and the Malbec worked out to about worked out to about $47 per person. In the States, we’d easily be spending more than twice that amount.

CUISINE TIP: Don Julio

It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be our last full day in Buenos Aires.

Blog Detour – Bayreuth

Gentle Readers:

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m enrolled in an online blogging course in order to improve my skills and, hopefully, to give you a better experience.

It turns out that today’s assignment is to write a post that builds on a comment that I posted on another blog that was of interest to me.

Therefore, I’ll apologize in advance for those of you who may say: “Why is he talking about that opera crap again?” But please bear with me, as you might find this post more interesting that you had originally thought.

Imagine this:

There is a opera house in Bayreuth (pronounced bye-roit) Germany, which was built between 1872 – 75 for the express purpose of presenting Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ring, Wagner spent over 20 years composing these 4 operas or, more specifically, a Prologue (Das Rheingold) with 3 operas to follow (Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). If nothing else, the audacity of an artist creating an entirely new style of music and operatic presentation spread over 4 evenings (and 15+ hours) has to be respected. This grand work would be presented as a Festival and, indeed his theatre is called the Festspielhaus (Festival House). The demands (and, hopefully, the rewards) of presenting the Ring placed upon the singers, orchestra, designers and, not least, the audience, would be unprecedented.

Bayreuth - R Wagner
Richard Wagner – The Meister

Why Bayreuth? Wagner wanted a location that was far away from virtually anything that would interfere with the audience’s complete concentration on and attention to his Ring. Additionally, he needed a huge stage on which to present the operas. There is another opera house in Bayreuth that Wagner thought might work, as the stage was unusually deep. However, when Wagner saw the opera house, he thought it was too rococo for him and the Ring. He wanted something much simpler that, again, would not distract his audience from what he had called his Gesamtkunstwerk, defined by Webster as “an art work produced by a synthesis of various art forms (such as music and drama)”.

Bayreuth - the Other Opera House
The other opera house – too rococo??

And another challenge that continues to this day: Bayreuth is not easy to get to (unless you live somewhere in Europe and like to drive). The first time I attended the Festival, I was able to fly from New York to Frankfurt and then fly on a “puddle-hopper” to Bayreuth. Nowadays, you’d need a private plane to fly into Bayreuth, which, in the alternative, leaves you with a 4+ hour train ride from Frankfurt (with a change of train in Nuremberg). It’s a LONG trip!

Bayreuth Map
How to get to Bayreuth

In order to get his theatre built, Wagner finagled the funds from mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was entirely under Wagner’s spell ever since he had seen a performance of Lohengrin as a child. (Wagner had that effect on many people. He was, by most accounts, a terrible person but, arguably, the most important and influential artist of the 19th century.)

Bayreuth Ludwig
King Ludwig of Bavaria

The theatre was unique when it was built and still is. Inspired by the Greek amphitheaters, the main floor is fan-shaped and has 30 rows. Behind and above are several sections (loge and balcony) and, of course, a royal box for the Swan King (Ludwig). There are 1,900 seats altogether and no boxes for the “important people”. Seating was intended to be entirely democratic.


The Festspielehaus

Bayreuth - Interior
Inside the Festspielhaus

The most unusual feature of the theatre is that the orchestra pit is famously and entirely concealed from view of the audience. Wagner intentionally designed it this way so that there would be no distractions when watching his grand works. Additionally, Wagner’s theatre was the first ever to present the operas with the house lights entirely turned off, an innovation at the time. In this way, the audience, sitting entirely in the dark, couldn’t “yoo-hoo” at friends and frenemies during the performance and had to pay attention. The beginning of Das Rheingold with its ominous E-flat bass notes which morph into the music of the Rhine river is played in complete darkness, so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Imagine what that must have been like for audiences accustomed to a totally different experience when attending the opera. It was nothing less than revolutionary.

Bayreuth Orchestra Pit
The invisible orchestra pit

Wagner originally had the crazy idea that he would build this theatre, the Ring would be presented and, afterwards, the theatre would be torn down. Well, that didn’t happen, did it? Wiser heads (including his own) prevailed and after the world premiere of the completed Ring in 1876, plans were immediately made for another Festival at which all of the mistakes of the first year (and there were many, many mistakes) would be corrected.

But it was another 6 years before the next Festival and, as it happened, the Ring was not presented. Instead, it was the world premiere of Parsifal that the audience heard and which Wagner had composed with the Festspielhaus’ unique acoustic in mind. This time, Wagner had a complete triumph: the perfect opera, with the perfect cast and a perfect production (perfect, at least, for 1882). Buoyed by this success, plans were made to get the Ring back into the theatre pronto. And then, 6 months later, Wagner died in Venice.

It took several years, but the Festival was eventually resurrected by Wagner’s widow, Cosima (who, incidentally, was the daughter of Franz Liszt).

Bayreuth R Wagner Cosima Siegfried
Family Portrait: Cosima, Siegfried, Richard

Over time, certain traditions were created that continue to the present day. It was decided that, in addition to the Ring and Parsifal, only the Master’s mature works (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde) would be presented. Without fail, the Festival would open each year on July 25th and close on August 28th. The Festival would be a workshop, at which each production would be presented for several years and, in each successive season, return to the rehearsal studio to refine, improve and rethink each opus.

After Cosima’s death, the Festival was handed over to her son, Siegfried (who, by the way, was GAY, but people didn’t talk about such things back then). Upon his premature death in 1930, the Festival was taken over (stolen??) by his widow (wait – he was MARRIED????), Winifred, who presided over the Festival for the next 14 tumultuous years.

