Wagner pompously stated “there’s Bayreuth…and everywhere else. Its hard to escape this dominant patron in the tiny city of 75,000.
This may sound incredibly arrogant, but the attitude is understandable when you are here. It’s an out of body experience to infuse the soul of one of the most enigmatic characters in modern history.
Germans adore their musicians, and support their favorite sons actively with state funding, reduced rate performances, and frequent indoctrination by researchers who uncover new tidbits of information about their musical gods and heroes. If only Americans would be so kind to their own artists and creative community!
But back to the Wagner drum roll. His family were prominent residents of the town and managed to nab a slot in an idyllic park in the middle of the city. Then he built the festival opera house on a hill overlooking the city to present his work. His Ring cycle, four operas over six days and 17 hours of entertainment, opened the opera house in 1876.
For those unfamiliar with Wagner, you might wonder what the whole fuss is about. It would not be a stretch to say, at least among his disciples, that he represents not only the pinnacle of German opera, but of Western opera.
In the Ring cycle, Wagner not only wrote his own libretti or poems (in this series to tell the saga of a dysfunctional extended family), but he also scored some of the best classical music ever. He was an intellectual snob but succeeded transformed music with emotional skill and content.
Fast approaching its 150th anniversary in 2026, the Bayreuth Festival has been tooting its horn for quite some time. No other musician has attempted to build a monument in which his own works could be performed. Doing so seems pure folly. Wagner went ahead and did it anyway.
There’s no doubt Wagner was anti-Semitic. The Wagner House museum displayed some of his writings, but claimed that it was his family who embraced his writings and promoted them during the Nazi regime.
“There’s Bayreuth…and the rest of the world…”
I don’t know if you know anyone who’s been to the Festival, but I can claim only one other person from the States I know crazy enough to have come here. My friend warned me that Wagnerians take their religion seriously. Members of the Wagnerian society meet regularly, then proselytize after being trained in intricate Wagnerian minutia.
I’m only a neophyte, but I confess to ordering three books on Wagner. I felt compelled to weaponize myself in case my knowledge was put to the test. Aside from a narrative version of the Ring, a German-English paired translation of it, and a scholarly analysis of its music and history, I felt I had earned proof of my devotion to Wagnerian principles and thereby gained access to Valhalla.
The Festival Hall
Nothing too remarkable, except that it perches on a heath overlooking the town of Bayreuth. My accommodation was a fast half-mile walk and perfect for the occasion. The opera house accommodates 1500 eager opera lovers, a cozy size for the acoustics of unamplified voices and the way opera should be heard. That’s nearly half of the 3800 seats in the cavernous Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
The orchestra sits under the stage and is hidden so the audience is not distracted by the musicians. They huddle like Nibelungen in the cave, chipping away and churning out musical notes. Wagner exercised musical chairs to reposition players according to the sound they projected to the audience.
Every seat is a good view. The wide cone of nearly 70% makes everyone feel equal to the best. The down side is that, with nearly 50 seats per row without aisles, you have to skip the cocktail champagne to get into your seat in the middle or incur the side seaters’ wrath. Everyone grits their teeth until the center sitters arrive, then are finally able in domino fashion to seat themselves. By the last half of performances, late arrivals lost their pole positions and got relegated to the edges as others were instructed by ushers to move into vacant seats. That suddenly upped our real estate 10%.
I made the mistake of forgetting that cushions are available from the garderobe. During my first performance of Das Rheingold, I squirmed between drifts of head bobbing. I had not prepared myself properly with an obligatory nap beforehand. Rushing to Bayreuth with three changes on the day of the performance and buzzing from the glamour of being there was a fatal combination.
Catering is well planned for a variety of tastes and affordability. I tried most of every type of station—from sushi to ice cream, bratwurst to cold steak platters. I did pass on the 70€ buffet only because I didn’t think I could gorge on all that was offered within an hour!
The controversy over Wagner’s anti-Semitism lingers. Displays of prominent Jewish composers and musicians who contributed to Wagner’s success were posted. You couldn’t help but wonder if was only a token effort.
Having now seen all four operas of the Ring Cycle, I was intrigued by the visual changes to the traditional story. Performers wore contemporary fashion and gestured in current body language. Think Kardashians. Think Trump. Think downfall of society.
It took awhile to get whetted to the visual style. The director transformed iconic fairy tale characters into trash behavior. They strutting in stilettos, grabbed guns for attention, and constantly glued themselves to cell-phones. Did we really want to see a fantasy playing out the way we witness life every day?!? Where are my hero and heroic heroine figures that I came to wish upon a star with?
I tried my best to keep an open mind, but I struggled in the end to accept the director’s imagery. For me, an original story with timely relevance today expressed by Wagner in word and song over 150 years ago did not have to be a literal translation. This ironically backfired and left a very bad taste in my mouth not just for this stage direction, but also caused me to question Wagner.
Take my one interpretation and multiply it in a room by 1500. One of the most startling and entertaining parts of the evening was witnessing the audience reaction to each performance. The noise level steadily escalated to a crescendo in the fourth and final act of Gotterdammerung.
There were two competing aspects: superb singing and horrible visual effects. This is not the ho-hum nervous applause you expect from any American curtain call, embellished with an obligatory standing ovation.
German audiences are much more reserved and discriminating. They give standing ovations for performances that are genuinely exceptional. No grade inflation. But there was no standing here. The Germans were too busy in their seats stomping their feet while clapping furiously for minutes on end!
Simultaneously, wild jeers and boos were spat out while foot stomping. No one rushed off to catch taxis or buses, but remained in the theater far too entertained by the raucous scene to think about lost time. It was just too precious a moment to miss. This is one of the rare times I saw so many genuinely smiling faces in Germany, as if it were the community spirit suddenly unleashing itself. My, what a refreshing group therapy session that was!!
The Rest of the World
There’s still plenty to see in Bayreuth if you aren’t an opera fan. You can indulge in 1. another opera house recently made a world UNESCO site. Margravine Wilhelmine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1709-1758) was the Prussian king’s daughter and favourite sister of Frederick the Great.The baroque opera house was dedicated to the wedding of Wilhelmine’s daughter. An opera buff and some time theatre director, Willy chose high drama to showcase her daughter’s betrothal.
2. Wagner’s house. OK now we get it. He was of the gentry and came from a prominent family. Nice grounds to prove that Wahnfried deserved its name—to be free and satisfied.
No, I wasn’t traveling to Bayreuth in the winter. This is a model of the opera house in Wagner’s house. Designed by Semper, it has strong resemblance to the shape and character of the Dresden Opera House that I love. Despite the uncomfortable seating in the Bayreuth operahouse, the acoustics are worth experiencing.
3. The Royal Palace (see header above): the royal court of Markgraf Friedrich von Brandenburg- Bayreuth landed here, and used the mid 1700 rococo facilities to impress and entertain the militia. No doubt a fun place to have a blowout. They even recreated an Italian grotto in a room where you went in full regalia to gawk at an imitation of the real world. Fortunately it was before Wagner’s time or he surely would have left an impression on Wilhelmina.
A sojourn in Nurnberg, about an hour and a half by slow train and bus to visit the medieval section of the walled city, where the Albrecht Durer House was located. I also visited the National Rally Grounds of the Nazi Party. It was a vast field of multiple football fields to promote the training and display of military might for the German people.
Author’s note: In 2018, I saw two Ring cycles: one in Munich, and one in San Francisco. You can read a comparison of Munich’s version here: https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com/2018/07/26/day-16-20a-ring-ring/
Apologies in advance for any errors or inconsistent information. I’m a bit rusty! Also trying to post this from my Iphone at the airport before takeoff!!