Travelogue LVII: Bayreuth IV: Ring

Frank Castorf's Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, greed, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore.

Frank Castorf’s Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, oil, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore. (All Photos)

August 31, 2015 And just like that, the curtain closed on the final act of Götterdämmerung and we were applauding, partly out of enthusiasm and partly out of relief, fifteen hours of music and bad seats behind us, and then we walked down the five flights of steps from the Galarie one last time and drank one more glass of wine and took the taxi back to the hostel. “Ah well,” said the man who sat next to me through all four operas, “I suppose it’s time to leave the Magic Mountain and re-enter the real world.” Indeed.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

I think, in the end, it will be the smaller moments that will stick with me the most. Like standing behind the brass players, close enough to touch them, as they played Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s theme on the balcony in the rain at the end of an intermission. Or like our picnics on the lawn, and the local Bayreuther who walked by every day at precisely 6:30 with a big, fat, drooling, wheezing, entirely self-satisfied bulldog, to the general disgust of the ball-gowned Festival guests.

Or walking back in a torrential downpour after the best Siegfried I had heard in my life, with Anders from Denmark and Philip and Thomas from Germany, to drip-dry and drink cheap wine in some sketchy Turkish restaurant next to the train station, and talking and talking until the restaurant owner threw us out.

Or the sudden enlightenment from talking to more knowledgeable Wagnerians in between acts. So that’s why it’s set on Alexanderplatz! And that’s the reason for the dynamic between Siegfried and the Forest Bird. It’s not just regie-trash, something is actually being said! Clarity through exchange, there.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

As cheesy as it sounds, I suppose it really all did come down to the people in the end–those crazy, passionate, snobby, suffering, over-dressed, opinionated, cynical-yet-somehow-endearing Festival-goers.

There was the gentleman behind me, for instance, who had sat in the Festspielhaus 79 times starting in 1961 and could remember the most minute details about every production he had seen. All that, while wearing full Bavarian dress: Lederhosen, red-and-white checked shirt, cap with feather.

Or the overly zealous Asian in front of me, who wept over a dog-eared copy of the libretto in between acts and booed the production until he was hoarse. Or the James Levine look-alike (I swear, it was this guy!) beside him, who took it as his personal duty to drown out the boos with so many enthusiastic BRAVIs that he almost fell over the balcony. And on and on and on…..

At any rate, I’ll be back.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

Like Emily Abroad on Facebook!

Travelogue LVI: Bayreuth III: Wagner City



August 29, 2015 Even 130 years after Wagner’s death, Bayreuth belongs entirely to him. The city is beautiful, but the atmosphere is strange: part cult, part kitsch, part ever-present and often-disturbing history. Certainly, there are other dignitaries who feature in local history–Franz Liszt, Jean Paul Richter, etc.–but they pale beside the Festival and everything associated with it. The influence of the Great Master is still inescapable.


Above, Villa Wahnfried, the home King Ludwig built for the Wagner family in Bayreuth. The name means freedom from illusion–I have always wondered what Wagner meant by that.

The Villa is a peaceful and lovely place, backed by a gorgeous park full of flowing water and walking paths. During Wagner’s time, and for many decades afterwards, it was a place of pilgrimage for the world’s artistic and intellectual elite, full of art and discussion and beauty.

Wagner's grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Wagner’s grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Of course, Wahnfried is not entirely unproblematic: during the 1930s, Hitler lived part-time with the Wagner family in a small house next to the villa. Richard himself was at that point long dead, but the Führer and everything he stood for were welcomed with open arms by his children and wife Cosima.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer  Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his son Siegfried.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his young son Siegfried.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

Back in the city, Wagner becomes a selling-point, a way to draw in tourists and maximize your selling power. Stick a Wagner bust in your window, or name your breakfast specials after Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the crowds will come. Much of this sort of advertising strays into kitsch, which is somehow hilarious and endearing at the same time.

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festpiel programs...

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festspiel programs…

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas--"Siegfried" and "Meistersinger."

