No wonder Bayreuth is so screwed up

June 12, 2015 by norman lebrecht


A talk I gave tonight on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row

Like Christmas on Eastenders, midsummer brings blood and tears to Bayreuth, home of the annual Wagner festival and the composer’s dysfunctional family. Have you been following the opera soap?

Bayreuth is run by two half-sisters, Katharina and Eva, daughters of Wagner’s grandson, Wolfgang. Katie was her daddy’s favourite, Eva was an outcast child of a previous marriage who went to work for a living at Covent Garden and the Met.

For seven years, the sisters have run the festival in relative peace and harmony. Angela Merkel turned up each summer to make sure all was well. But now Katie has told Eva in a lawyer’s letter not to show her face again in Bayreuth.

Eva, who’s seventy, was due to retire in August, so her banishment is bilious even by Wagner standards. Daniel Barenboim, who conducted 20 summers in Bayreuth, calls it ‘inhumane’ and wonders how such a thing is possible in a free and democratic country. Well, there’s nothing free and democratic about Bayreuth. It’s the last absolute monarchy in Europe, a hereditary autocracy answerable to no-one except a board of local yesmen. No wonder the family’s so screwed up.

The trouble stems from the founding father, Richard Wagner. While composing the four-hour unresolved chord of the adulterous Tristan und Isolde, Wagner was having babies with Cosima, daughter of his best friend Franz Liszt and wife of his conductor, Hans von Bülow. That’s the opening episode. Wagner went on to write a four-night Ring cycle in which brothers sleep with sisters and everyone tries to steal the magic ring of power. Opera does not get much messier, or more compulsive.

bayreuth rheingold

On Wagner’s death Cosima denied the paternity of one of her daughters and married off her gay son Siegfried to an English orphan, Winifred, who became infatuated with a young visitor called Adolf Hitler. (Still with the plot?) Bayreuth became a citadel of Nazi power; Siegfried’s sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, ran a small concentration camp in the grounds. After the War, the families of Nazi leaders put the festival back on its feet. When Wieland died, Wolfgang banished his children. That’s how the family functions.

How do the Wagners get away with it? Because they are the nearest thing the boringly efficient  Bundesrepublik has to a royal family, not to mention a soap opera. Their antics add mightily to the public levity and give tabloid readers a feeling they know something about art.

As for the art, it’s all downhill. The last memorable Ring cycle was put together for its centenary year in 1976 by two Frenchmen, Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez, sanitised its more odious and racist connotations. Since then, the dreary, provincial Wagners have traded on a distant past with ever diminishing returns. The Lohengrin I saw had men dressed as rats in its chorus, an unintended metaphor.

bayreuth lohengin rats

Vastly subsidised by the state, yet accountable only to a rubber-stamp board, Bayreuth needs to be liberated from its Wagners if it is ever to be viewed as something other than a television saga that has run far too long. But who has the pluck to pull the plug? Who will rid us of these pestiferous Wagners?

© Norman Lebrecht


wagner bayreuth3

Comments (34)

  1. RW2013 says:

    I think Katharina should have some kids so that the saga can continue.
    And as for
    ” Because they are the nearest thing the boringly efficient Bundesrepublik has to a royal family”, is there really ONE member of your glorious English royal family that has achieved ANYTHING of interest (except being born into a royal family)?

    1. Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      The British royals are German. Sachsen Coburg Gotha. Changed in Windsor, for the obvious reasons at the time of the name change. Still, better than Wagner, I’d say.

      1. GONZALEZ says:

        Actually, yes. They all feed the tabloids which are devoured by a big lot of Englishmen who are hungry for some “royal” gossip to talk about during their dreadfully BORING week!

        1. Anne says:

          People in Scotland, Wales and N Ireland also read tabloids, I believe.

          1. Fritz Curzon says:

            and so do the Germans and Austrians- the Cambridges were all over the front page there last week…

    2. Olassus says:

      Germany still has the House of Wittelsbach, the royal family with their own box at the Staatsoper — still, in 2015. Then there is the Princely House of Thurn und Taxis.

      1. Emmanuel says:

        …a house that has a star turn (he he) in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

    3. GONZALEZ says:

      Actually, yes. They all feed the tabloids which are devoured by a big lot of Englishmen who are hungry for some “royal” gossip to talk about during their dreadfully BORING week!

