Travel in Pictures: Surviving the Bayreuth Festival of Wagner Operas 2018

The Bayreuth Festival of Wagner operas is one of the most prestigious and exclusive classical music events in the world. Until this month I was largely a Wagner virgin. Apart from – like many people – being able to hum some bars of the Ride of the Valkyries, and having hazy anecdotal knowledge about some extremely unpleasant historical politics.

Getting tickets for the Bayreuth Festival is horrendously difficult. And yet – without really doing anything myself – last week I found myself on a road trip to Bayreuth Festival to see a marathon four very long Wagner operas. It was a fascinating experience on many levels, but also a mammoth endurance test on others!

Take a trip with me here to the Bayreuth Festival. I’m sharing what it’s like; some tips for surviving it, if you manage to get there; and some facts about how the modern Bayreuth Festival squares itself with the operas’ antisemitic themes, and the Wagner family’s abhorrent political past and links to Hitler.

Jump to:

1.  What is the Bayreuth Festival?

2. What it’s like to attend, plus some top tips for surviving!

3. A terrible political history: how does the modern Bayreuth Festival square itself  with antisemitism in the operas, & the Wagners’ right wing politics & links to Hitler?

4. So, had I survived by the end of the week?!

Bayreuth Festival
The Festspielhaus was built especially with dimensions and acoustics to complement Wagners’ operas

What is the Bayreuth Festival?

The Bayreuth festival (Bayreuther Festspiele) is held for one month each year between July and August in the town of Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany. (Pronounce Bayreuth as ‘By-Royt’ btw).

Each year, six of Richard Wagner’s operas are performed up to six times each (in 2018) over the one month Festival. One will be a new production, while the others will be recycled recent productions.

The Bayreuth Festival is regarded as one of the most important events of the global classical music calendar. It’s hugely over-subscribed. So it’s massively difficult to get tickets, although the website seeks to play that down.

I recently saw a newspaper article opining disparagingly about what an elitist event it is – evidenced by the fact that UK Conservative politicians George Osborne and Michael Gove have a ‘lads’ holiday’ there every year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also often attends the opening.

Bayreuth Festival

The Bayreuther Festspielhaus

The Bayreuth Festival is held in the Festspielhaus, built especially for Wagner’s operas, towards the end of his lifetime. On its completion, the Bayreuth Festival started in 1876. Wagner died in 1883.

The Festspielhaus is located in a tranquil landscaped park, 20 minutes walk or so from Bayreuth town centre.

The decor is conservative – in complete contrast to the over-the-top gilt baroque, rococo  style of the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth town centre, which I have to confess I prefer.

The Festspielhaus layout and acoustics were designed specifically to complement Wagner’s operas, and to give a direct view, wherever you’re sitting.

The acoustics really are phenomenal. You can hear the singers’ voices crystal clearly over the orchestra at all times.

On the view, I found this to be slightly restricted if you’re seated to one side of the auditorium. And you will need opera glasses if you’re more than a few rows back and you want to see detail.

If you find yourself near Bayreuth outside Festival season, then it’s possible to book a tour of the Festspielhaus.

Bayreuth Festival
Festival-goers milling around outside the Festspielhaus before the doors open

What it’s like to attend, plus some top tips for surviving!

You have to be hardcore to get to buy tickets!…..

Depending on your view point, you might say that acquiring tickets for the Bayreuth Festival requires as much dedication as sitting through one of Wagner’s operas itself. In that sense, the ticket-buying process is good training for when you actually get there – and sorts the wheat from the chaff in terms of whether or not you’ll be able to endure it!

The practicalities for most people are that you must first apply to be on a waiting list, for which you must reapply each year. It’s likely to be anything up to 10 years before you’re invited to bid for tickets for the next Bayreuth Festival dates. And if you miss a year, you may be sent back to the back of the queue. When it’s finally your turn, you are then entered into a lottery and allocated specific operas and seats for purchase.