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas–“Siegfried” and “Meistersinger.”


Half of the street signs in the city are named after characters in the operas, or after Wagner’s family members. Here, Valkyrie-Street.

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner!

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner! Here, Parsifal, his last opera.


During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets is booming. Here, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets booms. Above, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

Wagner-windows. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Wagner-window I. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Jewelry shop where you can buy "Der Ring," rofl. "Dein Gold" (Your Gold) instead of "Rheingold" (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Wagner-window II. Jewelry shop where you can buy “Der Ring,” rofl. “Dein Gold” (Your Gold) instead of “Rheingold” (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Wagner-window III. Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Reverse-advertising. "In this house lived Richard Wagner--never."

Reverse-advertising. “In this house lived Richard Wagner–never.”

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Despite a complicated past and kitschy present, however, Bayreuth is lovely–relaxed festival atmosphere, full of beautiful cars and well-dressed opera-goers eating in the open air cafès and reading Wagner libretti in the parks. The whole city has a sort of holiday air, a feeling of being removed from the rest of the world, shut away in a tiny universe dedicated to the power of music.

Festival atmosphere--open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Festival atmosphere–open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Travelogue LV: Bayreuth II: Festspielhügel


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.

Parasols abounded.

Parasols abounded.

Carrying the mandatory cushion (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down seats become incredibly uncomfortable after the first three hours of music.

Heatedly discussing the finer points of the evening’s Tristan, mandatory seat-cushion in hand (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down chairs become incredibly uncomfortable after about the first three hours of music.


View from above.

View from above. That yellow suit, though.


Wind-swept dapper.


The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10 Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10-Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.


View through the Festspielhaus doors.

View through the Festspielhaus doors, right before I got taken out by the No-Photography-Inside-the-Festspielhaus police.

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?

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth's past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all--things are never uncomplicated.

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth’s past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all–things are never uncomplicated.

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.


The orchestra’s brass section plays motives from the opera to call guests back to their seats at the end of intermission.

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.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

Like Emily Abroad on Facebook!

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.

Like Emily Abroad on Facebook!

Travelogue XXII: Worms–Martin Luther, Richard Wagner

IMG_107129. December, 2014 Yesterday there was real Vermont weather in Mainz–clear blue skies, snow on the ground, bracing cold. I was restless and giddy from the sun, and decided to take the train to Worms, a small city about half an hour to the south.

Worms is, along with Wittenberg, a city of Martin Luther, one of the great players in the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. In 1521, the city hosted the Diet of Worms, the council at which Luther was ordered to first claim authorship of and then recant his theological works. He refused, and an edict was issued several weeks later condemning him as a heretic and enemy of the Church.

Today, the city is home to the largest monument to the Reformation in the world. It was completed in 1868, and features statues and carvings of Martin Luther along with some twenty other figures involved in the movement.


Philipp Melanchthon, professor in Wittenberg and friend of Martin Luther’s.


John Wyclef, English theologian and an important early reformer.


The city of Speyer represented as a woman, here protesting against the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which condemned the spread of the Reformation.


Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, 31 October 1517.


The stone under the statues is inset with the coat-of-arms of the 27 cities who took part in the reformation. Above, Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s city.


Johann Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, with excerpts from Martin Luther’s works above them. Below, Luther himself, the statue at the center of the monument. At the base are inscribed his famous words from the Diet of Worms in 1521: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir, amen–Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God, amen. 


So much for Luther–Worms’ other great narrative stands in almost comic opposition to the stringent, overtly Christian story of the Reformation. Worms is the Nibelungenstadt, City of the Nibelunglied, the anonymous epic poem at the root of German myth. The work is a sweeping re-working of pagan Norse legend, spanning generations and playing out against a backdrop of gods and men, giants and dragons, swords and treasure.

