Wagner’s Opera Goes Inside Out at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth
I am a big fan of Richard Wagner’s operas (not so much of the man himself), and if it were not for that fact, we probably wouldn’t be in Germany at all. When I heard several years ago that it can take up to ten years on a waiting list to get tickets to see a Wagner opera in Bayreuth, I decided that this was yet another instance of life throwing down a gauntlet. So I submitted my name. I figured I could always back out if it didn’t seem to be something we wanted to do when I reached the top of the list.
To my amazement, this past spring I was advised that I could apply for tickets for the 2022 season. I believe I got tickets seven years earlier than I’d anticipated because of two world-altering events – Covid, and the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on energy prices – both of which have made people less inclined to travel. Both factors made us think twice before moving forward, too, but in the end we decided that when gauntlets are thrown down, it is wise to accept the challenge. You might never get another chance.
When given the opportunity to go to Bayreuth, die-hard Wagner fans typically apply for tickets to the four operas that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka The Ring Cycle. This comprises four successive nights totalling about 15 hours of music and a whole lot of intermissions. I wasn’t sure my bum could handle all that sitting, and I wanted to still be married after our trip to Bayreuth (my husband is less enthusiastic about opera, and about Wagner, than I am). So I applied for two tickets to Tannhäuser – which, at around three hours, is a more standard opera length. The two seats were separated by two other seats and a pillar and they were at the very back of the theatre, but I’d heard that there isn’t a bad (or a comfortable) seat in the Festpielhaus. So there we were. And here we are.
I will write more about the city of Bayreuth, which is quiet and lovely and has several interesting sights to see, in my next post. This one is just about the opera.
For those who are unfamiliar with the controversial composer Richard Wagner, I offer a brief overview.
Wagner was born in 1813 in Leipzig and died in Venice in 1883. (We happened upon a sign marking the site of his death unexpectedly when we were in Italy several years ago as we wandered into the back [non-canal] entrance to the Casino di Venizia.) Wagner was wildly talented as a musician, wrote the librettos for his operas as well as the music, and also directed them. He was egomaniacal, outspoken, politically engaged, and slept with women who were not his wife. All of those proclivities meant that he was frequently in trouble with employers, other composers, musicians, theatre-goers, politicians, members of the nobility, and women. He was also an antisemite but unfortunately that was not widely considered to be a depraved view in the society in which he lived and moved.
Wagner wrote a lot of not only really long, but also monumental, operas; even today, the term “Wagnerian” is applied to almost anything that is totally over the top. Wagner wrote the operas that most people grew up mocking – featuring substantially constructed singers wearing horns on their heads, armour and huge fur coats. Many of his operas were based on Teutonic myths, involved gods and goddesses and wrangled with large religious (Roman Catholic) themes. Tannhäuser itself is basically the story of a poet and singer who has been tempted away from moral, upstanding society by Venus and her shameless retinue. He has apparently been engaging for an extended period of time in untold Dionysian frolics with Venus, but he has finally grown tired of it. A sweet thread of music calls him to return to his upstanding life and to Elisabeth, the niece of the local landgrave (a count, or prince) who loves him. Venus permits him to go back to “real life,” but the draw to the life of decadence is strong, and he continues to battle his demons until, following a trip to Rome where he throws himself on the mercy of the Pope, he is absolved. But, alas, it is too late: Elisabeth is dead by the time news of his pardon arrives, and so is he.
Wagner’s music is stirring to the core. It is dark and voluptuous and exerts almost magical powers over many listeners. There is no explaining it if you haven’t felt it. It has overtaken the minds of right-minded people (like Stephen Fry) who would love NOT to be so enamoured with it because of Wagner’s terrible views on Jews, and it has also entranced a lot of very wrong-minded people – like Hitler, who loved the music from an early age and subsequently deployed it to stir feelings of patriotism to a fever pitch among his followers. (Woody Allen once remarked, “I can’t listen to that much Wagner… I’m starting to get the urge to conquer Poland.” I’ll let you decide whether you want to put Allen in the right- or the wrong-minded cohort.)
Wagner’s music is known by even those who have never heard of Wagner: it’s appeared in films and cartoons and in a kazillion other contexts. For a full appreciation of Wagner’s influence in the world, one cannot do better than to read an excellent book by Alex Ross called Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music – but you must be a real Wagner fan to get through it because it’s 784 pages, comprising 1.46 lbs of fine print. It is fascinating and endlessly detailed and reading it is a Wagnerian effort in itself. But it is a worthwhile investment of time if you are so inclined.
Wagner knew that his music was not suited to standard opera houses of the day so after a long and involved process that included planning for a while to build in Munich, he and his second wife Cosima (a force of nature, that one, and an even bigger antisemite than Wagner was, if that kind of comparison is of any consequence at all) settled on the quiet town of Bayreuth for their opera house and their residence, Haus Wahnfried. They could not have built either edifice without the financial patronage of the profligate and somewhat nutty King Ludwig II, who spent money on all kinds of crazy projects including Schloss Neuschwanstein, in which Walt Disney found inspiration when he was designing Disneyland. But Ludwig did make a sound investment when it came to Wagner’s opera house.
