Bayreuth Festival’s notorious past

A 2010 production of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival. Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath
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Every summer in a small Bavarian town, Wagner aficionados gather for the highlight of their year: the Bayreuth Festival. Founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner, it is still devoted solely to the work of the composer. Since his death, it has been run by a member of his own family, currently his great-granddaughter, Katharina.

The festival takes place in the Festspielhaus, the creation of which Wagner himself supervised. Each year it presents up to seven operas of the 10 works he considered to represent his mature style: Der Fliegende Hollander; Tannhauser; Lohengrin; Tristan und Isolde; Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg; the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen; and Parsifal.

It was for the first performances of the complete Ring that Wagner moved to Bayreuth to establish his festival. His aim was that people should see and hear his works away from the hurly-burly of city life in an environment based on the drama festivals of ancient Greece. It was on the Greek model he designed the Festspielhaus in the shape of an amphitheatre, without side boxes in which audience members might display themselves to admiring or envious eyes.

One innovation was the covered orchestra pit, helping to project the singers’ voices and ensuring the audience would not be distracted from events on stage. Another was having the auditorium house lights lowered during performances, thereby increasing the audience’s focus. The Festspielhaus remains forbiddingly plain, an unfussy building with wooden seating and an atmosphere more like a shrine than a place of entertainment.

The Festspielhaus. Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

With the exception of the shorter Der Fliegende Hollander and Das Rheingold, the operas are long, with performances beginning at 4pm and lasting until past 10pm. Many find the non-cushioned seating inside the Festspielhaus uncomfortable; there are no surtitles to help those unfamiliar with the operas and, despite the frequently sweltering Bavarian summer temperatures, the building still has no air-conditioning. Opera doesn’t get much more serious than this.

The Bayreuth Festival has, notoriously, been clouded by its association in the 1930s and 1940s with the Nazi regime. Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite and Bayreuth became a centre for the propagation of nationalistic ideas. Adolf Hitler’s endorsement by the Bayreuth Festival, run from 1930 by the composer’s daughter-in-law Winifred, intensified this situation.

When it reopened in 1951, the composer’s grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang, took over the festival. They undertook a radical rethinking of its aims, intent on shifting its nationalistic characteristics. Wieland’s genius as a stage director led the festival into a new era. His productions took place on an almost bare stage, concentrating on the operas’ universality.

Festspielhaus auditorium

Following Wieland’s death in 1966, Wolfgang assumed sole charge. He invited innovative directors to work at Bayreuth, including Gotz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer from East Germany, though the initial reception of some productions was often hostile.

For the first Bayreuth Ring’s centenary in 1976, Wolfgang chose the inexperienced Patrice Chereau to direct a production of the tetralogy. This was a contentious decision that led to the presentation of a broadly Marxist reading of the work that was nevertheless hailed as a triumph. The intensely human performances of the singers and their unusually detailed acting made a huge impact. Directors to have worked at Bayreuth in the decades following Chereau include Peter Hall, Werner Herzog, Dieter Dorn, Heiner Muller and Keith Warner.

For the rest of Wolfgang Wagner’s lifetime and following his death in 2010, Bayreuth productions continued to be progressive and controversial. Wagner’s operas are complex and open to interpretation. Unsurprisingly, some productions have failed to take all audiences with them. Christoph Schlingensief’s 2004 trash-alley Parsifal and Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin in 2011, featuring the entire chorus dressed as giant rats, were two of these.

Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger in 2007, however, questioned the values of the establishment represented by the burghers of Nuremberg, while Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal in 2008 examined Germany’s (and in particular Bayreuth’s) past, seeking redemption following its part in the horrors of the 20th century.

Bayreuth’s prestige as Wagner’s own opera house has helped ensure the consistency of its high musical standards. Rehearsal periods are generous, and its orchestra and chorus are still composed of the cream of (mainly) German musicians when free from commitments at their regular opera houses during the summer. The festival attracts the finest Wagner singers in the world and boasts a roster of conductors stretching back to Hermann Levi, Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hans Knappertsbusch and, more recently, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, Antonio Pappano, Christian Thielemann and Kirill Petrenko

Bayreuth remains elusive. Members of the public frequently need to make repeated ticket applications for years before succeeding. For dedicated opera-lovers, however, the desire to visit is strong; for committed Wagnerians it can be akin to a pilgrimage. It is a concentrated undertaking and Bayreuth remains, as Wagner intended, a small town with little to do in it that is not related to the composer’s works.

This interview is part of The Stage special on opera. Read more stories here