For the lucky few, there are also some tickets released for online purchase on one day in March, for which there will also be an online queue and massive clamour on the day. Otherwise you might get a ticket through joining a Wagner society with an allocation, or by attending at the box office on the day of a performance, to see if there have been any returns.

Tickets are non-transferable, and you must bring your passport/ID along to the Festpielhaus to verify your identity matches that on the ticket.

Personally, I found myself at the Bayreuth Festival because my fellow attendee had first got himself on the waiting list 8 years previously. Not a keen Wagnerian himself as such, he was intrigued enough more generally by opera and German history to keep applying.

The first I heard of it all was when – nearly a year before the 2018 Festival – he told me he had just bought four pairs of tickets, and invited me to attend. So in that sense, I found myself in Bayreuth by mistake, although I was looking forward to an education!

But there is no doubt that many Wagnerian opera fans are hardcore, regarding Wagner and his works with cult-like worship that others reserve for pop acts like Beyoncé.

And for this hardcore, attending the Bayreuth Festival is the Holy Grail – much like the one in Wagner’s opera Parsifal.

Parsifal, incidentally, was the 3rd opera I saw on three consecutive nights. And so by the end of Act 1, I had just in that moment reached full Wagner-saturation and felt I needed to escape! And this brings me on to one way in which you might get a free ticket for part of an opera on the night…..

Bayreuth Festival
Waiting in the Festspielhaus for a performance to start. It’s got amazing acoustics, but it’s hot and there’s not a lot of legroom

………But you might get a free ticket for part of an opera if you hang about

Before skipping off carefree into the night after Act 1 of Parsifal, I left my ticket with my fellow attendee.

As he was milling round during the second interval he saw someone holding up a sign saying she was looking for tickets. And so I was delighted to hear that my ticket had not gone to waste after all. A local Bayreuth resident was given it instead, and she got to see Act 3 of Parsifal, which at that precise moment would have been wasted on me (ID is not checked again after admission to Act 1).

She told my Wagner partner that she has never failed to get in this way. And I certainly noticed from seats that became empty in other performances that a good number of others left after Act 1 too.

So, while clearly this won’t work for everyone, if you’re willing to miss at least Act 1 and to hang around – and possibly to negotiate in German! – then you might at least be able to get in to see part of an opera.

Bayreuth Festival
If you hang around in the bar and restaurant areas outside the Festspielhaus during the interval, you might just be able to bag a ticket for Acts 2 or 3 from someone who’s leaving

Stay nearby so you can stroll there

I stayed at Hotel Goldener Hirsch (Hotel Golden Deer/Hind). It wasn’t cheap during the Festival. But then nowhere is. And in fact you have to be sure to book accommodation in Bayreuth as soon as you know you’re going to the Festival.

This hotel is very conveniently situated between Bayreuth town centre and the Festival. I  was grateful to be able to make the 15 minute stroll to the Festspielhaus without having to rely on taxis or buses. Overall I found the hotel clean, and comfortable enough, with a mid-range feel. The staff were very pleasant and helpful, and the wifi connection was excellent.

On the downside, the average rate of €167 per night didn’t include breakfast or parking. The hotel is tired decor-wise, and there was no air conditioning to combat the 33C/91F degree heat. So while trying to sleep at night, I had to rely on a fan, plus having windows open onto a noisy main street.

Bayreuth Festival
The Hotel Goldener Hirsch is a 15 minute walk to the Bayreuth Festival

Dress to impress

At Bayreuth Festival, many men wear dinner jackets. Many wear what might be described as casual business suits. It’s certainly an opportunity to get out your full-on evening gown or wedding guest outfit if you enjoy an excuse to dress up! Still others wear ‘alternative’ dress wear. And a smattering buck the trend and turn up in jeans.

In the end it’s up to you. There’s definitely an unofficial dress code – but you won’t be denied entry if you don’t follow it.