Worms serves as the setting for much of the story. Brunhild and Kriemhild fought on the steps of the cathedral; Siegfried himself is buried before the old wall; part of the great Rhine hoard is supposedly hidden somewhere deep under the city. Today, there’s a museum and a yearly festival and a dozen monuments dedicated to the original epic and its countless reworkings over the past millennium. The boundaries between history and legend are not clear in Worms, and the myth is still very much alive.


One of the many monuments in the city. Here, Siegfried’s death at the hands of Hagen.

For me, it is all especially close to home. The Nibelungen saga, and more specifically Richard Wagner’s operatic rendition of it, was the story that drew me to German. The figures in the monument above have a great deal of power over me.

There is a flexibility and strength to this myth, to all myths. Over the past thousand years, the story has served as a study of Medieval courtly love, of Jungian psychology, of German nationalism, of Gesamtkunstwerk, of Western politics. The events of the narrative are big enough to contain the entire world, yet small enough to fit within a single human psyche.


The Nibelungenlied in the Renaissance: courtly love and Medieval customs. 


Fritz Lang’s silent film from the 1920s: ground-breaking artistry, unfortunate overtones of German nationalism.


Arthur Rackham’s illustrations: Nibelungenlied as romance and fairytale. 



Achim Freyer’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which premiered in Los Angeles and is now playing in Mannheim, Germany. Jungian psychology, modern politics. Mythology for the 21st century.

Locus Amoenus II: Theater

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.

Staatstheater_Wiesbaden_foyer028Foyer of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, just over the Rhein. 

Like the farm kitchen, the first of my personal loci amoeni I wrote about, the theater is no Vergilian garden–but a spot for me equally as transfixing, equally as bound up with memory and childhood and beauty. Like the kitchen, the theater is something that transcends all cultural boundaries: the moment before the curtain goes up or the conductor comes on stage is always the same, whether one is in Munich or in some drafty town hall in Vermont.

My love of the theater started when I turned 15, and began working as an usher in the next tiny town over. The Barre Opera House–certainly no Baroque jewel, but it had white molding and red velvet curtains and four box seats (no one sat in them anymore, but they existed!). To me, it was an entirely enchanting place. I would always work the balcony so I could use the secret spiral staircase in the wings, and lean out over the polished wooden railings, and pretend that I was in Vienna in 1791 for the premiere of Mozart’s Magic Flute. I loved the audiences, too–the aging, tenacious contingent of small-town Vermonters who could talk with equal ease about the local milk prices and the symphony on the program. Most evenings I had the feeling I was the only one in the place younger than 75, and I collected compliments from old men wearing immaculately pressed suits that must have been new sometime in the late sixties. There where two operas a year, and I remember driving home after Le Nozze di Figaro through the worst blizzard of 2008, drunk on Mozart for the first time in my life.

Writing of his own childhood, Thomas Mann says, “I can never forget the hours of deep, solitary happiness in the midst of the theater crowd–hours full of horror and delight of the nerves and intellect, of insight into things of the most vast and moving significance, such as only this art affords.” He, as always, gets it just right.

6758627-Staatstheater_Mainz_MainzStaatstheater in Mainz, with weekly market. 

Still, America–and small-town New England above all–isn’t really made for theater-goers. Once we got older, my sister and I went to a handful of operas and plays a year, usually traveling over an hour and paying 35$ or more for a spot in the cheap seats. I called up the opera houses every year to ask about student discounts, but never got anywhere.

The difficulties come in large part from the  infrastructure behind the arts in America, which has a distinct air of precariousness. Funding usually comes from audiences and donors alone: if no one buys the tickets, the theater closes its doors. On one hand, such a close relationship between the audience and stage is good–on the other, however, the entire set-up keeps ticket prices high and stifles the creativity of directors and actors. One need only look at the Metropolitan Opera, currently on the verge of bankruptcy due in large part to the “risky new productions” (read: non-traditional, moderately avant-garde) brought in by the new manager Peter Gelb.

IMG_0725The Alte Oper in Frankfurt. The inscription reads, “To the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.”