  2. Frankster says:

    There is misinformation here about the board and its consitution. It is not a rubber stamp and, because of city, regional and national government voting members, it has, for example, eliminated the elitist system of the distribution of tickets. The “secret” plan to exclude Eva Wagner from this year’s festival has yet to be explained. Was there a vote of the governing body? If not, who is responsible for the ban? Heads have yet to roll and we still do not know whose it will be.

  3. DESR says:

    I seem to recall that you rather enjoyed the Lohengrin, Norman?

  4. John Borstlap says:

    The main problem of Bayreuth seems to be – and a problem underneath the staff troubles -, that it had been set-up as a theatre of ‘model performances’ of W’s work, but nowadays ‘model performances’ can be seen everywhere. In fact, the function of Bayreuth has, as a result for its success in the past, become a bit under stress: how to distinguish itself from the regular performance types? How to jusitfy its status and subsidies? The regietheater-style of so many recent productions is imitated everywhere, so also THAT does not give the place an exceptional distinction. The only elements that make Bayreuth worthwile are its musical qualities (good singers, good orchestra, good conductor), its historic setting, and its special acoustics. Given the long history of the place and the changing circumstances of the culture around it, best would be to honestly admit it is a museum, and this is NOT a negative description: it can be a very lively museum, if it drops the regietheater fashion and returns to the more realist production type, alternated by the Jungian mystical style of Wieland Wagner. It would then present two types of Wagner production which have made their mark, and leave the conventional and almost always ugly and pointlessly patronizing regietheater style to the drawers where it belongs. Ms Katharina’s attempts at regietheater where provocation is multiplied, is only following conventional trends but not creating them. Choosing for the museum model would, paradoxically, inject new life into the place.

    1. La Donna del Largo says:

      The “fashion” you deride at Bayreuth has been an essential element of the Festival’s artistic mission since 1951, renewed in 1972 with Götz Friedrich’s production of “Tannhäuser” and again, most violently, with Patrice Chéreau’s staging of the “Ring” in 1976. Wieland’s finest stagings, the “Parsifal,” the 1956 “Meistersinger,” the 1962 “Tristan” and the final “Ring” were savaged by the press and the unthinking media when they were new, just as the above Friedrich and Chéreau creations were in the 1970s. These productions now are regarded as mellow classics, but it has always been child’s play to appreciate a masterpiece in hindsight. What takes real perception is to grasp excellence when it arrives in the form of something new and different, as in the case of the Neuenfels “Lohengrin,” reviled almost universally when it arrived. (That production, by the way, has now attained “classic” status among the Bayreuth regulars, who are already fretting about what might take its place in later years.)

      One aspect in which Bayreuth is still unique among the word’s opera companies is that every revival is treated with as much care and attention as a new production; that is, the original director returns for a full rehearsal period, details of the staging and visual elements are reviewed and revised, and essentially each summer the production is different, not just a repeat of something that happened years before. The “model” Bayreuth has provided in the postwar period, continuing to this day, is of a theater as laboratory of ideas. No other opera company comes close to this ideal.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        If a new production style is derided at the time of appearance, that does NOT mean that THEREFORE it must be a masterpiece. Chereau’s production of 1976 is greatly overrated, it seems to me, and much of its French Marxist philosophy time…. when french intellectuals thought they finally and exhaustively knew how the world worked. W’s operas are hindered everywhere by impractical requirements of the plot, so every production is a serious compromise – something that you won’t see with Mozart.

        The best production style seems to be a half-dreamy approach in harmony with plot and music like the Munich Gotterdammerung of 1989 (mt Sawallisch), without overtly political connotations:

  5. DESR says:

    The place would be stuffed if some of the productions were more naturalistic, but the problem with that is, would they have anything to say artistically? With well-chosen directors, possibly…

    But the key problem is that such productions would not only be vulnerable to cultural attack unless they were seriously good, but also that mere naturalism in that place could/would be interpreted by some as ‘Nazi’, derivative, a throwback, ‘not dealing with the legacy’ etc.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Yes, and therefore we get swastikas in Lohengrin and Parsifal, to hammer it in that the director is on the moral highground.

  6. milka says:

    That unresolved chord was at work long before Wagner showed up on the scene .Many composers used it , Chopin for example , look where it got him with Sand ….could
    that chord be a jinx chord ? To make a “royal ” comparison is interesting, as both put on a
    show, the house of Gotha being more clever at the game puts on a better show for the
    unwashed masses .

