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Bayreuther Festspiele (Part 1, Background)

By popular demand (OK, Tom in Lewiston)

Before getting into details on the Bayreuther Festspiele, here is a short primer. The festival was begun in 1876 to show case Richard Wagner’s Gesammtkunstwerk (total work of art, Germans love big words), Der Ring des Nibelungen, a 4 opera cycle of German and Norse mythology beginning with the start of the universe and concluding with its destruction. In it, Gods, Demigods, Giants, Dwarves and Men struggle for ultimate power in the universe. Suffice it to say, it is the precursor to Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Game of Thrones and any number of tales which attract super-nerds the world over. Not only is it a great story, but it has the most dramatic and intense music ever written. All modern film sound tracks can trace their origin back to the principles set out in this score. This cycle takes 6 days to complete, day 1 is Das Rheingold, day 2 is Die Walkuere, day 3 is a rest day, day 4 is Siegfried, day 5 is another rest day, and finally day 6 is Goetterdaemmerung. On off days, other Wagner operas are presented. So there are 3 cycles of The Ring over the course of the festival

It took Wagner nearly 30 years to complete this work, and he wanted a special festival to present it consecutively, so that the audience could be immersed and even transformed by it. Talk about binge watching. He picked the small northern Bavarian city (Ober Franken really) of Bayreuth, because it already had an opera house built by the sister of Frederick the Great with the largest stage in Europe. Nonetheless, Wagner recognized that 500 seats was too small a capacity, so he arranged to have a new opera house built on the top of a hill outside the town. This would have over 1800 seats, and instead of consecutive tiers full of private boxes for the rich and famous, everyone would be seated like in the ancient Greek theaters, all together in a style which we would recognize as modern movie theaters and high-school auditoriums. He did compromise by putting three tiers in the back of the house for Emperors, Kings, and nobility who could not be expected to rub elbows with mere mortals.

The most peculiar feature of the building (the Festspielhaus), is the orchestra pit. It is located very deep and kind of under the stage and none of the musicians can be seen by the audience. The conductor can be seen by the musicians and the singers on stage, but not by the audience. A large band-shell type wall is behind the conductor, and it reflects the sound on to the stage and into the rest of the house. Thus, it has a warm, reflective tone, as no one in the audience gets the sound directly from the instruments. It also means that on hot summer evenings (no A/C here), the musicians can play in shorts and T-shirts while the audience bakes in their formal wear.

The Festspielhaus is only used for about 5 weeks from late July to the end of August. By the terms Wagner’s will, only the 10 operas of the Wagner cannon are allowed to be presented. It has no heating system (or A/C as I said). The festival exists in a milieu dripping with tradition of things that can and cannot be done. No supertitles with the text projected above the stage, let alone a translation from the German text. This is a most German festival, even though it attracts people from all over the world. As such, it did get its reputation muddied in the age of Hitler. Wagner was a vehement anti-Semite, as was his 2nd wife, the daughter of Franz Liszt. The festival is trying to atone for these past sins. There is a large remembrance park in front of the Festspielhaus with the biographies of the many artists who lost their jobs beginning in 1933 for being proscribed persons; primarily Jews, people married to Jews, gays, and people who just plain didn’t like Hitler and let it be known. Fortunately, many of these people were able to emigrate, enriching the cultural life of North and South America as well as Asia. But a few did not and paid the ultimate price.

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