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Impressions From Bayreuth

Long before there was Tanglewood or Aspen, Glyndebourne or Salzburg, there was Bayreuth—the product of Richard Wagner’s fertile imagination and the grandfather of all music festivals. For the past two summers, it has been my great honor to appear, at the invitation of the Wagner Society of New York, as the English-language lecturer for the festival.

John J. H. Muller

(Photo by Nan Melville)


Wagner (who often referred to himself as “the master”) was involved in every aspect of his musical creations, from the writing of the librettos to coaching the singers. He wanted to move beyond the conventions of opera to create a new unification of the arts, the Gesamtkunstwerk, and he recognized that this new music drama could not be confined to a traditional opera house. He chose a modest town in Bavaria, Bayreuth, in which to build his ideal theater, where for one month each summer, his operas, and only his, would be performed. (The rest of the year the house is dark.) The first festival was in 1876, and it is far more successful today than it ever was in the composer’s lifetime; people have been known to wait 10 years for a ticket.

When I started my serious study of Wagner in high school, I read about this magical place called Bayreuth and wondered if I would ever get there. The opportunity finally came in 2010 (and again in 2011). Upon entering the Festspielhaus, my first reaction was, “where’s the rest of it?” It is quite small, seating just under 2,000 people, as opposed to the Metropolitan Opera house’s capacity of 3,800. Constructed along the lines of a Greek amphitheater, it has an orchestra section, no center aisle, and a small number of boxes at the rear. The acoustics are legendary, and much of the orchestra, the brass section in particular, is tucked beneath the stage. A wooden shell curves back toward the stage, so the orchestral sound blends with the voices and then reaches the audience. There is a special glow to the orchestral sound at Bayreuth, somewhat diffuse, not direct. I had expected to hear a good balance between the orchestra and the singers, and for the most part, I did. What I was not prepared for was the balance among the sections within the orchestra. A variety of textures emerged, and string figurations that are often inaudible in other houses stood out clearly. The design of the pit hides the orchestra so the audience’s attention is directed toward the stage. (Near the end of his life, Wagner remarked, “After the invisible pit, the invisible theater.”)

The Bayreuth experience is often couched in religious terms. You do not go to Bayreuth to hear the operas; you make a pilgrimage to worship at the shrine. As befits such a religious atmosphere, there is a great deal of ritual associated with each performance. Curtain time is at 4 p.m., so audience members must put on their finery (Bayreuth is very dressy) shortly after lunch or a nap. During the intermissions, each an hour, everyone leaves the theater. I had thought such a long break would destroy the continuity of the performance, but that proved not to be the case. There is time for serious conversation about the performance, and the many food choices available range from a sit-down dinner to the very popular Bayreuth sausages. As the intermission nears its end, brass players appear on the balcony and periodically intone a theme from the opera. People often congregate under the balcony for these brief serenades; they are one of the charming features of a Bayreuth performance. When the opera ends, sometimes as early as 10 p.m., the audience leaves in a leisurely manner. I would often stroll through the beautifully landscaped grounds back to my hotel, contemplating the evening’s performance without the pressure of having to catch a train to New Jersey. On a number of nights, there were post-opera dinners, some attended by cast members.

The level of the actual performances can vary greatly. The orchestra, made up of players from all over Europe, is excellent, and its sound is enhanced by the special acoustics. The choral singing is superb, but the soloists range from extraordinary to merely adequate. (It can be difficult to attract the finest soloists to Bayreuth because of the long, intensive rehearsal period.) On the extraordinary side is the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt. His bright, pure sound, almost Mozartean in character, is unlike the baritonal timbre we associate with a Heldentenor, yet he is always heard over the orchestra. He shapes and caresses phrases with great musicality, and he has the matinee-idol looks so important in today’s operatic world. I have never heard Walther’s “Prize Song” sung with greater lyricism.  Beyond the prowess of the musicians, the rapt attention of the audience adds to the quality of the performances. One of my most unforgettable opera experiences in an opera house was the five seconds of silence that followed the final chord ofGötterdämmerung. What a way to end the “Ring” cycle!

And then there are the productions themselves. Bayreuth is in the thrall of Regie-Theater, or director’s theater (often referred to as Eurotrash in the U.S.), in which a concept is imposed on the work and many liberties are taken with the story and setting. Wagner’s great-granddaughter Katharina directed a notorious Meistersinger;  there was also aLohengrin that was set in a laboratory and featured a chorus dressed in rat costumes. Last year’s new production of Tannhäuser placed the medieval work in a 21st-century waste recycling plant. The festival’s 2011 Tristan und Isoldewas simply dull, the most de-eroticized performance I could imagine. (Who wants to imagine a de-eroticized Tristan?) But not all productions can be dismissed so easily. I would never refer to the Parsifal as Eurotrash: the set for Act I was the most beautiful I have ever seen, and the director’s concept was very thought-provoking, tracing the history of Germany from Wagner’s death to the present. Yet in the end (Kundry survives, by the way), there was so much going on visually that the music seemed an afterthought. Distractions, whether good or bad, are still distractions. Many Bayreuth productions are best listened to with eyes closed. Perhaps Wagner wasn’t far off with his invisible theater remark.

The Bavarian summer can be very warm, and inside the Festspielhaus, which is not air-conditioned, the heat can be oppressive. I quickly learned that the religious experience of the festival extends to the mortification of the flesh. There were times when I found it impossible to concentrate on the music, and during Act II of Die Walküre, I was not sure who would succumb first, Siegmund or I. (Luckily, he died on cue, and I survived to hear Siegfried.) Another Bayreuth ritual: on the hill leading up to the theater, men typically doff their jackets, putting them back on to promenade around the theater grounds. Inside the house, the jackets come off once again, although it doesn’t help much. 

One of the great pleasures of the festival is being around a group of like-minded true believers. I spoke before a well-informed group that takes its Wagner very seriously—there are no plastic horned helmets at Bayreuth. Members of Wagner societies gather from as far afield Honolulu, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia, and the many Wagnerians from non-English speaking countries included an intrepid Israeli gentleman whose efforts to form a Wagner Society in Israel have produced hate mail in his homeland. As strange as it may sound, I found that the greatest part of the festival was not in any particular performance, but in the entire Bayreuth experience. From the time you wake up until you go to bed, your life revolves around Wagner. On a typical day, I would discuss the previous night’s performance with someone over breakfast and then head to my lecture. After the opera, there would be more discussion over drinks outside the hotel. Finally, in light of what I had seen and heard, I would prepare some reactions for the next day’s lecture, often incorporating comments and questions from earlier that day. The one time I seemed free from Wagner was while I was sleeping; I don’t recall any Wagnerian dreams. 

What should be clear from this account is that in Bayreuth, Wagner becomes your reality, and what a glorious reality it is! Leaving the festival and reentering what most people call the “real” world is quite jarring.

After describing the travails of Bayreuth, I have been asked, “Why do you go?” I must confess that during moments of duress, when I seemed to be melting into my seat while viewing a work disfigured by a misbegotten production, I asked myself the same question. But then the holy German art theme from the Meistersinger Prelude would soar from the orchestra, or the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser would thunder through the theater, or wave after wave of sound would threaten to engulf me during Isolde’s Liebestod. During such moments, it was very clear why I, and others, go—for the master’s music.


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