  7. john says:

    Here some notes setting the record straight.
    1. Thielemann does not want any opposition or criticism, Eva opens her mouth rightly so when she feels she has to, Katharina will never oppose Thielemann. This is the reason for banning Eva from the rehearsals. Thielemann seems to provoke conflict, therefore he is not a good choice for Berlin. Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms, Strauss and Wagner is great, but not enough for the job in Berlin.
    2. There is good Wagner also available elsewhere, although the Bayreuth acoustics is unique, with a good orchestra, wonderful chorus, etc. Singers are not always top notch, but casting Wagner has become really difficult. The level of singers was higher 50 years ago, this is a fact, just listen to the live recordings in Bayreuth.
    3. Rehearsals were reduced and “Siegfried” Lance Ryan removed without previously consulting Petrenko, he protested this issue and became vocal.
    4. Tickets are availbale, something unknown in previous years.

    1. Olassus says:

      Agree wth your list, except for his Beethoven and Wagner, which are variable.

      He likes to play around with the meter, and in these two composers this causes problems. (Wagner benefits from a Classical discipline.)

      1. Peter says:

        There is no meter, beware. But I know what you are trying to say. Thielemann’s orchestra rubato attempts a la Furtwängler somtimes feel artificial, “aufgesetzt”, maniriert.
        The reason is often also with the orchestras which today are insecure in this style.

        1. DESR says:

          The word is the Wagnerian ‘melos’ (measure) as opposed to strict ‘tempo’… Thielemann is incomparable at finding the right melos.

          It is not just a matter of rubato, but when to push forward and when to pull back. Even this seriously underrates what is involved: very difficult to express in words.

          1. Peter says:

            Thanks for second guessing my use of the term rubato, which is exactly that, pulling back and pushing forward. Another term used for this is inegalité.
            It all means essentially the same, giving time and space to the inherent musical structure (phrase, harmony, counterpoint etc.) by deviating from the mechanical tempo grid. Thielemann is good at it, only sometimes he us overdoing it abit in the wrong places, but today many others seem to have forgotten this fundamental skill of musical expression.

  8. Donald George says:

    Were not the rats in Tannhäuser? It was all set in a recycling center as I recall.

    1. DESR says:

      The rats were in Lohengrin. A great production. Not quite on a level with Herheim’s incomparably fascinating Parsifal, but such a relief to see something so intelligent there.

      The shit-plant Tannhauser was on the other hand… err… just a load of crap. And canned early too.

      Mind you, Thielemann was prevailed upon to step in to conduct even this farrago, such is his loyalty to the institution, when Thomas Hengelbrock, in cahoots with Sebastian Baumgartner the director, had tried to cut parts of the score and fallen out with the orchestra…

      The musical performances that resulted were full of glorious luftpausen and other naughty touches, as if it what was going on on stage was on this occasion a distraction…

  9. Steven says:

    One brother has a child with one sister and Wagner’s characters are mythological, not taken out of “The Sun”.

  10. Abbondio says:

    It’s hard to regard Bayreuth as anything other than a museum already. The Regietheater distractions are just a bit of coloured frosting on the indigestible Victorian fruitcake of the festival itself. It’s hard to see how anyone can overcome the inertia of its inherent conservatism when it is already vastly over-subscribed, and consequently has no incentive to change anything about itself.

    Whether the uniqueness of Bayreuth consists of much more than the building and the history, rather than a particular ‘Bayreuth Style’ of performance, is open to question. Parsifal, of course, is the only opera written with the Festspielhaus in mind. For the rest, musicians have to actually struggle with the acoustics at times (Meistersinger being a particular problem, apparently), the pit-stage coordination problem, stifling heat and (often) the tuneless cannonade of unmusical singers.

    I am sure we will go on moaning about this for years to come, and the only way things will change is if it starts to see empty seats. Personally, I felt that some of Nike Wagner’s ideas that she has expressed in the past ( particularly opening it up to other composers) might freshen things up a bit. But she is not in charge, unsurprisingly.

  11. Jimmy says:

    So the Kupfer Ring conducted by Barenboim wasn’t memorable? That was a few years after Chéreau.

  12. MacroV says:

    It does sound like quite the opera – Ring Part V: Twilight of the Wagners. Mr. Lebrecht has written a fine synopsis, now he needs to get work on the libretto and find a composer. Maybe Bayreuth could add it to the repertory.

  13. John says:

    …and some people pay for the Kardashians ! My only question: who will be the “Bruce Jenner” of the Wagner family !?

  14. Rob van der Hilst says:

    THE Question ISZZZ…who-oh-who will write an opera or even operacycle on Wagner’s ‘Bayreuth’?
    Stuff enough, scriptmaterial is delivered almost every week.