Bayreuth Festival
Outside the Festspielhaus

Ambience & Etiquette

The Bayreuth Festival has some definite unspoken etiquette, which you may well know already if you’re into opera. It seems to be an intertwining of global rules for attending opera; rules for attending opera in Germany; rules for attending Wagner’s operas at the Festspielhaus; and rules more generally for German audiences.

For instance, you can’t take in anything you can’t keep about your person during the performance. So maybe a small evening bag, a programme, opera glasses, a Spanish-style fan, possibly a cushion. But absolutely no bottles of water, no snacks, no coats.

I haven’t experienced this before at opera, or any other theatre-style setting. It seems to be a rule specific to the Festspielhaus. There was a cloakroom which I didn’t use – I just travelled light.

And here’s another move perhaps also designed to recognise the tightness of the legroom. Everyone knew by osmosis not to sit on their fold-down theatre chair until all the gaps in the row had been filled, there was no one left to squeeze past, and the doors had been closed to any further incomers. This is clearly a fabulous display of politeness, and would save all the tutting and scowls in UK theatres as people squeeze past if we adhered to this.

And yes, on that legroom. There isn’t a great deal. And during summer heat, and opera acts up to 2 hrs 15 mins long, it can get very hot and very uncomfortable.

Foot-stamping (a German audience thing) and shouting ‘bravo’ (an opera thing) are approved of as signs of appreciation at the end of acts, and of the opera as a whole. Whooping, whistling, and standing ovations aren’t. For most operas there’s a curtain call at the end of each act, plus several at the end of the whole opera.

Ambience-wise – given the prestige of the Bayreuth Festival, the cost of attending, and the amount of dressing up involved etc. – it all feels astonishingly ‘unglitzy’ and understated. This is apparently in-keeping with what Wagner intended, as he hated the ‘showiness’ of traditional opera houses.

Since the Festspielhaus holds 1,925, there’s enough people milling around to create an atmosphere. But not so many that it feels like you can’t move, or that you have to queue for hours (I’m contrasting events like Wimbledon tennis here).

While the majority are German, it’s definitely a mixed clientele nationality-wise. And it’s predominantly white, middle-aged and middle-class.

Bayreuth Festival
A glimpse of the orchestra pit, completely hidden from view from the seated audience, as Wagner intended. The orchestra are very crammed in too!

What are the operas like?

I’ve said this before, but just be prepared: They. Are. Long.

If you’re not fluent in German – and I’m not – then it pays to acquaint yourself with the story in advance. Otherwise, you’re going to be very confused for a very long time!

Get a CD and read the libretto. Or at least skim through Wikipedia. And/or buy a programme, which at €7 was one of the more moderately priced Bayreuth Festival offerings. It has the bonus of containing some photos of the production – which you’re not allowed to take yourself. And it gives insight into the precise staging choices made for each production, which can be quite radical, and often are not literal interpretations of the original opera.

A lovely touch is that – at 15, 10 and 5 minute intervals before each opera act is to start –  a brass section comes to the Festspielhaus balcony and heralds everyone into the auditorium with a short blast of a musical theme which will be heard in the upcoming act.

I saw four operas. Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was where my Wagner education started. It boils down to a love story in which star-crossed lovers have to die to be together.

I enjoyed the melodrama of the story, and the (for me) surprisingly modern and interpretive staging. But I enjoyed Wagner’s music less so. It’s got its own sense of melodrama – and whereas that often really grips me in music – I found that Wagner’s is mostly not the sort that does it for me.

At 2 hours 15 mins long with no interval – and as my first ever Wagner opera – I found Der Fliegende Holländer a massive feat of endurance to sit through. I was hot and uncomfortable in the hard, straight-backed seat. I nearly fell asleep twice, but could see clearly that I was not the only one.

