In Munich, I had one of the best surprises of our entire trip. There were many sights and landmarks in Germany that I knew in advance I would like to see (most of which I did), but when we emerged from Munich’s subway system into Marienplatz I experienced a moment of sheer delight that was totally unexpected. As I said on Facebook at the time, it was the closest I’ve come to a spontaneous scream since the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show.
It was August 26, and we had arrived at Munich’s massive hauptbahnhof (train station) from Bayreuth mid-afternoon, then rolled (dragged) our suitcases two (long) blocks to our hotel. The Mirabell, at the corner of Goethestrasse and Landwerstrasse, turns out to be located in an area with a lot of Turkish restaurants and shops. After settling into our room, we wandered around the neighbourhood a bit, then decided to take the subway to Marienplatz, the central square in the historical section of Munich. (Munich’s wondrous transit system includes the S-Bahn on the surface, the U-Bahn underground, and a host of connecting trams and buses, most of which meet either at or under the Hauptbahnhof. Everything we wanted to see in Munich was easily accessible from our hotel.)
At the Marienplatz stop, we got off the train and took the escalator up to street level, thinking we would emerge into a plaza with some nice old Bavarian buildings surrounding it. Instead, this was the gasp-inducing sight that greeted us:
Marienplatz has been the central square of Munich since 1158, and the massive Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) has been its prime attraction since 1874. (Parts of the building were damaged in the air raids of 1944 and were rebuilt following the war.) We took dozens of photos of this remarkable neo-Gothic building (of which I will spare you 99%), and when we went back the following day we waited in the square to witness the chiming of the hour from the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. To the great delight of tourists like us, this attraction features figurines that emerge from the central tower three times a day, enacting stories from Bavarian history,
Here’s a short sample of what the glockenspiel looks like in action. The top section depicts a 16th century joust that was held to honour the marriage of a Bavarian duke to a member of the House of Lorraine. The lower section shows coopers “danc[ing] through the streets to ‘bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions’” during a plague in the early 1500s. In 2022, we can easily relate to the need for such distractions.
In addition to the New City Hall, Marienplatz is the site of the Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus), the Marian column (the pillar you can see in the top photo in front of the Rathaus, with the gold statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of it), and many shops and restaurants. Nearby sights include the Frauenkirche and Peterskirche, neither of which we had time to tour.
The day after our arrival, we took a tram rather than the subway to the Old City. As we walked from the tram stop back to Marienplatz, we came across the Asamkirche, which I’d seen mentioned in my travel guide, and went in to have a look. This late-Baroque style church was built for the private use and “salvation” of its designers, two brothers – a sculptor and a painter. Wikipedia reports (albeit in a statement with no citation) that “Due to public pressure, the brothers were forced to make the church accessible to the public.” I did wonder what sins might have led the brothers to believe that they needed to create such opulent facilities in order to save their souls, but I’ve been unable to find the answer to that question.
Also near Marienplatz is Munich’s Viktualienmarkt where since the 1800s, large crowds of tourists and Münchners have gathered to eat sausages and pretzels and other tempting treats prepared by local vendors, to drink beer and listen to live music, and to purchase fresh meats, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables, as well as plants, honey, herbs and spices and a lot of other things.
Both of the two amazing Baroque structures we saw in Bayreuth were built at the behest of the Margrave Friederich von Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1711-1763) and his wife, the Margravine Sophie Wilhelmine of Prussia (1709 – 1758). Partly due to their extravagant home-decor decisions and partly because of their mid-18th century contributions to opera in Bayreuth, their tenure had a permanent influence on the region.
The Miriam-Webster online dictionary tells us that a “margrave” is “a military governor of a German province, particularly a border province,” although this seems to be an archaic definition, or “a member of the German nobility corresponding in rank to a British marquess.” Britannica adds that it is a “ranking in modern times immediately below a duke and above a count, or earl.” I hope that helps.
When his father died, Friederich was unprepared to assume his role as margrave because his father had failed to explain to him what his responsibilities might be. Friederich’s wife, the beloved sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, seems to have intervened to help where she could, simultaneously advancing her own agenda, and between the two of them they managed to build properties of historical interest and significance, support the arts and sciences (he established a regional university and an academy of art), and in general to enhance the reputation of the region (no doubt at the expense of thousands of less fortunate souls who could have put the money to better use).
