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Estival Festivals: VI. Bayreuth

The Bayreuth festival ends tonight as it began, with "Tristan und Isolde," and so the Wagner sisters' much-vaunted but rather innocuous first season has drawn to an end without undue incident. Closing out the festival was this week's announcement that Bayreuth has signed an agreement with Opus Arte, the production company owned by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, to produce DVDs, and "Tristan," which was broadcast live on the Internet on August 9, will be the first out, this coming November.

But there's nothing quite like being there. As if to acknowledge this, the website is holding a competition called "A Bayreuth Experience:" to enter, simply send in your own account, in English, of a personal experience attending Bayreuth.

So send in your entries to by November 31. I've contributed my own, hors de concours, after the jump.

Bayreuth is far more than the sum of its parts. When I first went as a young and rather green opera critic, excited but a little daunted at the prospect of seeing six Wagner operas in seven days, I expected it to be a rather intellectual week that would be, on some level, good for me. I expected the musical standards would be a lot better than I found them. I didn’t expect that it would be a week of pure fun.

I drove up from Munich (where I then lived) and arrived at the cheapest pension I had been able to locate, only to find that it was filled with other critics from all over Europe operating on similarly restricted travel budgets. With its bare wood floors, modest furnishings, and communal breakfasts, the building was like a dorm at summer camp, except that the other campers were all male, generally older than I, and happy to talk to me all day about Wagner in English, French, and German. In short: I immediately started to have a great time.

Bayreuth represented a sea change in my relationship with Wagner’s operas. I had seen all of them live at that point, had listened to recordings for hours, had loved many of them, and had, I think, in some way fundamentally failed to understand them – to understand, particularly, the way that they require you to give yourself over to them. The way to see Wagner is to focus your whole day on Wagner. A leisurely breakfast, a stroll through town or excursion to some local destination (I was, at the time, inflamed with enthusiasm for Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, and still vow I’ll write a book about her some day), a bite of lunch, and it was time to start dressing for the four o’clock curtain. Wagner doesn’t even seem long if you have no other distractions; the operas are the perfect length when they begin in the late afternoon and you have an hour between each act to digest what you’ve heard, eat, talk, or wander among the crowds of people in evening wear hoisting huge beer mugs (this is, after all, Bavaria) on the grounds.

Together with my colleagues, I smirked at the obsessive passion of the die-hard Wagnerians, like the Frenchman who took violent exception to the criticisms a French colleague and I, thinking ourselves protected by our choice of language, were making about Siegfried Jerusalem’s “Tristan” during intermission (“Do you know how hard that role is to sing?!” “Perhaps,” my colleague remarked drily after the infuriated man had retreated, “but when I come to Bayreuth, I still expect to hear it sung well”). As a foreigner, I wasn’t as bothered as some of my German friends by the old-line, right-wing aura hovering over much of the audience – I simply wasn’t as attuned to it as they were. And I was perfectly aware that the productions – this was the year of the Alfred Kirchner “Ring” and the new Wolfgang Wagner “Meistersinger” (in which I heard Renée Fleming for the first time) – were only so-so. So you can only attribute the magic to the music, which works in spite of everything. I emerged from that week of total immersion with a mad, genuine, and abiding love of Wagner. I have never heard the operas in quite the same way since.

By Anne Midgette  |  August 28, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  festivals  
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