Bayreuth Festival: What you need to know about the Richard Wagner Festival

The Richard Wagner Festival will open on Sunday evening with a new production of “The Flying Dutchman”. Chancellor Angela Merkel is also expected on the Green Hill again this year. Here you can find out everything you need to know about the Bayreuth Festival.

Other countries have their royal houses – we have the Wagners. For more than 100 years, the family clan has stood for great triumphs, bitter defeats, political entanglements, intrigues – and time and again for great art. In other words, everything that the heart of a people desires that has to do without royal weddings and coronation ceremonies. And so the opening of the Bayreuth Festival is a first-rate media event year after year. What exactly is special about the Richard Wagner Festival? We reveal everything you need to know about the most important German music festival.

Who invented it?

With the construction of the Festspielhaus, Richard Wagner set himself his own monument during his lifetime: He built a place in which he could uncompromisingly concentrate on the performance of his own works, away from the big metropolises. In particular, the performance of his opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” should be the focus. To implement his bold plans, the notoriously clumsy composer had to rely on generous sponsors: In addition to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, this was above all his patroness Marie von Schleinitz: She was involved in the Bayreuth patronage association, which pursued the goal of holding the Bayreuth Festival to enable the collection of donations. The first considerations for an own festival hall go back to the year 1850. Back then Wagner wrote to his friend Theodor Uhlig: “Here, where I am right now and where some things are not so bad at all, I would build a rough theater according to my plan on a beautiful meadow near the city of planks and beams and only have it furnished with decorations and machinery that are necessary for the performance of Siegfried. ” In 1871 Wagner visited Bayreuth for the first time. The margravial opera house proved unsuitable for Wagner’s intentions, but he liked the city. So he decided to build his theater there.

Why is everyone talking about the “Green Hill”?

In 1871 the municipal council of Bayreuth gave Wagner a piece of land on a green hill outside the city – hence the name often used synonymously for the festival hall.

Is only Wagner played?

During the lifetime of Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima it was already clear that nothing other than his musical dramas would be played. Wagner’s son continued this tradition. In his will from 1929, Siegfried stipulated that only works by his father may be performed in Bayreuth. And so to this day, with very few exceptions – Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is allowed – only Wagner is played on the Green Hill. Not all of Wagner, however. Wagner himself found his first three operas “Das Liebesverbot”, “Die Feen” and “Rienzi” not worthy of Bayreuth, which is why they have been omitted to this day. The program of the Bayreuth Festival essentially consists of the following ten works: “The Flying Dutchman”, “Tannhauser”, “Lohengrin”, “Tristan und Isolde”, “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg”, “Parsifal” and the four for the cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung” includes operas “Das Rheingold”, “Die Walküre”, “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”.

Why is the Festspielhaus called “Scheune”?

Anyone who sees the Festspielhaus for the first time will be disappointed. Seen from the outside, the building looks comparatively inconspicuous. It works entirely without decorative elements, which is why the house is disrespectfully called “barn”. But that should be in Wagner’s sense. He actually wanted to create the impression of “fleetingly timbered festival halls”, which should give the whole thing a folk character. Inside, too, visitors by no means expect plush and pomp. The 1974 auditorium is simply furnished and consists of evenly rising rows of seats modeled on the antique Amphitheater. This guarantees an almost ideal view from all seats. Another specialty of Bayreuth is the strong darkening of the theater room. Nothing should distract the audience from the action on the stage.

Why does the music sound better in Bayreuth than elsewhere?

What distinguishes the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth from other concert halls is the unique acoustics. There are several reasons for this: On the one hand, the entire interior is made of wood, underneath there is a cavity – so it offers an ideal soundboard for music. On the other hand, Wagner had the orchestra pit, which he called the “mystical abyss”, shielded from the audience with a sound cover. The viewer is not distracted by the “effort of sound generation”. That reinforces the stage illusion. Above all, however, this is the condition for the famous Bayreuth “mixed sound”. Because the music does not stream from the orchestra directly into the audience, but is projected onto the stage, where it mixes with the voices of the singers and is thrown into the audience as an overall sound. Individual instruments can no longer be localized. This creates an orchestral sound that spreads evenly across the room. You can hear equally well everywhere.

Do visitors really have to sit on wooden benches for nine hours?

Yes and no. As mentioned above, the interior of the festival hall is actually made of wood – including the chairs. Experienced Bayreuth-goers therefore have a seat cushion with them – so that their buttocks don’t have to suffer for the feast for the ears. There are often misconceptions about the length of Wagner operas. Although his main work “Der Ring des Nibelungen” actually lasts around 16 hours, the cycle is divided into four evenings so that the viewer has to sit for a maximum of five hours – interrupted by two breaks.

Who organizes the festival?