Das Neues Schloss (The New Palace)
The old palace in Bayreuth burned down in 1753, and this provided an opportunity for Friederich and the Margravine to design and construct the building we toured on our second full day in Bayreuth. Das Neues Schloss, as it is called in German, was constructed to incorporate five existing buildings, which must have presented untold headaches to the architect. (How he executed his assignment – which he had to do on a shoestring on top of everything else because the Margravian couple had already overspent their building budgets on the Bayreuth Opera House and another residence – is engagingly described on German Wikipedia.)
The first floor of this enormous, horseshoe-shaped residence apparently features a comprehensive collection of faience (pottery decorated with coloured glass) and an exhibition entitled “The Margravine’s Bayreuth,” but we did not have an opportunity to see either of these exhibits due to the time of day. We were, however, able to stroll (almost alone) for an extended period through the second floor of the palace, where a significant portion of the baroque excesses that formed the original furnishings and decor have been either preserved or reproduced.
Some of the highlights of the residence’s long series of interconnected rooms include the rococo “Palm Room” and the “Hall of Fractured Mirrors.”
In addition to the wall designs, parqueted floors, decorated ceilings and accoutrements, I was taken with a decidedly undecorative bas relief on the main floor near the entrance to the residence, which has an interesting story attached to it. I think this is how it went:
Either “our” margrave or a previous one had a jester in his employ of whom he was very fond. The jester, a dwarf, was not popular among others in the court due to his barbed wit, and of course he was also the target of animosity because of his physical appearance. Ill-wishers (it is thought) arranged matters so that the jester’s small horse was tripped by a stone and fell, tossing the jester into the street and killing him. The margrave was so sad at this offensive act that he had a plaque made to commemorate the deed.
Given its size and splendour, it is difficult to absorb the fact that the Margrave and Margravine’s visions for their New Palace had to be seriously curtailed because of their previous spending excesses. It is hard to imagine what the place would have looked like if they’d had unlimited resources.
The Margravial Opera House
After leaving the palace, we wandered further through Bayreuth’s lovely Alt Stadt (Old City) before going to find dinner. We had not intended to do any more sight-seeing involving admission fees that day, but when we came upon the Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches Opernhaus), a UNESCO site, we learned that you can’t get even a peek inside the actual facility unless you are on a tour or attending a concert. There would be one more tour that afternoon, they said, but it was in German. The attendant offered us a reduced rate since we are German-deficient, and we decided to go for it. We were very glad we did.
Described in the site’s brochure as “one of the most important remaining examples of baroque theatre architecture,” the Margravial Opera House was built in honour of the 1748 wedding of the Margravine’s daughter, Sophie, to Duke Carl Eugen of Württemburg. Wilhemine was very interested in music and she composed, performed, and played several instruments herself. She was also keen to build interest in opera in general and to let the world know how cultured things were in the Bavarian city that was her home: at one point she brought a whole Italian opera troupe to Bayreuth. In the weeks-long celebration of he opening of the opera house and Sophie’s wedding, there were Italian operas, French plays, and banquets.
The opera house in Bayreuth was designed by one of the leading opera theatre architects of the era, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, and Bibiena’s son Carlo supervised construction and then worked at the facility for more than ten years.
To call the decor of the loge theatre “extravagant” would be to seriously understate the matter. There is no way to describe it. As our guide told us various facts in German, we sat in our seats, our heads back, staring open-mouthed at our surroundings. Every square inch of every wall and every bit of ceiling is decorated with wisps of gold and ribbons and cupids and paintings of people and every single bit of the design is probably where it is for a reason. It is a true sight to behold.
The lowered stage curtain is the illustration of an early opera set and gives some sense of what the place must look like when the lights go down.
The Margravial Opera House was extensively restored between 2013 and 2018 (mostly cleaned and brightened, as there was little actual damage) with a goal of preserving its unique beauty well into the future – not to mention its representation of an era where such excess was even thinkable.