You see, during the 1920s, she had become friends with this up and coming politician with whom she was much enamored. In fact, she was so bewitched by this charismatic young man that, or so the story goes, she provided him with the paper on which he wrote his most famous book: Mein Kampf. And that’s how Adolf Hitler – who was Richard Wagner’s #1 fan – came to be a fixture at Bayreuth through the 1930s and, finally, the 1944 Festival, after which the theatre shut down (almost for good).

Bayreuth - Hitler
Winifred, Adolf and Wagner Progeny

But wait: Siegfried and Winifred had 2 sons – Wieland and Wolfgang who, after the war (and after being denazified), were allowed to reopen the Festival in 1951. Because there was no money, and because there could be no compromises on the presentation of the music, Wieland caused another revolution by what he put on the stage which was, basically, nothing except the singers, some very simple set pieces (such as a circular platform for the presentation of the Ring) and the most effective lighting that had to that time been seen in a theatre. It caused a sensation: although the old guard was outraged at what they were (or more correctly, weren’t) seeing, there were others who were enchanted and, in fact, relieved not to be seeing all that Teutonic stuff strewn all over the stage.

I think it was a masterstroke of luck that the Festival was practically bankrupt after the war, which enabled Wieland and, to a much lesser extent, Wolfgang (who didn’t possess anywhere near the talent of his brother) to create a new style of presenting their grandfather’s work, which completely severed it from any connection to Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, Wieland was solely responsible for ushering in “Der Neue Bayreuther” or New Bayreuth.

Compare and contrast:

Bayreuth - Original Rheinmaidens
The original Rhinemaidens, 1876

Bayreuth - Chereau Rhinemaidens
Patrice Chereau’s Rhinemaidens, 1976

Since 1951 and the reopening of the postwar Festival, there have been more revolutions: the Centenary Ring in 1976, staged by the late, great Patrice Chereau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was Chereau’s concept to present the operas in Wagner’s own time (and during the Industrial Revolution) and to focus on the evils of capitalism and anti-Semitism. Chereau, who had directed only one opera before taking on the Ring, was a masterful director who had no preconceived notions about these operas and worked from the text. The singers in this production who most benefitted from working with Chereau – Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, Donald McIntyre as Wotan, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Heinz Zednik as both Loge and Mime – gave the performances of their careers and presented acting that was so natural and believable that it created a very special experience for the audience.

Bayreuth - Chereau ca 1976
Patrice Chereau, ca. 1976

Bayreuth Chereau Rheingold

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure Jones Hofmann

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure

Bayreuth Chereau Gotterdammerung
Images from the Chereau Centenary Ring, 1976

Two interesting anecdotes about these premiere performances:

The initial performance of each opera was broadcast around the world and the audience grew more and more testy as each production unfolded. Now it wasn’t necessarily unusual to hear booing at the Festspielhaus at the end of a performance, but how about at the beginning of Act III of Götterdämmerung DURING THE MUSIC?? You can actually hear the opening of the act, imagine the curtain rising and, then, there it is – LOTS of boos, along with some segments of the audience “shushing” the dissenters, or were THEY the dissenters?? The production was so controversial that it’s hard to tell.

Fast forward to the Festival of 1980 and the retirement of Chereau’s Ring. I happened to hear the very last performance of  Götterdämmerung on a radio broadcast and what a difference 4 years makes. At the conclusion of Götterdämmerung, the curtain calls (and cheering, no boos this time) lasted for something like NINETY minutes! Whatever it was that repelled and outraged the audience in 1976, they were now completely under the spell of a masterful and game changing production.

So, after all that, you wanna go to Bayreuth? Any opera lover worth her salt should make that pilgrimage at least once. Hold on. It’s not that easy.

Remember when I said that the theatre had 1,900 seats? Generally speaking, there are 30 performances presented each year for a total of 57,000 available seats. However, attendees to Bayreuth are not going to travel all that way to see one show – they’ll probably want to see everything presented that season (usually the Ring and 3 other operas).

So, there are 57,000 available seats. But each year, the Festival gets something like 250,000 requests for seats. And each of those people wants to see everything, too. In the past, ticketing was managed by the “Wagner computer” and, if you applied every year without fail (you’d be punished if you missed even one year), the typical waiting period to actually get seats was about 10 years!!! Nowadays, some tickets for each season are available on the internet at the Festival’s website and, if you’re fast and lucky enough, you might even secure seats. These intrepid souls may actually hop to the front of the line and get in, and good luck to you!

As if that weren’t enough, Wagner never factored comfort into the design of the theatre. What do I mean? Well, for instance, the seats are pretty uncomfortable (not much padding and no arm rests) and the theatre is not air conditioned. This may not seem like much, but I’ve been to Bayreuth during incredible heat waves and the temperature inside the auditorium rises to over 100 degrees. In the old days – I don’t know about now – formal attired was REQUIRED, so there you were in your tuxedo with the sweat running down your back.

And did I mention that Wagner’s operas are LONG?? Das Rheingold, the “prologue” to the Ring, runs anywhere from two hours, fifteen minutes to two hours, forty-five minutes (depending on the conductor) and is played in ONE ACT!!!!! No intermission!!!!!!! No bathroom breaks – no one would DARE to attempt to leave the theatre during a performance, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to!!! And in a theatre in which, during a heat wave, you could bake a cake!!!!!

But guess what? It’s totally worth it. On the right night, with the right singers and conductor, and with a director who knows what s/he’s doing, you will have the most magical, inspiring and moving experience you’re likely to have in an opera house.

CULTURE TIP: Bayreuth Festival Website

PS. Part of my assignment is to link this post to the blog which inspired it. Here ’tis:

Emily Abroad