During Tristan & Isolde on night #2, however, there were two hour-long intervals, and so the opportunity for a rest and some caffeine between acts. Already the Wagnerian theme of star-crossed lovers who have to meet each other in death seemed familiar. I’d done some reading about the mythology on which Wagner based his operas. And I enjoyed better some of the music in the final act.

All that made a huge difference to my enjoyment/endurance levels. But you can read a review of the 2018 production here, written by someone with far better Wagner appreciation than me.

Bayreuth Festival
The main singers in Tristan & Isolde take a curtain call

Parsifal was on night #3. I had a relapse and didn’t make it beyond Act 1. See above about my ticket going free to a more deserving person that night for Act 3!

But the fourth and final opera I saw was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). Even though it was the longest, I enjoyed it far, far more than the others. Partly as I was refreshed after two days off between operas 3 and 4! Partly as I’d got into the rhythm of Wagner by then. Partly as I was very taken with the soloist Michael Volle, who played lead character Hans Sachs.

And Australian Jewish director Barrie Kosky’s production also confronted Wagner’s antisemitism head-on in a shocking way that really made me sit up and take notice! – see more on that below. You can also read critics’ reviews of this production, first staged in 2017, here and here.

Bayreuth Festival
Michael Volle and the rest of the cast of Die Meistersinger take a curtain call

Prepare for the length and the heat and the prices!

Just to emphasise again – the operas are long! They’re put on in the height of summer! The Festspielhaus has no air con! And you can’t sip water in the auditorium!

So do your best prep to make yourself comfortable. Take a cushion and fold-away fan. Take water. While you won’t be able to take this into the Festspielhaus, you can at least drink it on arrival so you don’t dehydrate once inside!

And take snacks. Again you can’t eat these in the auditorium. But I kept a small bag of nuts in my evening bag to peck at during the interval.

On the great plus side, the longer operas have one-hour-long intervals between each act. So a three act opera of four hours or more has two one hour intervals, and lasts at least six hours in total. A Wagner opera is a big time investment! But the time added by the intervals gives you welcome breaks, and allows you to both go to the toilet and eat and drink properly between acts!

Bayreuth Festival
The catering prices are top whack. In 2018, this beer was €7, and a 750ml bottle of sparkling water was €9!

On the subject of the catering….

Obviously those hour-long intervals aren’t just for your comfort. They’re also so you can be sold top-whack-price event catering!

And if you’re a fan of eating over-priced event food in your finery, then literally no-one is stopping you dressing-up to mingle with festival goers and partake. Entry to the Festspielhuas park is not restricted – only to the opera house itself for ticket-holders.

There’s plenty of lovely, proper German things on offer – including bratwurst, pretzels, pflammkuchen and cake. All-you-can-eat café meals sit alongside German beer, champagne, sekt, and soft drinks. And there’s a pre-orderable fine dining meal with matching wines. One course is served before the performance, and the other two are served in each interval.

I was introduced to lovely, smooth Jacobs coffee – which at €3.50 was very much at the upper end of what you might expect to pay for quality coffee at an event like this. But €9 for a large bottle of sparkling water was most definitely way past that!

Beyond stipulating which Festspielhaus sections you’re prepared to sit in based on ticket price, it’s literally a lottery where you’ll end up in the theatre. But if you’re lucky enough to get tickets on the right-hand side, then you’re positioned to be first for getting out to the bar! Otherwise you’ll likely find yourself in a longish – but fairly brisk – queue.

Bayreuth Festival
For 3-Act operas, it’s possible to book a 3-course fine dining meal with matching wines that starts before the performance, and continues in the two hour long intervals

Have dinner afterwards!

Something I found particularly lovely about the Bayreuth Festival was going out for a late dinner afterwards. If you can save yourself and eat light during the intervals, then this is a fabulous thing to do!

Many local restaurants open late and put on special post-Festival menus – but you need to book.

It will be around 10.30pm, at which time most people dining will indeed have just left the Festival. And so the post-Festival dinner is lent a special feel by most people being dressed up.