On our first evening in Bayreuth, we walked from our hotel down into the old part of town for dinner. En route, we passed Wahnfried House, where the Wagner Museum is located, and Neues Schloss (New Palace), both of which we would tour two days later. The streets were quiet, wide and cobbled, and even where people had gathered, they seemed to have done so on foot or by bicycle rather than by car. When we took a bus through the downtown area on our way to the concert at the Festspielhaus the following day, we noticed that the central part of Bayreuth looks much more urban than does the older area, but it’s still open and spacious, with a small-town feel.
The population of Bayreuth is 73,000. The town operates, I am guessing, like other single-focus tourism centres like Stratford, Ontario and Park City, Utah, upon which thousands of people from all around the world descend for several weeks each year to enjoy an annual festival – filling up all of the hotels and B&Bs, shopping, dining and asking stupid questions (“Why does this bus go this way when I want to go that way?” “Is a German dumpling like an English dumpling?”) then leaving the place in a state of relative peace and quiet for the remainder of the year. Festival attendees must drive the locals in these places nuts, but I’m sure we’re also essential to their municipal bottom lines.
We chose to eat at a popular restaurant named Manns Bräu. The outdoor patio was totally packed, so we sat inside, where we shared a table with a couple who’d come from a town near Cologne to hear the entire Ring Cycle, which started two days later and ran for four nights. They’d been coming to Bayreuth for decades.
Thanks to the Google Translate app on my iPhone, we were able to share our passion for Wagner’s music and our dismay at his antisemitism: all of this over sauerbraten mit sauerblau und Kloß (yes, a lot of sauer there, and a lot of calories), bratwurst, apfelsaft (apple juice) and beer (“What is the German word for lager?”) Sharing tables with strangers is a lovely custom.
On our second day in Bayreuth we attended the Tannhäuser opera that I have written about already, which was quite enough activity for one day. On our third, we toured three of Bayreuth’s cultural offerings, each of which was impressive and totally distinctive.
Haus Wahnfried and the Richard Wagner Museum
As I mentioned in my Tannhäuser post, after considering several options, Richard and Cosima Wagner decided on Bayreuth as the location for Wagner’s opera theatre and their own home, the latter of which they named Haus Wahnfried. (Wikipedia tells us that the name is a compound of the German words for delusion or madness [Wahn] and peace, freedom [Fried]. The inscription over the door provides a bit of explanation: “Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) Built between 1872 and 1874, the home is now a museum featuring not only some of the original furnishings, tableware, etc. set out in their original locations so you get a feel of what it must have been like to live there, but also displays of Cosima’s diaries and letters, and Richard’s writing implements and musical scores. Part of the house was destroyed by bombs during World War II but has been restored. Some of the artifacts within the house were also destroyed (including Wagner’s writing desk) but Richard and Cosima’s daughter-in-law Winifred managed to put most of the furniture and art in safe locations in advance of the air attack.
The basement of Haus Wahnfried has been renovated to include technological displays that offer insights into how Richard Wagner created his music, and how the score is transformed into sound.
There is also a separate home that Cosima (a widow by then) had built for her son Siegfried and his wife Winifred; Winifred lived there until she died in 1980. Siegfried and especially Winifred were fierce supporters of the Third Reich in all of its ugly manifestations, and this home was for an extended period a favourite place for Adolf Hitler to take a break from his efforts to conquer and transform Europe. A failed artist, he apparently loved to hang out here with the Wagner family and with Bayreuth musicians. Displays in this house explore the relationship between the Wagner-run Festspielhaus and the National Socialists. Throughout our visit to Germany I was impressed with the way the country has acknowledged and confronted the demons in its past.
A third building on the site is new and very modern. It houses a separate museum less focused on Wagner himself and more on his operas and on “Wagnerism” in general. There we saw costumes, props and miniatures of sets from various productions of Wagner operas at Bayreuth. There was also a fascinating collection of the kind of bizarre objects that have appeared all over the world since Wagner died, either in acknowledgement of Wagner’s extraordinary talent or in an attempt to profit from association with his fame. There is also a cinema in the building.