    “Kinder, schafft Neues” he once wrote in a letter to Liszt.

    Maestro Rihm perhaps you will consider to…..

  15. Gerhard says:

    Could you please explain to which facts you are referring with your remark “Siegfried’s sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, ran a small concentration camp in the grounds”? I presume it might refer to forced labour during war times, but details would be welcome.

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      When the festivals ceased in mid-War, the Wagners had no income. So they were given a slave-labour camp to manage by the SS. Wieldn and Wolfgang were the slavemasters. Details in Hamann, Carr and several other recent histories of Bayreuth.

      1. QuidNunc says:

        Richard Wagner’s grandson Wieland did actually use slave labourers in a Nazi camp to work on experiments in stage design and lighting for the Bayreuth festival, according to a new book. Wieland Wagner adopted a firm anti-Nazi stance after the war and his hard line against his mother Winifred’s Nazi connections is credited with rehabilitating the Wagner dynasty. But according to a book, Bayreuth, the Outer Camp of Flossenburg Concentration camp, published this week, he was the deputy civilian leader of the prison during the war. The authors, Albrecht Bald, a teacher, and Jorg Skriebeleit, who heads the camp memorial organisation, say that he used prison labour to conduct theatrical experiments that bore fruit when the Bayreuth Festival was relaunched in the 1950s.Flossenburg, in Bayreuth, was a small camp housing 85 prisoners, technically trained Russians, Poles, French, Italian and German men, who were forced to work in what was styled the “Institute for Physical Research”, helping to develop the V2 rocket.
        The book claims that it would never have been built was it not for the Wagner family and their influence in the government.
        Bodo Lafferentz, Wieland’s brother-in-law, used his influence to set up the camp in Bayreuth and to get Wieland a job there, protecting him from possible drafting into the army. Although the camp was not a scene of mass extermination, and in comparison to places such as Auschwitz, was a relatively humane regime, Wieland Wagner, who died in 1966, worked hard to keep his involvement hidden.

        Perhaps then Bayreuth should decamp to Flossenburg

  16. Wilfred of Ivanhoe says:

    My heart was a lion, but now it is chained, far do I travel, and we’ll travel and sing
    I travel, I travel in search of my heart
    I vowed me a vow and I pledged this to be,
    Far will I travel until thou art free.
    I travel, I travel in search of my heart
    My heart was a lion, but now it is chained, far do I travel, and we’ll travel and sing.

    Bayreuth has indeed gone to the dogs, RW must be postively turning in his grave, rat costumes in Lohengrin really. They could at least have asked the good people at the Castle of Ambras for a loan of some of their armour, Lohengrin (son of Sir Percival) and a notable Rosicrucian must appear in gleaming armour out of the mists of time.

    1. GF Handel says:

      There is a grain of truth in Rossini’s adage, “Monsieur Wagner has some wonderful moments, but terrible quarter hours” or as Mark twain remarked Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.
      It is rather interesting to note that Wagner unlike other opera composers such as Verdi consistently used historical or mythological themes for his operas. He never composed an opera based on contemporary topics or literature say Theodor Fontaine or Victor Hugo from the nineteenth century. He could not have composed a Rigoletto or Traviata. He seems to want to create allegorical works which have a semi biographic nature, he cannot resist putting himself into the moolah, which some Bayreuth directors have also done
      When I looked over the cast lists at Bayreuth for 2016, they all seem complete “unknowns”. Where are the singers of the calibre like Astrid Varnay, Martha Modl, Lotte Lehmann , Hans Hotter, Franz Volker, George London, Wolfagng Windgassen, Gottlob Frick etc. The quality is just not there at Bayreuth any more. They might benefit from the cumulative experience gained from the historically informed (authentic) movement, eg Steer horns for Hagen in Gotterdammerung
      It might be possible to build a “perfect cast” say for Lohengrin by poaching singers from elsewhere like Jonas Kaufmann, Dorothea Roschmann, Waltraud Meier, Rene Pape, Dietrich Henschel, but Bayreuth wastes money on that daft stage design project. It would be better to outsource sets, special effects, and production by competitive tender. Overall better productions can be found in Berlin and Vienna and the Met.
      Having spent the last 10 years attending Innsbrucker Festwochen, a delightful baroque festival I would need more evidence to justify the trouble and excessive cost of attending Bayreuth in the 21st century. They could possibly webstream it all in cinemas so we could munch pop corn through Die Walkure!

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