In Germany, the entire system runs on different terms, and better ones, I think. This is truly the land of theater: every small town has at least one, and an opera house, and a symphony to boot. The amount of productions even the smallest of theaters is able to put on over the course of a season is staggering to me. For instance: at the Staatstheater in Mainz, certainly no metropolis, there will 78 performances of some 30 different works in December alone, spread between several different stages and often performing simultaneously with one another. In America, such a vast program would be inconceivable anywhere other than a very large city. Here, between Wiesbaden and Mainz, two small towns within ten minutes of each other, I could go to the theater every night for the next two years.

The financial precariousness is entirely removed, too: even the smallest theaters in Germany receive hefty funding at the state or municipal level. It’s part of the mentality–being able to go to the theater in one’s own town is a point of pride, a vitally important facet of local culture and identity. At an artistic level, this financial situation means that almost anything goes on stage, for better or for worse (mostly for better, in my opinion). Directors can be as trashy or shocking or ground-breaking as they wish, without worrying about offending the sensibilities of a conservative audience. And for students, it’s an absolute windfall. With my card from the University I can see anything in Mainz for free, and get front-row tickets at pretty much any other theater in Germany for 4-8 €.

IMG_0741Schedules for the next month, hanging above my desk…

And so I go to the theater. There’s a sort of rhythm to it all–dress up, look at train schedules, run to the station and read on the train, wait in line at the box office, look around the city a bit during intermission (intermissions in Germany are long, because EVERYONE has to drink a glass of Sekt [champagne] and eat a Brezel!), rant about the whole thing on the way home. It’s exciting, and utterly new.

Staatstheater_Kaskadenbrunnen0106Staatstheater in Wiesbaden by night.

Some highlights of the past two weeks:

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (or Nora in German, because Puppenheim just sounds weird). In Frankfurt, where we gawked at the sky scrapers and tried without success to find Goethe’s house. The production: shattering, minimalistic, with spotlights shone directly into the audience and rock music turned up too loud. It’s Germany; everything’s designed to make you uncomfortable. It’s astonishing to me how a work some 150 years old can be so relevant.

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, performed in the local museum in a room full of frescoes and statues from ancient Greece. Mahler is absolutely wrenching live.

Elfriede Jelinek’s brand-new Rein Gold in Wiesbaden. Jelinek is insane; I’ve been obsessed with her ever since my professor told me I must on no account, read her novels, because they were borderline pornographic filth. She’s everything I love about German literature: edgy and hard-hitting, willing to ask the hardest of questions. Rein Gold was a Bühnenessay (Stage-essay; the first of its genre according to the authoress)–a witty, often disturbing meditation on Richard Wagner’s Ring, taking up the themes of capitalism and heroism in modern Germany. Lots of references to the current political situation that I didn’t understand, lots of references to Wagner that I did.

Berlin: Kunst

Of course it would be unforgivable, to go to Berlin and not hear any music! Herr G. went to a concert every night, and was kind enough to let me trail along. We missed the Komische Oper (alas!), as the tickets were sold out. We consoled ourselves, however, and made do with two of the other 10,000 cultural events currently taking place in the city…

The first evening we went to a lovely Baroque concert in the Schloss Charlottenburg and then to dinner at midnight at the Ständige Vertretung, overlooking the river. And then the next night we heard an opera concert with two amazing young singers in the building below, and then went out to an Italian restaurant for desert. We were living it up, I tell you.

One can hardly imagine how surreal it is, to be walking around at midnight in Berlin, in a fancy dress and shawl, with three professors in evening wear arguing about wine in French, all while partially drunk on the best live singing one has heard all year. It defies reason.

And I couldn’t resist the gigantic poster of a morose Barenboim outside the Berlin Philharmonic.

And the museums! A definite highlight for me was the Pergamon, which utterly satisfied the geeky Classics side of things. The museum had full-size recreations of various ancient buildings–awe-inspiring, to say the least.


A gate from Babylon, below. As with the churches, I find such things puzzling and astounding. What drove those creators, in this instance thousands of years ago, to devote a life time to make something so beautiful?