While I was at the Bayreuth Festival this year, it was at times a stifling 33C/91F degrees. That sometimes felt unbearable during the Festival itself. But it was absolutely lovely weather for sitting outside a restaurant having dinner afterwards!

Bayreuth Festival
I had dinner after one opera at the Hotel Weihenstephan, which does indeed double as a hotel. A few doors away from my own, and serving typical Bavarian cuisine, it claims to be the oldest brewery in the world – a very bold claim indeed!

A terrible political history: how does the modern Bayreuth Festival square itself with Wagner family antisemitism, right wing politics, & links to Hitler?

The fourth opera that I saw – Die Meistersinger – is the one most closely associated with Wagner’s own antisemitism, and the Wagner family’s right wing politics and links to the Nazi party.

I wanted to understand how this condemnable political history sat with the modern day Bayreuth Festival. Katharina Wagner – Richard Wagner’s great granddaughter – is currently general manager of the Bayreuth Festival. Fair play to the present day Wagner family for tackling the issue head-on in the Silenced Voices exhibition in the Festpielhaus park. That is my source for most of what follows.

Richard Wagner’s antisemitism

As Festspielhaus exhibition plaques make clear, any claims to exonerate Richard Wagner by saying he was ‘misused’ by the Nazis are disingenuous.

It’s true that Wagner died decades before the Nazis came to prominence, so there was no direct contact between him and Hitler. Nevertheless, Wagner’s beliefs, themes and works were a key inspiration for this fascist dictator.

Richard Wagner was intent on revolutionising both musical theatre and society as a whole. In that context he was very clearly an antisemite, drawing on philosophers like Schopenhauer. He believed Jewish influence to be an alien, enemy element which was corrupting German culture and humanity as a whole, and that needed to be eradicated. He particularly hated assimilated Jews.

His view’s evolved into characters in his operas – with ‘dark’, satanic Jewish figures set against ‘light’, Germanic figures e.g. Mime against Siegfried (in the opera Siegfried, from the Ring Cycle) and Klingsor against Parsifal (in the opera Parsifal). However, it has to be said that Wagner was depicting stock antisemitic clichés of his time, that were acceptable then to educated liberals, in a way that is incomprehensible today.

Wagner family direct links with the Nazis

After Richard Wagner’s death, his wife, Cosima – daughter of composer Franz Liszt – took over as Bayreuth Festival director. Cosima survived Wagner by nearly 50 years, and she turned his views into a political instrument. She demonstrated overt antisemitism by engaging musicians not just on merit, but according to their racial backgrounds.

And it was Wagner’s descendants who established direct Nazi party links. The Wagner family became radicalised by World War I. Wagner’s son Siegfried, and his wife Winifred, met Hitler for the first time in 1923, and she joined the Nazi party.

After a 10 year absence caused by the war, the Wagners relaunched the Bayreuth Festival in 1924 as a demonstration of nationalistic, antisemitic sentiment.

Bayreuth Festival
The 1924 Bayreuth Festival programme

The central proposition of the current Silenced Voices exhibition, in the shadow of the FestSpielhaus, is that, the Wagner family helped prepare the ground for state-organised expulsions from 1933 onwards of Jewish and ‘politically unacceptable’ artists. They did this through their defamation and marginalisation of Jewish artists, misuse of the Bayreuth Festival, and participation in antisemitic and anti-democratic organisations.

The exhibition includes plaques of remembrance and details about former Bayreuth Festival ‘Jewish’ orchestra musicians and chorus members who were subjected to persecution after 1933. Some were forced to ‘retire’; banned from working; or died in a so-called ‘Judenhaus’. Others were forced into exile to other countries, or imprisoned in concentration camps. A few were allowed to apply for special authorisation to work. Many were murdered, and some disappeared.

Bayreuth Festival
The current Silenced Voices exhibition in the shadow of the Festspielhaus commemorates Jewish opera performers that were persecuted and/or murdered during the Nazi era

How is this acknowledged in modern staging of Die Meistersinger?

