Bayreuth and Wagner

I love opera! The music, the stories, the drama! Opera is life on steroids, and I’m always in awe when I watch it live on a stage or listen to it at home or in the car.

I was in Berlin when I learned that my ‘reliable’ contact to get me tickets for the Bayreuth Festival had failed, at the last minute. A celebration of Richard Wagner’s music, it’s where his spectacular operas are staged every summer for 130 years. It was on my bucket list for almost as long.  

The tickets are hard to get, and very expensive. That’s because some 500 thousand Wagner faithfuls – called ‘the Wagner crowd’ by the New York Times – compete every year for only 60 thousand tickets, allocated by lottery. Preference is given to wealthy patrons, and on the black market prices can reach the sky. 

As disappointed as I was, I had already booked a hotel in Bayreuth, and decided to go, anyway. “I have press credentials, maybe I’ll get lucky,” I thought.  

Bayreuth is a charming Bavarian town

No such luck. At the Bayreuth Tourism Office tickets were sold out, and at that point not even the black market was an option. But Bayreuth turned out to be a pretty small Bavarian town with rich baroque architecture and palaces, and I stayed to enjoy it.  

Bayreuth has many connections with Wagner. In 1870, he and his wife Cosima visited the Margravial Opera House, a baroque masterpiece, before deciding that the place was too small to accommodate the complex staging and large orchestra required for his operas. 

With the financial support of king Ludwig II of Bavaria, a Wagner fan, a large structure was built outside town. It has three stories of mechanical paraphernalia hidden below the stage, and enough room for a large orchestra. Called Festspielhaus (first pic), the building has been the main venue for the Festival since 1872.

Monument to Richard Wagner
Tribute to the Jewish musicians

Wagner is one of the most influential and controversial composers in the history of classical music. No one questions his genius (is there anything more romantic than Tristan and Isolde?), but his political views and anti-semitic writings are the reason why his music is not played in Israel. Also well-known is the fact that he was Hitler’s favorite composer, despite having being dead for 50 years when Hitler came to power. The Nazi leader was a regular guest of the Bayreuth Festival.    

Hitler arriving at the Bayreuth Festival (museum photo)

Aware of this negative association, the Festival organizers, some of them descendants of Wagner and Cosima, had a moving monument to the Jewish musicians persecuted during Nazism built in their honor. Quite a few musicians were banned from performing in Bayreuth then, and their names and stories are written on marble blocks in front of Festspielhaus. Some ended up in New York, fortunately, while others were sent to concentration camps where few survived.

I returned to the Tourism Office everyday, to check if there were any cancellations; no luck. But in Bayreuth I learned a lot about music, opera, and Wagner. I even visited the Wagner Museum, in the house he and Cosima shared, which was being remodeled at the time. The couple is buried in the backyard. 

After what I learned in Bayreuth, I decided to separate Wagner’s controversial political views from his inspiring music. I can still be transported to another world listening to Tristan and Isolde, Tannhauser or the Ring of the Nibelungen, without subscribing to his political ideas.  

And I’m still trying to get tickets to the Bayreuth Festival.

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