Planet Opera: Bayreuth's Provocative Vision of Wagner

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Just a few weeks after cheering the Weltmeister German soccer team to victory in Brazil, Angela Merkel will return to Bayreuth Festival to engage with the Masters of the Universe in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Germany’s redoubtable Kanzlerin is an annual presence at the festival because she genuinely loves opera, especially Wagner.

This sets the tone for a nation that uses its wealth not only for providing health care to its citizens and creating an enviable quality of life, but also puts culture front and center as a national value. Artistic work is meant to be discussed and, at times, hotly debated. It is a sign of a certain kind of maturity that this is part of the values of Germany.

We from elsewhere scratch our heads or marvel at how the artistic milieu in this country tolerates opera productions (and other forms of creative expression) that seem numbingly out of synch with the music and libretto of the original work.

Certain stagings of the masterpieces of Richard Wagner can be incredibly divisive. This is because Wagner himself was a polarizing genius, one who inspired unquestioning adoration in many of his followers and visceral revulsion to others. In recent years in Bayreuth, his operas have been given productions that have been more controversial than ever.

Richard Wagner Opera house in Bayreuth, Germany
The Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany

A brief history: Richard Wagner wanted to build a theater that would be ideal for the presentation of his works, especially the four operas of the Ring Cycle and, later, Parsifal, which he composed to be staged only in Bayreuth. He famously concealed the orchestra pit so that the audience heard the music without focusing on the conductor or the instruments. With incredible audacity, stubbornness and an amazing gift for separating people from their money to support his projects, Wagner opened the Festspielhaus in 1876 with the Ring. The technical effects on the stage and the sublime acoustics in the hall put the festival on the map even as it lost vast amounts of money. When Wagner died in 1883, his widow Cosima took over and began to add his other operas to the mix at the Festival.

Cosima retired in 1906 and her son Siegfried, and British daughter-in-law Winifred, ran the festival after that. Essentially they preserved Wagner’s vision about how the music and dramaturgy should be presented. When Siegfried died in 1930, Winifred (whose children included the young Wieland and Wolfgang) took command and, in a move that would taint the Festival for decades, embraced Hitler and the rising Nazi party. In so doing, she intertwined the Festival and Wagner’s music and ideas with those of Hitler. Certainly Wagner was anti-Semitic but he had also been dead nearly 50 years.

After the Second World War, Wieland Wagner charted a bold new direction. He felt that his grandfather’s operas had to be separated from the approach and ideology that clung to them. Wieland, who was a brilliant stage director, made productions that were sometimes stripped down but essential in their tellings of the stories in the works. He benefitted from a rising generation of great singers and conductors who could make productions of the operas adhere to Wagner’s notion of gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art). With Wieland’s untimely death in 1966, his brother Wolfgang took over.

The Festival remained a magnet for artists and audiences, even if some productions were not admired. But the Patrice Chéreau production for the centennial of the Ring in 1976 was groundbreaking for interpreting the cycle as a parable of capitalism and it unleashed a trend in which less talented opera directors would hang an opera (at Bayreuth and elsewhere) on a concept.

In Wolfgang’s time, demand for tickets far outstripped availability and they still do today. One often is on a waiting list for five to ten years before attendance is even possible. When Wolfgang stepped down in 2008, there was a struggle among family members as to who would take over the reins. Ultimately, the Bavarian cultural minister appointed two of Wolfgang’s daughters—Eva and Katharina—to lead the festival. The two sisters (especially Katharina, it seems) have pushed the productions in radical directions that have led to audience displeasure and loud dissent.

'Tannhauser' at the Bayreuth Festival
'Tannhauser' at the Bayreuth Festival (Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuth)

The opening of the 2014 festival on July 25 got off to a rocky start, as I reported at the time. Sebastian Baumgarten’s production of Tannhäuser (which premiered in 2011), broke down 20 minutes into the performance, which made for a very long and uneasy evening. The setting was moved from medieval Germany to a modern waste management factory in which, inexplicably, there is a sort of slide show: X-rays of hands, followed by cell division and other measurements of bodily functions.

The Tannhäuser musical forces received warm applause but Baumgarten was besieged with booing. I think it would be charitable to simply say that this production is unimprovable. The next night’s opera, Der fliegende Holländer, did not have any technical issues but also felt underpowered as a production. However, the singers gave their all and the conducting by Christian Thielemann was glorious. On both nights, the performances of the chorus were amazing and made all the first-nighters jump up and cheer.

Thought-Provoking Treatments

Readers tell me all the time that they have no desire to see such productions, anywhere. I find some of them thought-provoking but that is only if the stage direction attempts to find ways into the opera’s narrative and ideas. Only the best of these, such as the Chéreau Ring, change our vision of what these operas mean and how they should be performed.

When I am in Germany and, especially, Bayreuth, I find it bracing that audience members talk about ideas and meaning. This is what is supposed to happen in the presence of artistic creation and which, in most important theaters, seems to be marginalized and devalued. Elsewhere, they talk about money (how much a production costs, how much someone is paid) or they drift to topics completely unrelated to the work at hand.

Those lucky enough to get tickets go to the Bayreuth Festival not only for the stupendous music and the likelihood that it will be well-performed, but to try to engage in the ideas that are being put forward. On those nights when the productions do not inspire, there is something uniquely possible in Bayreuth: to shut your eyes and let the music entirely take over your system and allow you to hear it as Wagner intended. You can create a production in your head or simply “see” the characters as the music inspires you to. 

I wonder if, when Angela Merkel closes her eyes during the Ring at Bayreuth, will it be from the exhaustion of running a government and its huge economy while dealing with international threats, the weakness of European partners, plus U.S. eavesdropping on her telephone? Or is she connecting with her inner Brünnhilde, doing what she knows is best for the world even if she is told to do otherwise? At the Bayreuth Festival, anything is possible. And that was Wagner’s vision.