The last place I visited was another modern art museum, this one an old restored railway station….

The main exhibition was the work of Joseph Beuys, a new one for me. He was one of the most important German artists of the previous century. I would have to spend a good deal more time with his work to make any commentary on it, other than to say that I found it exceedingly enigmatic. But I really liked the work below, dozens of blackboards filled with faint writings (in English!) on philosophy and society and geometry.


I was mostly interested in Anselm Kiefer, the second artist I had fallen for in the San Francisco MOMA. There was only one small room of his works here, and he was as difficult and as beautiful and as tied to Germany’s history as before. If Cy Twombly is Shakespeare (“What do you read, my lord? Words, words, words…”), Kiefer is Mann’s Doktor Faustus.






If you are ever in San Francisco and the exhibition is still there, go and see this one below, with the lead angel wing.


In those days Germany, a hectic flush on its cheeks, was reeling at the height of its savage triumphs, about to win the world on the strength of the one pact that it intended to keep and had signed with its blood. Today, in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror, it plummets from despair to despair….When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope? A lonely man folds his hands and says, “May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland.”

Closing paragraph, Doktor Faustus

Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit

Bayreuth, July 21, 2012

It was almost exactly four years ago that I heard Richard Wagner’s music for the first time. I had bought a CD on a whim at a July 4th book sale–Das Rheingold. I suppose it is fitting that the opera began with Wagner’s creation story:

In Wagner’s music I find something too problematic to love, too compelling to hate. The composer’s art and thought have been a constant in my various explorations–a driving force forward to those he influenced, from Freud to Thomas Mann and Mahler, and backward, to his own sources–Goethe, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy.

Who would have guessed that some four years after that July 4th weekend I would be standing on a damp train platform in Germany, headed to Bayreuth.

Bayreuth is Wagner’s city, the home of the opera house he designed especially for performances of his works alone. The theater is an acoustic and architectural marvel–and today, the waiting list for tickets to the festival in August is over ten years long.

But first, the train ride there. Anna, you will be especially happy to note my reading material below. 🙂 Don’t worry, there are plenty of other articles about one Ms. A. Netrebko…

The first view of the Festival House, from the train station. The larger city was not overly exciting, very industrial and down-to-earth–nothing like Rothenburg’s brand of cultivated, touristy beauty. But it was immediately clear that this place, some 150 years after the composer’s death, was still Wagner’s city. “Bayreuth, die Stadt des großen Meisters, grüßt seine Gäste,” read the enormous sign at the station. Bayreuth, the city of the great Master, greets her guests.

In the train station, between the tabloids and chewing gum, one could purchase Wagner’s complete libretti, copies of his essays, of Nietzsche’s Der Fall Wagner.

Along the road up the Festival Hill. The road signs are all references to Wagner’s operas, characters, or family members.

The feel of the whole city was rather odd, part cult, part kitsch, part unnerving and ever-present history. It seemed as if all the shops had to have some compulsory reference to Wagner, as if marketing potential could be increased by sticking a familiar marble bust next to the wares in the display window, or by calling the breakfast omelet special Siegfried and the wine Isolde.



Breakfast specials!

Every book store in the city had a large selection of Wagner CDs and books–and not just the usual “Opera for Dummies” types, but academic folios on Wagner and Nietzsche or Thomas Mann, published conference proceedings, three-volume biographies, Cosima’s complete diaries….

In the local Hugendubel (the German version of Borders or Barnes and Noble) I drank my chai across from a two-story poster of the composer’s face…

And the history…on the slope before the main entrance to the festival house, before one could climb the last set of steps to enter the building, there was an exhibition on antisemitism in Bayreuth. Of course we all know it and have struggled with it already, the noxious quotes from Cosima, the pictures of Hitler and Goebbels, the biographies of singers shunned from Bayreuth and later murdered. But seeing the pictures and the writing there made it all the more real.

But again, this is Wagner. It would be too easy to take one’s seat in the house and just listen to the music.

