August 24, 2015 Three operas down, two to go. I’m in Bayreuth, people, and I still can’t quite believe it. The afternoon walks up to the Festspielhügel (Festival Hill), the darkness before the music starts, the glass of wine afterwards–it all seems so normal, like this isn’t one of the most extraordinary experiences in human existence. But then again, I can’t stop smiling, and I have to restrain myself from geeking out at various inopportune moments. Girl, you are at the f%$#@ Festspiele.
In the end, though, Bayreuth is a strange and contradictory place.
On the one hand, the atmosphere is all very relaxed and playful. The weather is gorgeous, and the intermissions last an hour so you have time to walk into town and eat dinner. Or, if you are as [impoverished and] boss as Katie and I, you spread out a 15-Euro picnic right in front of the Festspielhaus. You get to know the people who sit next to you every night and exchange stories about art and music and life in general. You sleep in the next day at the youth hostel and spend the afternoon before the performance going to book stores and giggling over the Wagner kitsch all over the city. You walk through the gardens up to the opera house an hour early so you have time to admire/creep on the extraordinarily well-dressed Europeans who drop 2,000 Euros on a week in Bayreuth, with their Gucci bags and dinner reservations at some five-star restaurant during the intermissions. Take the taxi into town, take the taxi back an hour later.
The fashion, too, is delightful. I knew people dressed up for Bayreuth, but I wasn’t expecting tuxedos and ball gowns, not during the last week of a non-premiere production. In the last few days, however, we have seen it all–five-inch-heels and parasols, black ties and polished wing-tips, silk handkerchiefs that match the dress that match the purse. Of course some of it strays horribly (hilariously!) into kitsch–poofy pink princess gowns from the 80s, etc. In the end, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much genuine elegance and sartorial beauty in one place in my life. People–adults!–revel in the chance to play dress up and be seen.
On the other hand, though, Bayreuth is not really a pleasant place at all. I don’t think I have ever been surrounded by such a high concentration of genuine snobbery in my life.
That means that afterwards, you don’t revel the beauty you just experienced and reflect on the fact that you, in your designer gown and high heels, are one of the most privileged people on the planet. No, you critique the Brühnhilde’s upper register (Where’s Birgit Nilsson when you need her?) and deplore the flatness of the tenor (Botha is great, but really, can’t he change it up a bit?) and absolutely hate on the production (Regie-trash! Euro-trash! Skandale!! Oh, for the 1950s and the days of Wolfgang Wagner!!). Of course it is not all bad, but even your praise must be critical and highly informed at all times (The direction of the brass section was excellent, but of course nothing in comparison to Solti. Oh, you don’t like Solti either? Well anyway, Botha’s Winterstürme was lovely, although that hardly makes up for his botching of the Wälse earlier in the act).
The amount of sheer expertise amongst the opera-goers is staggering. These people know their Wagner, or at least know how to pretend like they do, and can talk the talk like there’s no tomorrow.
All of which, honestly, is mostly fine with me–I love a good snobby opera rant once in a while. But in the end, I miss the pure, unadulterated awe with which I encountered Wagner for the first time. Naive and a bit blind, perhaps, but full of appreciation and real joy–isn’t that the best way to encounter great art?
Ultimately, there is an element of passionate suffering, of Leidenschaft (Leidenschaft=passion, leiden=to suffer) about it all. It’s almost comic, actually. If you don’t have a ticket, you stand around outside with an absolutely forlorn expression on your face and a “Suche Karte” (“Looking for a ticket”) sign, until some merciless person deigns to part with the last act of Götterdämmerung for three times the selling price. You act all friendly towards your neighbor until he or she opens up a cough drop in the middle of the performance. God forbid that the sacred space be polluted by the sound of a Halls wrapper!! The entire Galarie suffers together until the end of the act!!
The physical space of the Festspielhaus itself contributes to this atmosphere of martyrdom. Simple architecture, straight-backed wooden seats, no air conditioning–it is clear that the focus here is on THE MUSIC and not on the physical gratification of the Festspiel-goers. After five hours in a cramped seat in 85-degree heat, the level of self-mortification is absolutely saintly.
In the end, though, the lack of luxury is a very good thing, and fits in with Wagner’s radical vision for Bayreuth as a place of direct confrontation with artistic beauty unspoiled by physical indulgence. He was the first to darken the house during performances, after all, the first to place the emphasis fully on the stage and not on being seen by those around you. Bravo, there.
And despite everything, of course, it really is all about the music. That’s why I’m here–that’s why I keep coming back to Wagner, all questionable decadence and politics aside. There is a power and a beauty there that gets under my skin.
So last night during Tristan und Isolde, sitting behind a column with my 10-Euro ticket, the cough drop wrappers and botched high notes and arrogant snobbery paled absolutely beside the music, welling up from the covered orchestra pit in the darkness below and slowly, slowly changing the world.