The Festspielhaus stands at the top of the “Green Hill” which is a famous landmark for any serious Wagner fan. Again for those not familiar, my Lonely Planet guide explains that “The structure was specially designed to accommodate Wagner’s massive theatrical sets, with three stories of mechanical works hidden below stage. It’s still one of the largest opera venues in the world.”
Interesting facts about the Festspielhaus
- The building accommodates 1970 patrons per performance, and they are jammed in like sardines.
- Wagner wanted the seats to be uncomfortable so that no one would fall asleep in them, and he got his wish.
- There are no subtitles in German or any other language, so unless you speak German, you are SOL when it comes to following the dialogue. The woman who sat next to me (a Dane who had studied in Germany and also spoke English) told me that even for German-speakers, the lyrics in the performance we were watching would have been hard to follow because only two of the main performers (Elisabeth and Tannhäuser) sang their lines as clearly as one might have wished.
- The orchestra is sunk out of sight below the stage. No photos of the orchestra pit are permitted.
- The sound created by the configuration of the building is astoundingly good.
- When the moment arrives for the performance to begin, the doors are closed and the lights are all turned out.
- A chorus of trombones gives a warning fifteen minutes before the second and third acts begin.
- If you are late, you are not admitted to the theatre until the next act. (I gather there is a room to which latecomers are consigned, where they can watch a video of what they are missing.)
There is an intermission of a full hour between each act, which gives patrons time to drink champagne or beer, wander around the lovely grounds, eat anything from pretzels and bratwurst on a bun to a full dinner, either in the cafeteria-style setting or a comprehensive buffet dinner.
The patrons themselves wear anything from evening wear to nicely groomed shorts and shirts. I saw a lot of lovely evening dresses on the hill, and people-watching is a popular entre-acte activity.
The Festspielhaus and the Jews
During the reign of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party prior to and during World War II, it was not only in keeping with the extreme prejudices of the by-then-deceased Richard and Cosima Wagner, and their son Siegfried and his deeply antisemitic wife Winifred (who were running the festival at the time), it was also in the family’s best financial interests to support and conform with the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Hitler kept the festival afloat during the years when Nazi politics led to boycotts from outside the country, and he was a frequent visitor at Wannfried. A failed artist, Hitler apparently loved hanging out with the owners of the Festival and the directors and performers, and to sit by a huge fireplace in Winifred and Siegfried’s home (where he had standing invitation to stay), talking about the arts long into the night. He bought many tickets that were given to Nazi officers in order to help support the Festival, but Alex Ross reports that most of these people were not opera fans and attended only with reluctance. (I hope they suffered during every minute of those very long performances in those very uncomfortable seats.)
Like much of Germany, the Festspielhaus has in recent years chosen to put its ignoble past front and centre, rather than trying to hide or cover it up, an initiative that any right-thinking person must applaud. Since 2012, an art installation entitled “Silenced Voices” has stood just below the opera house on the Green Hill. It is a “tribute to the many singers, musicians, choreographers, and musical directors who, under Wagner’s and succeeding administrations up through the 1930s, were hired to work here, only to face the institution’s bigotry. Most of these artists, for the most part Jewish, a few of them gay, were harassed into resigning, fired, or forced to flee Germany altogether.” Several wound up in the extermination camps.
I appreciated the words on this sign, which is part of the display:
As the sign says, many Wagner fans will try to say (mainly out of desperation) that since Wagner was dead at the time, it was Hitler’s fault not his that Jews were so badly treated in Bayreuth during the Third Reich, and that Wagner’s music was misused to further the insidious goals of the Nazi regime. It is not that simple. However, this exhibit at the Festspielhaus, initiated and supported by the more recent descendants of Wagner, is a step in the right direction.
Far be it from me to dare to review a Wagner opera: Wagnerism gave me some insight into how little I know about Wagner and his music. But I have watched several Wagner operas thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s live-streaming program which brings operas into movie theatres around the world each season. In addition, during the pandemic, I took an excellent online course entitled “Wagner’s Ring: Music, Motifs, and Magic.” So I’m not a total neophyte.
In preparation for our trip to Germany, I watched a traditional production of Tannhäuser from the Met, performed in 2015 and starring Johan Botha (Tannhäuser) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Elisabeth), with musical direction by James Levine, so I knew what was happening and had some idea of what to expect.
I did not get what I expected, which turned out to be great.
The version of Tannhäuser we saw in Bayreuth (directed by Tobias Kratzer, conducted by Axel Kober, and starring Stephen Gould as Tannhäuser, Lise Davidsen as Elisabeth, Markus Eiche as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Albert Dohmen as Landgraf Hermann, and Ekaterina Gubanova as a wondrous Venus) turns the traditional story on its head. Tannhäuser himself, in his “Venus world,” is a clown, and Venus – an acrobat – is the leader of a little band of circus folk, which also includes a lovely drag queen named LeGateau Chocolat and a kind and funny dwarf named Oskar.