The Festspielhaus itself, finally. After the countless ornamented and excessively beautiful buildings we have seen these past few weeks, it looked very plain, almost Spartan. Inside, the walls were simply painted. The only furnishings I could see were a few benches. In the actual seating area, which I didn’t get to look at, all the seats are good–no royal box, no elaborate set-up to make the guests more interesting than the music. Bravo Wagner.

Here’s the place to be….

The Festival House is surrounded by lovely gardens, very green this time of year.

From the Festival Hill I went down into the Old City, and eventually to Villa Wahnfried, the home of Wagner from 1872 until his death in 1883. Unfortunately, the house (and thus the museum) was closed for renovations. But I was there!

The front facade, with a statue of the crazy King Ludwig, Wagner’s obsessive (but, luckily for the composer, totally loaded) supporter and patron. Again, the place was surprisingly unpretentious, for the home of one of the greatest figures in 19th century Europe. The house was not overly large, with that same boxy construction as the Festival House. I went and sat on the front steps for a long time.

Wahnfried literally means free from illusion or delusion. Wagner’s motto is written on the front of the house: “Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt.” (“Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) I can’t help but wonder what he meant by that.

Below, the fresco or painting above the front door. It shows Wagner in the middle as Wotan, king of the gods, with actress and lover Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (I think…) on the left as Drama, and wife Cosima on the right as Music. The little child is Wagner’s son Siegfried.

Wagner and Cosima’s grave, entirely unadorned. When I got there it started to pour rain, which was fitting.

Of course such a place is remarkable not only for the presence of the artist himself, but for all that has happened afterwards, for all those who have visited to hear the same music, to see the same house and grave. Even while Wagner was alive, of course, Europe’s intellectual and artistic elite took their way to the city, as friends, enemies, pilgrims, lovers. Franz Liszt was one such visitor, supporter, and later Wagner’s father-in-law. His house is across the street from Wahnfried.

The place is now a museum, and, probably to compensate for Wahnfried being closed, has the piano that Wagner composed much of Parsifal on. Imagine!

And that was all. I ate dinner in a tiny cafe next to the train station and then flew back to Würzburg, at 200 kilometers per hour in a nearly-empty train, into the sunset. It was a good day. I’ll be back soon, with a ticket.

München: Musik

Most important things first, right? München (Munich), exponentially larger and more overwhelming than Würzburg, is truly a city of music.

We made a quick tour of the downtown area after our arrival Friday afternoon–and what do we pass first, right around the corner from the bus stop? Joseph Calleja himself (one of my favorite tenors…), rehearsing O Soave Fanciulla (my favorite Puccini duet…) for a concert Sunday night, in the beautiful outdoor Odeonsplatz. Wow.


Odeonsplatz below.

The poster for the concert.

…And now note the poster above, for the City Opera summer Ring Cycle….Siegfried opened Friday night, but was utterly sold out, alas.

More Wagner, and the opera house itself.

Look who else you can see…

A. and I walked back to Odeonsplatz Saturday night, to hear the München Philharmonic in another outdoor concert of Russian music. We were too poor to buy tickets, so we sat on a window-ledge on a side street and read our German homework and listened for free–along with a couple dozen other assorted students and young couples, who brought picnic blankets and wine to make a night of it.

The city was also full of street musicians, many of whom were absolutely fantastic. Like this group, for instance, who played some sort of crazy Vivaldi mash-up as if they were possessed by devils (in the words of Prof. G.!):


Up next: Cathedrals, Thomas Mann, and Cy Twombly!

Aber was mir am wichtigsten ist…

Check it out. Der Meister selbst.

Wagner’s house was literally the first thing pointed out to us when we stepped off the bus into downtown Würzburg the first night. And then I knew I was in the right place, for sure! I had forgotten that he lived here for a short time while composing his first opera, Die Feen. Here’s the whole building:

We walk past it every morning on our way to our classroom.

There’s also another building with his name on it that we pass in the bus every time we leave the apartments…

Also eine wunderschöne Stadt, oder?