Travelogue LII: Bayreuth I: Richard Wagner

Reading list for Bayreuth 2015.

Reading list for Bayreuth 2015. Mann and Nietzsche are, in my opinion, still the very best Wagnerians.

August 15, 2015 In a week I will be at the Richard Wagner Opera Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. Six days, five operas, some twenty hours of music. The tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde to boot.

For those readers who may not be aware of just how impossibly cool the preceding few sentences are–the Bayreuth festivals were started in 1876 by Wagner himself, in the theater he designed specifically for the performance of his operas. Today, the wait-list for tickets is about ten years, unless you know the right people and happen to get insanely lucky. Which, apparently, I did. What.

For me, it’s the great closing of the circle, the realization of years of Mythos and fantasy and love-from-afar. After all, it’s Wagner’s fault that I am here in Germany in the first place. When people ask me how I ended up studying comparative literature in Mainz, I always go back to July 4th, 2008–I had just turned sixteen and was awkward, precocious, tomboyish, and painfully nerdy. There was a flea market after the local parade and I bought a copy of Das Rheingold (the first opera of the Ring) for a dollar because the picture on the front was cool and because it looked intellectual. At that point in my life I was in my phase of checking books out from the library because they seemed scholarly and forcing myself to read them no matter how dull the contents. Indeed.

Anyway, I listened to the entire CD as soon as I got home and was not overly impressed. Dark, Teutonic, incomprehensible. This opera thing, though, was new and fascinating. I spent the next six months becoming increasingly obsessed–first the Italians, then the French, Mozart, Britten, Strauss. And when I finally got around to playing Das Rheingold again, on some freezing December evening in Vermont, I was suddenly completely, utterly, hopelessly hooked. Wagner–where had he been all my life? His particular brand of disturbing beauty hit me like a brick wall.

And thus by the time I graduated from high school my German vocabulary was enormous, and also entirely impractical. Words like “love-death,” “springtide,” and “gloaming” are all of utmost importance to the hardcore Wagnerian, but, as I discovered within my first actual five minutes in Germany, are absolutely useless in all other situations.

All the same, Wagner’s work stood at the center of my intellectual existence. In him I found the beginning of the drive, the love, the energy that is still behind everything I do. The operas propelled me back to his own sources–to Goethe, Beethoven, Shakespeare, the Greeks–and forward to his skeptics and lovers–Nietzsche, Mahler, Berg, Mann. I reveled above all in his critics, found his oeuvre suspect and horrible and bewitching all at once.  To difficult to love, too seductive to hate.

And then I walked onto my college campus and ran into a German professor on my first day who told me I should sign up for his introductory language class, and that was that. The floodgates opened.


The shrine to opera, or rather to Wagner, in my childhood bedroom. With full orchestral scores, Furtwängler and Solti, and posters from the Otto Schenk Ring. So, so nerdy.

A very old photo: the shrine to opera, but mostly to Wagner, in my childhood bedroom. With full orchestral scores, Furtwängler and Solti, and posters from the Otto Schenk Ring. It doesn’t get much more nerdy than that.

Now, it’s been years since I have listened to the Ring in its entirety, laying on my back under a down comforter in my freezing childhood bedroom, German-English libretto propped open on my chest. One CD a night, fifteen nights in a row, until fire and water had destroyed the world and all the gods were dead. That experience–the circle of light surrounded by darkness, the music through my headphones, the whole world flying open–was my childhood, perhaps the defining  experience of my teenage years. And now I’m going back.

It’s not that I haven’t listened to Wagner in the meantime–there was the crazy regietheater Walküre in San Francisco, the Parsifal HD broadcast from the Met which silenced a carload of college students. And, in possibly the most remarkable experience of my existence to date, the Tristan und Isolde in France where I fell in love and learned more about myself in five hours than I had in the past 23 years. But the total immersion, the intensity, the feeling that Wagner was there, tangible, at the very forefront of my existence–I thought I had left that behind me when I packed my bags for college and left home.

I think, though, that it is all going to come back. Actually, re-reading and re-thinking myself into the Ring‘s mythos over the past week, I am finding that it perhaps never went anywhere at all. Below the surface, yes, but intact.

At any rate, Leitmotiv is once more keeping me awake at night. And I am delighted.

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7 thoughts on “Travelogue LII: Bayreuth I: Richard Wagner

  1. One of your best posts thus far! Make sure you take lots of pics at Bayreuth and more posts. Wagnerian Sublimation.

  2. You are incredibly nerdy, but perhaps one of the most delightful people! What an amazing opportunity to see Wagner’s works live in his theatre! Hopefully there will be some photos?

  3. What a brilliant post, Emily! That sounds like a most wonderful and fantastic childhood – glad it can all come real for you now. If we were speechless on the car ride back from Parsifal HD, just think how speechless you will be after this experience!

    • Thank you so much, Edwin!
      I’m really hoping I manage to get a ticket for Parsifal in Bayreuth next year (it’s not playing in 2015). With Jonas Kaufmann in the titular role, of course.

  4. Well, what a great post. I’m somehow not especially keen to return to Bayreuth, as it sometimes feels that the inmates have taken over the asylum. But, over the years, I’ve seem some amazing performances there (the Parsifal and Fliegende Hollander in ’85 and the premiere of the Harry Kupfer Ring in ’88). That first visit in ’85 rivaled your’s – the Ring, Parsifal, Hollander and a terrible W. Wagner new production of Tannhauser. Just awful. But being there for 11 days was almost too much – and I imagine you know exactly what I mean. If you’re also into 20th century German opera, check out my post on Berg’s Lulu, a new production of which just opened at the Met last week: We saw the dress rehearsal last week, but I haven’t yet had time to post about it, and we’ll be going back to see it again on Saturday night. There’s going to be a live HD transmission on Saturday, November 21st at movie theatres around the world and, if it’s your thing, perhaps you can check it out.

    • Ha, yes, I was ready to sleep for a week after seven days in Bayreuth. The whole experience was just as exhausting physically as it was mentally. The place has some sort of drug-like quality, though–I will most certainly be back.
      And thank you for the Lulu article, and the reminder of the Met broadcast. I have seen many of their broadcasts over the years, and will have to see if I can make it to that particular one here in Germany. Lulu is a catastrophically amazing work.

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