Unlike in the traditional interpretation, this circus world – the world Tannhäuser wants to flee in order to return to his Elisabeth – is not the world of fantasy but rather is the real world, complete with Burger Kings, run-down camper vehicles and billboards. This gives a lovely twist to the trope in which dissatisfied protagonists “run off to join the circus.” Tannhäuser has clearly done just that, but now he regrets his choice and wants to return to the world from whence he came. This world – the world of the Landgraf and Elisabeth, which in the original opera is the domain of the region’s landholders and the sacred terrain of the Catholic Church – becomes by contrast, in this iteration, the land of make-believe: a theatrical production.
The scenes involving the Landgraf and Elisabeth et al. take place inside the very Festspielhaus in which we, the patrons, are now seated. What is happening to them, which they take to be real, is not; instead, it is the production we’re now watching. The pilgrims, whose chorus is essential to the musical impact of this opera, take various forms: at one point they are theatre-goers, representing us, dressed to the nines and carrying copies of the Tannhäuser program that in reality are available for sale outside the theatre. Later, when they return from seeking absolution in “Rome,” the pilgrims become a troupe of migrants wandering through the town.
In the second act, the deft use of video (deployed throughout the opera – I wondered if its inspiration was the opera live-streaming with which so many of us are now familiar) is used to show characters moving from one world to the other. Before us on the stage we see Tannhäuser, Elisabeth and the others stage the singing competition that is to determine Tannhäuser’s fate, but via video we also watch Venus and her little troupe breaking into the theatre in which we sit: we see them mount a ladder to the second-floor exterior balcony (the same one from which a fanfare warns patrons that the next act is about to start), make their way into and through the backstage area of the theatre, and down to the stage to watch the singing competition. Venus grabs a wig and heads onstage for a closer look while the other two watch mostly from the wings. After various shenanigans engineered by Venus in her efforts to reclaim Tannhäuser (these scenes are mimed because Venus is not in the second act of the original so has no singing lines, and the other two are not in the opera at all) and political protests (including the posting of a huge banner on the aforementioned balcony), the stage director finally summons the police. We watch on video as the local Bayreuth constabulary drive up to the theatre in pursuit of the offenders, soon afterward appearing before our very eyes, on stage.
The playful approach to what is real and what is not extends into the second intermission when we wander outside and see Venus’s ladder propped against the second balcony, alongside the banner that was earlier posted by Chocolat and Oskar.
It was during the third act that I became fully aware of the distance between the focus of the director and that of the composer. In this rendition, Venus and her troupe clearly hold far more sympathetic and higher ground in than does the world of politics and religious sentiment. Elisabeth demonstrates that she understands this truth when she comes out of the fancy theatre and down to the campsite where the circus folk are currently living rough under a billboard, and shares food and conversation with the by-now discouraged and lonely Oskar. Distraught and disillusioned, this is where she meets her end, at her own hand. (Spoiler alert!! Albeit too late.) When Tannhäuser returns soon afterward from his trip to seek redemption, not knowing that Elisabeth is dead, he tears up Wagner’s script in a futile attempt to attain a different outcome for their story. (This is the one place where I really lost track of things due to not speaking German: I had no idea what was being torn to pieces on the stage until I read a review after the evening was over.) So it all ended differently but no less tragically in this version of the opera that it does in a traditional production, but it was far more satisfactory ending from a 2020s perspective on how the world should work.
All in all the production was magical. Venus was astonishing: relatable, funny and demonstrative, and a wonderful singer. Elisabeth, by necessity more restrained, was also powerful. And Tannhäuser was beyond fabulous. The benighted Woolfram whose love for Elizabeth remains forever unconsummated, at least on an emotional and spiritual level, also put in a hugely strong performance. The cautious deployment of circus tawdriness often adds a note of dark mystery to art, and it worked to great effect on that level here.
The curtain calls were lengthy and well deserved, and while there was no standing ovation (probably not a “thing” here) there were many many roars of “Bravo” And “Maestro.” The audience approved, and apparently so did some of the world’s more qualified-than-I reviewers, who have been covering this same production (albeit with different musical directors and cast changes here and there) since it was first mounted in 2017: See Opera Today or The New York Times or Opera Ramblings for example, for photos and mostly glowing write-ups.
The treatment was playful but the story remains serious and the rendition haunting, and I loved every bit of it. So did my fellow audience attendees: The couple to my right were from Japan and had come all the way to Bayreuth to see not only Tannhäuser, but The Ring Cycle starting the next day. To my left was the couple from Denmark with her mother; they had been to Bayreuth before – the mother several times. They were not sticking around for The Ring Cycle, although they had seen it before at Bayreuth, but were instead leaving for Milan where they would see Aida. All of us were in Germany for one main purpose, and none of us regretted our decision. (Not even the Japanese couple, even though they faced the possibility of a quarantine, still in effect in Japan, after they got home.)