Out back of the villa itself is the smooth polished piece of marble (outsized, of course) that marks the site of Richard’s and Cosima’s graves (he died in Venice in 1883, she at Bayreuth in 1930.) Nearby are those of several of Wagner’s favourite dogs. The secluded area which is the location of these graves opens up onto an extensive civic park, formerly part of the new palace of the Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg- Bayreuth (see next blog post), which gives visitors a sense that the Wagner property is much bigger and more pastoral than it is.
(This post is getting a bit long and I still have two significant sites in Bayreuth to write about so stand by for Part 2. 🙂
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 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.)
Visiting the city of Frankfurt-am-Main while recovering from jet lag is a perfect way to start a trip to Germany. We arrived at about noon on Saturday, August 20, 2022, checked into our hotel, and had plenty of time to walk the approximately 2k to the north side of the Eiserner Steg (Iron Footbridge) for the 4 p.m. river cruise I had booked for us while still in Canada. In fact, they let us onto the 3:30 cruise as we were a bit early. So on a clear and lovely afternoon we had the best possible introduction to the city of Frankfurt – a view of its lovely skyline from the Main River, accompanied by some identification of buildings and a bit of history over the loudspeakers, in English as well as German. We were accompanied by people from all over the world, it seemed, including a few of course who were there only to arrange their beautiful selves against the skyline in a dozen different ways for the purpose of posting photos on Instagram.
We concluded our first day in Germany appropriately – eating schnitzel with Frankfurt’s famous grüne soße (green sauce) on the square in the old city (Altstadt).
On our second day in Frankfurt we began to figure out the transportation system, which is excellent but also confusing if you don’t speak German too well. I think because the whole system of underground and surface trains and buses runs so smoothly, they don’t need too many information people standing around to help those (literally) misguided tourists like us. So a few times, we had to get off a train, go back the way we came, and then set out again. Fortunately, we weren’t in any rush.
We had similar problems trying to use Google maps to walk to our destinations from the subway stops so we did lots and lots and lots of unnecessary steps. At some point, I am going to take the time to watch a YouTube video on the subject of how to go the way you WANT to go when using Google maps, rather than in the opposite or some other unrelated direction. I was glad I had bought a SIM card, given all the times I had to recheck where we were going. At times it seemed that the street signs in Frankfurt and the street names on Frankfurt maps were totally unrelated.
Our first destination was the original home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the poet/playwright/scientist etc. whose Faust (parts One and Two) many years ago permanently expanded my appreciation for the role of literature and drama in the understanding good and evil, not to mention magic and dark thoughts, and gave me an insight into one powerfully creative visionary. (I can still see and feel Goethe’s rendering of Walpurgis Night in my mind’s eye.)
Goethe’s childhood home was large, and the rooms inside it were large, as befitted the social status of his family. The museum into which the building has now been turned is as interesting in its depiction of the era it evokes as it is for what it tells us about Goethe, who lived there for about twenty years. One of the most interesting artifacts to my mind was a puppet theatre he was given as a child that was of great interest to him well into adulthood. It reminds me that what we offer children to stimulate their imaginations can have a lifelong impact. The puppet theatre isn’t much to look at, but that is probably the point of it; drawings hung nearby illustrate what can be done by a child with some ideas who has been given a glass case with a wooden floor.
Goethe’s house was lovely – one of those places that makes you think “If I just had a desk like this in a room like this and was born into a wealthy family that offered me time and space, I could have produced Great Works.” It’s not true, but it is part of the appeal of visiting the homes of creative masters.
After the Goethe Museum we wandered down toward the river, past Willy Brandt Plaza, and found lunch at a place on the waterfront named “MainNizzo” that had been recommended in my Lonely Planet guidebook. When you eat outside, as we did there and have done several times now, you quickly learn that there are as many wasps in Germany as there are in Canada.
Frankfurt’s “new” Jewish Museum is located in a massively renovated former Rothschild Palace (not much to see of the original interior) and it features three floors of multimedia exhibits that focus on Jewish life in Frankfurt “from the Enlightenment to the present” with a focus on such topics as everyday objects, tradition and ritual, and history and present. One cool thing that is probably common in other museums but that I hadn’t seen before is a digital card that is given to you on admission that you can then hold up near signs next to various displays in order to access additional relevant information online after you get home. Thanks to this feature, I am bringing home a recipe for apple cake (Apfelkuchen) from Anne Frank’s family (there is a whole room of information in the museum about Anne Frank and her relatives, who were from Frankfurt), a recipe for Challah for the grandkids to try out if they are interested, and several other interesting digital artifacts. I was very taken with the “Untitled” tree sculpture by Ariel Schlesinger.