Die Meistersinger is arguably the Wagnerian opera most closely associated with antisemitism.

For the 1888 production of Die Meistersinger, for instance, Cosima Wagner forbade engagement of any Jewish artists. That became a more general policy – unless there were no German alternative, or their reputation as stars made them indispensable.

And under Winifred Wagner – wife of Wagner’s son Siegfried, who became Festival director in 1930 on Cosima’s death – the festival moved closer to the Nazis. Hitler was guest of honour at the 1933 Bayreuth Festival, and its staging of Die Meistersinger was an expression of Führerkult and Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). The prelude to act 3 also features in the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.

The 2018 production of Die Meistersinger that I saw has not been afraid to tackle head-on inherent antisemitism in the opera, and its political past. There is some controversy, but many agree that the untrustworthy and duplicitous character Beckmesser is intended by Wagner to be Jewish. The 2018 production – by gay, Jewish, Australian director Barrie Kosky – makes this explicit, whereas Wagner did not – and so makes a comment on Wagner’s antisemitism in the process.

Kosky depicts Beckmesser at one point wearing an overblown, caricatured Jewish head. At another point, boy actors dressed up as Hasidic Jew dwarves encircle and dance mockingly around Beckmesser. He is beaten up – clearly because he is Jewish. And part of the opera, already set in Nuremberg, is overlayed as being set in the Nuremberg Trial courtroom.

The soloist playing Beckmesser is depicted at the start of the opera as the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi (who conducted the 1882 Parsifal premiere). And how ironic right now that that depiction should also give him more than a passing physical resemblance to Jeremy Corbyn∗.

Jeremy Corbyn is the left wing leader of the UK Labour Party and currently facing many allegations of antisemitism by himself and members of his political party.

Wagner embedded in the fabric of Bayreuth

If you’re interested to know any more about the Wagners, then you’ll find that all things Wagnerian are interwoven into the fabric of the town of Bayreuth.

You can take yourself on the Wagner walking tour of notable sights related to Richard Wagner. Each one is marked by an effigy of Wagner on top of a plinth.

Click individual pictures to enlarge & scroll

Wagner statuettes on the Wagner Walking Tour

Or you can visit Wahnfried – the Wagners’ house which is now the Richard Wagner Museum. Here in the grounds you will find his grave underneath a large, dark marble slab. Designed during his lifetime, it’s intentionally unmarked. Clearly not a man to doubt his own reputation, Wagner took the view that his fame preceded him, and he didn’t need to tell anyone that it was him who was buried there!

Elsewhere in the town – and especially around the approach to the Festspielhaus park – many streets are named after Wagner family members, and characters in his operas.

Click individual pictures to enlarge & scroll

Many Bayreuth streets are named after Wagner family members, and characters in his operas

So, had I survived by the end of the week?!

I am very moved indeed by music. I love live music. And I have very eclectic taste. But you might have gathered by now that Wagner would not usually be my first choice. Nevertheless, here I am still smiling by the end of the fourth opera! Partly at the sweet release of the endurance test finally being all over, of course! And at the achievement of having seen it through to the end.

But I have to confess I also, after my last opera, felt a bit nostalgic and sorry it was over. After being thrown in at the deep end, I had started to appreciate some of Wagner’s work, and got into the rhythm of it all. I am deeply conscious that I have only scratched the surface, and there would be so much more to learn to appreciate Wagner properly.

That doesn’t mean I’d want to come back to the Bayreuth Festival necessarily. Better to let hard-to-come-by tickets go to those who are real aficionados. But it’s been a fascinating experience, and I’ve learned a lot about a new subject. I also feel spurred on to broaden my opera education now. But I’ll start by going back to first principles with something shorter and more accessible than Wagner!

Bayreuth Festival
Wagner hasn’t beaten me! I’m still smiling at the end of opera #4!

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