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Germansplaining: It’s time to visit Bayreuth

The longest-running German music festival is a treat for all Wagner fans. Tickets, however, can be hard to come by

Image: The New European

It’s festival season! And there’s a treat out there for you: Bayreuth. Ridiculously overpriced private guest houses await you, very hearty (that is: meaty) food, and by far the most exquisite acoustics any concert hall in the world has to offer.

Plus of course, Wagner. Whom you may find less exquisite – opinions vary. Still, if you’ve only ever heard the Walkürenritt (The Ride of the Valkyries) in the helicopter scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, try Bayreuth. I’ve been there once, I’m not a Wagnerian, and I was mesmerised.

Speaking of apocalypse: there is a touch of Götterdämmerung looming over the Wagner Festspiele, because this year you can still get tickets. This is a first, and it comes as quite a shock.

Usually, you apply for a ticket in the autumn. And unless you are a celebrity or belong to the prestigious Freundeskreis, one of the shareholders, you’d only ever get one every few years. Our Federal Court of Auditors once found out that only 40% of all tickets were actually sold on the open market, even fewer (16%) for the premieres. The bulk went through arcane channels, a practice that has since been reviewed. A little.

Bayreuth is a challenge, on many accounts. Paying between £680 and £1,700 for Der Ring isn’t for everyone (you have to buy a ticket for all four operas, they aren’t sold individually). Nor is sitting through 16 hours of Siegfried, his rather unorthodox upbringing and the rest of the family intrigue of the Nibelung cycle.

I dreaded it.

Note: I only ever went to see the final rehearsals, a week before the festival started. The music’s the same, but the tickets and lodgings are affordable and you don’t have to go the whole hog with the dress code. Also, to my great joy, I realised that the performance starts in the afternoon and that you get a full hour off between the acts – to drink beer or champagne outside in the sun, and eat, well, sausages or tarte flambée. It’s not the same as a Glyndebourne picnic, but it was genuinely good fun. .

If you walk around the Grüner Hügel, the green hillock, where the Festspielhaus is situated (a red-brick building looking like a massive barn from afar) you find a bronze bust of Hitler’s favourite composer, Richard Wagner, crafted by Hitler’s favourite sculptor, Arno Breker, commissioned by the city of Bayreuth – in the 1950s… Today, a small exhibition surrounds the bust: steles bearing short biographies of the many musicians, singers and stage designers who had been sacked due to the Wagner clan’s antisemitism, starting with Richard himself.

And yet, it is the longest-running German music festival, attracting visitors from all over the world, a young Prince Charles even, and Angela Merkel is a regular.

When I visited the rehearsals, I had the honour to be shown the Orchestergraben, the pit, by conductor Marek Janowski, one of the most renowned masters of Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner, Brahms, you name it. It is one of a kind, it makes for a unique sound design, and it is another of Bayreuth’s challenges: terraced in six stages underneath and not in front of the stage, up to 12 metres deep, the wind instruments are placed lowest so as not to drown the singing, which is more audible in Bayreuth than elsewhere.

The pit is covered by an arched hood, making the orchestra completely invisible. The arch reflects the music to the stage, so the audience hears an indirect sound. The conductor, however, doesn’t hear what the audience hears, and not at the same time either, because the sound mix happens above him. Below him, up to 124 musicians play on 140 sq metres in temperatures rising to 34C. No dress code for them.

The audience hall – mostly made of wood, as other textures would swallow the sound – then serves as a big funnel. You find no boxes; Wagner wanted to democratise music. Which may now actually happen, because of the Kartenkrise, the ticket crisis. Bayreuth – unlike Salzburg, for instance – always had the luxury of being hopelessly overbooked. This year, for the first time, it isn’t.

Conservative critics hold the latest interpretation of Der Ring responsible, slighted as “dithery” (which is saying something, bombastic as Wagner is) and sneer at long-time festival director Katharina Wagner’s innovative approach in general. This year, for instance, the composer’s great-granddaughter dared to introduce a Parsifal in augmented reality. Apparently the conservative Freundeskreis kept the budget too low so there’ll only be a few hundred AR glasses available for more than 1,000 visitors.

If you’re lucky, you might still get one. In the meantime, I’m off to see the Boss. Bruce Springsteen, that is.

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