There is also an “old” Jewish museum in Frankfurt. We were unable to see that one as it was closed on Monday, when we could have made time for it. But we were able walk around the very old cemetery behind it. It was badly damaged by the Nazis, but “the oldest extant tombstone dates back to 1272 – the oldest material evidence of Jewish life in Frankfurt.” Its walls are embedded with markers with the names of the many, many Frankfurt Jews whose lives were extinguished during the Holocaust. So many names.
The Film Museum
Foot-weary, we decided to cross the river and see one final museum that day. We chose the Deutsches FilmInstitut Filmmuseum partly out of the hope that it might offer us an opportunity to sit down and watch a bit of film footage. Which it did. We were short on time as well as energy by then, so we didn’t see the feature exhibition, “Rapture of the Deep: Film under Water,” which sounded intriguing. But we did see the permanent exhibitions: one on “filmic vision” and one on “filmic narration.” Both were truly interesting and contained lots of fascinating exhibits.
On our final day in Frankfurt, since the museums were closed and our batteries needed recharging, we thought we’d take it easy. We ended up walking over 12,000 steps anyway: that’s the way it goes when you are travelling.
We started at the wonderful city market, Kleinmarkthalle, which offers all the wares of any big city market and was busy with patrons buying fresh produce, meat and fish for consumption at home, and others enjoying food that looked and smelled fabulous right on the premises. Since it was late on a Monday morning, it wasn’t too busy, but I’m sure this place is packed later in the day and week. It was early enough that I was tempted but didn’t make purchases from the vast arrays of hand-made chocolates and magnificent looking baked goods. There were also lots of fresh flowers and plants for sale.
From the market we wandered over to the old Jewish cemetery (see photos above) then down to the central visible attraction of Frankfurt in the old town – the Dom Römer aka St. Bartholemew’s Church aka Kaiserdom. This church contains a lot of religious art and sculpture and even a van Dyck. Wikipedia points out that “It is the largest religious building in the city [but] despite its common English name, it has never been a true cathedral… ” and that “The present church building is the third church on the same site. Since the late 19th century, excavations have revealed buildings that can be traced back to the 7th century.”
After lunch we strolled all the way back to the Nizzo and bought a bottle of water there, then walked back through the park by the riverbank to have dinner in the same restaurant we’d eaten at the first night. We liked it because it was outside, on the square, and the food was very tasty. My pork loin was fantastiche and Arnie enjoyed his goulash.
Before dinner, we had a lovely chat with a young German woman with her cute one-and-a-half-year old in the town square in Frankfurt. (The little boy had toddled right up to me, very eager to tell me where his mama was and to practice climbing some shallow steps.) She was so happy to see Arnie and me travelling around the world at our age (“when you’re older, I mean,” she said, politely). She was at that time of life (mid-thirties, I would guess) where she felt that much as she loved her little one, she was pretty tied down and feared she’d never be able to see and do all the things she’d once dreamed of seeing and doing. She was really lovely and we had a good conversation about life and parenthood. I told her about my solo trip to India when I was 60 and that cheered her up even more.
I guess we’re just a couple of travelling inspirations with sore feet.
I noticed last weekend that our prime minister had “thrown cold water” on appeals from the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had been visiting Canada to appeal for help in regard to Germany’s energy crisis. I began to wonder if I should stop wearing my little Canadian pin as I travelled around Germany, which I like to do to distinguish myself from our southern neighbours. But then the next day I read that “with a grateful German leader at his side, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood firmly behind the controversial decision to export at least one natural gas turbine for a Russian-owned pipeline that is a crucial source of natural gas for Germany and other European states.” So even if he did piss off everyone except Germany, at least I felt it safe to continue to wear my pin.
Otherwise, it’s been nice to be able to ignore politics for a while.
Thanks, Frankfurt for the opportunity to visit your truly lovely city.