The Richard Wagner Festival was a family business for almost 100 years, dominated by the composer and his descendants. And even today the festival is – at least artistically – directed by the Wagners. After Richard’s death in 1883, his widow took over Cosima leading the festival, which was still very irregular at the time. In 1908 Cosima handed over the baton to her son for health reasons Siegfried Wagnerwho mastered this task excellently and carefully modernized the festival. After his death in 1930 Siegfried’s widow took over Winifred the management – an ardent Hitler admirer who ruined the reputation of the Bayreuth Festival in the art world for good. So there was an artistic restart after the Second World War. In 1951 the Richard Wagner Festival took place again for the first time, under the artistic and organizational direction of the Wagner grandchildren Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner. The two mucked out ideologically and dared an aesthetic new beginning. In particular, Wieland Wagner, who died in 1966, with his bold productions played a major role in ensuring that Bayreuth rose to the top tier of music festivals.

The festival lost a good part of its reputation under the long sovereignty of the patriarch Wolfgang Wagner, who remained the festival’s artistic director until 2008. Critics criticize the often upright staging and the lack of an innovative overall concept. In Bayreuth, “people sing Wagner today as they might have done in Stuttgart or Dresden in the past,” criticized a few years ago “The time”. The Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth has been the sponsor of the Bayreuth Festival Hall since 1973. Foundation members are the Federal Republic of Germany, the Free State of Bavaria, the City of Bayreuth, the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, the Bavarian State Foundation, the Upper Franconian Foundation, the Upper Franconian District and members of the Wagner family. The Articles of Association of the Foundation also regulates the management of the festival and states that members of the Wagner family are to be preferred. The foundation therefore chose his daughters to succeed Wolfgang Wagner Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquierwho were responsible for the Bayreuth Festival for the first time in 2009. Katharina Wagner is now the sole director.

The festival has been carried out by Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH since 1986. This is made up of representatives of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Free State of Bavaria, the City of Bayreuth and the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, each with a 25 percent share of the vote.

What does the fun cost the taxpayer?

The federal government and the Free State of Bavaria each share a third of the uncovered costs. The last third is shared by the city of Bayreuth, the district of Upper Franconia and the “Society of Friends of Bayreuth”. In absolute terms, this means that the federal government is currently adding 2.3 million euros in taxpayers’ money for the spectacle, with the Free State of Bavaria participating in the same amount. On the one hand, that sounds like a lot of money. But 60 percent of the expenditures for the Richard Wagner Festival are covered by own funds – the public subsidies are less than 40 percent. For comparison: municipal theaters in Germany are subsidized with an average of more than 80 percent.

Why is the Chancellor there?

Certainly not for representative reasons. Angela Merkel’s predecessors in office Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl were able to afford to avoid Bayreuth. The fact that Merkel has been a regular for many years has to do with her preference for Richard Wagner, which she has expressed several times in interviews.

Who else is going there – and for what reason?

In addition to Chancellor Angela Merkel, many high-ranking personalities from politics and business come to Bayreuth on a regular basis. Even the Green politician Claudia Roth raves about Richard Wagner’s music. Even beyond politics, the density of celebrities is high: Thomas Gottschalk is a regular guest, Uschi Glas, Roberto Blanco, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis are also happy to be present. Even if it seems difficult to imagine for some people to voluntarily sit on uncomfortable wooden benches for five hours: Many make this sacrifice because they have become addicted to music and forget all earthly plagues with the Wagnerian sounds. Of course, the Bayreuth opening is also a social must. For one or the other, it’s always about seeing and being seen.

Is the Wagner hype a new phenomenon?

No. The fact that the chancellor, minister and show stars travel to Bayreuth is not a fad of the third millennium. Even when the first Richard Wagner Festival opened in 1876, emperors, kings and numerous intellectuals were present. With Franz Liszt, Anton Bruckner, Camille Saint-Saëns, Peter Tschaikowski and Edvard Grieg, outstanding composers of their time were present. In addition, the Russian writer Lev Tolstoy, the philosopher and Wagner friend Friedrich Nietzsche and the architect Gottfried Semper. And of course King Ludwig II of Bavaria was there. After all, he had financed all the fun.

How do I get tickets?

There are 30 performances every year, all of which are sold out. Since the Festspielhaus holds almost 2000 spectators, around 58,000 spectators have the opportunity to get hold of a ticket. However, this is an art in itself, as there are inquiries for more than half a million tickets every year. For a long time you could Tickets for the Bayreuth Festival only order in writing via the ticket office – and then be patient, the waiting time takes several years. Now you can You can also purchase tickets online.

There is another way to get tickets: Every year the Richard Wagner Association Scholarships, primarily to enable students to attend the performances.

What does a card cost?

For a festival of this category, the prices are astonishingly moderate. The most expensive seats (1st – 6th row) recently cost 320 euros for most performances, while the cheapest ticket was already available for 30 euros. In addition, a small number of places with restricted visibility are available for 12 euros.

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