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.

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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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