Bayreuth festival 2011
A production of Richard Wagner’s opera “Parsifal” at the Bayreuth festival 2011. Photo by Enrico Nawrath
Text size
Yael Engelhart
Bayreuth festival director Katherina Wagner. Photo by Yael Engelhart

BAYREUTH, Germany - When was the last time black-red-and-white Nazi flags with swastikas were raised at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival theater? Anyone familiar with the event's history would surely answer 1944 - the last festival held under Nazi rule, and conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. Adolf Hitler "adopted" the festival during his reign, was a regular visitor there, and even lived in a special wing of the Wagner home in Bayreuth, Villa Wahnfried. Indeed, the event became a gathering place for senior party officials. The photos of Richard Wagner's grandchildren, Wolfgang and Wieland, who would later become directors of the festival, seen under the Nazi flag (and even sitting in the lap of the Fuehrer, whom they affectionately called, "Uncle Wolf") - attest to this.

But that is not the correct answer to the flag question. The last time Nazi flags were raised and swastikas were waved at the festival was actually last Thursday during the second act of the opera, "Parsifal," which was performed here for the third year. After watching the two preceding operas, "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" and "Lohengrin" - both loaded with scary characters - it seemed that nothing could really surprise or shock any more. But those flags brought the moral shock to a completely different level, and also symbolized the unique character of this festival.

In fact, the unofficial motto of the Wagner Festival is scandal. People come here not only to enjoy the operas, but also to be shocked -- and to be shocked in a proportionate way. "This audience is conservative," declared the festival's director, Katharina Wagner, when asked why people booed her staging of "Meistersinger": true, it the audience is conservative and even irate when its Wagner is challenged with all sorts of interpretations. But it also enjoys getting angry at scenes that ostensibly have artistic justification, the likes of which they could never see on any other stage: featuring violence, nude women, unbelievable vulgarity, kitsch and grotesqueness.

A woman is shoved into something that resembles a gas chamber on stage (during "Tannhauser," at the festival's opening ), gods are transvestites with garters, and a man displaying full frontal nudity pops out of a grave and throws balls at the choir. And most exciting of all: real Nazi flags waving and soldiers in uniform marching and singing.

What a disappointment it would be if such things were not seen! What fun it is to indignantly boo them while enjoying being provoked by them!

Disappearing act

To the Israelis here at the festival the name Katharina Wagner initially seemed to be one that existed on its own, that is, with no flesh-and-blood human personifying it. It was this young director (33) of the prestigious festival in Germany, together with the musical director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Roberto Paternostro, who conceived of the orchestra's historic performance at Bayreuth - and then she disappeared. Contrary to her promises, she did not come to the press conference with Paternostro and senior municipal officials. She did make it to the concert itself, but left before the reception and did not offer greetings along with the mayor and other dignitaries. And primarily, she evaded any interviews with any Israeli media outlets.

In a short conversation with her during the intermission (after all attempts to arrange for an interview before the festival failed ), she asked that I contact her personal manager to arrange an interview. The manager promised to try, but did not succeed due to time constraints. Even my offers to join an interview she gave to the film crew of a documentary, or the conversation she had with a journalist who writes for a paper in Barcelona, were rebuffed with assorted excuses, most of them technical.

No, Katharina Wagner did not go all out: The Israel Chamber Orchestra did not receive her blessing here. Probably her public relations people could not allow that. She is the director of a festival whose opening night was attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel and a huge array of celebrities. A festival that reverberates around the world and year after year is a focus of musical and political, financial and fashion interest. A festival that makes international headlines.

Such a director, whose every word resonates and is analyzed all over the world, refrained accordingly from taking a stand on questions such as forgiveness and reconciliation with Israel and the Jews, or creation of a new bridge of understanding between former enemies. Nor would she take a stand on questions relating to the divide between the anti-Semitism and Nazism associated with her family and the festival - and the Israeli orchestra that appeared on her home turf and performed "Hatikva," Wagner and Zvi Avni.

Katharina Wagner announced that in 2013, the 200th anniversary of the death of her great-grandfather, festival founder and composer Richard Wagner, she will open the archives and reveal all the secrets and deal with the most painful questions from the past. She even hired historians to research these issues. But she was not daring enough to already start doing this now.


The man and his dog

Downtown Bayreuth has a real pearl: the old, aristocratic Margravial Opera House, built in the mid-18th century and based on the Italian model, which hosted premiers of works by leading Baroque composers including Johann Adolph Hasse and Handel. A visit to this wonderful theater, graced with extreme beauty and architectural refinement, offers an escape from the Bavarian grandiosity that dominates everything else, but neither its beauty nor its refinement appealed to Richard Wagner in his time: Its expansive stage did, however.

Wagner traveled all over Europe to find a venue large enough and suitable for staging his operas, and during his journeys arrived at this opera house in Bayreuth, whose reputation he had heard about: The stage may have been big enough for him, but the small size of the auditorium itself was not to his liking, nor primarily was its Italian ideals which he scorned. In any case, Bayreuth was his last stop and here, with the help of King Ludwig II who was captivated by Wagner, he produced, planned and implemented the construction of his opera house, the famous Festspielhaus, which is situated atop the "green hill" about a half-hour walk from the Margravial.

The Festspielhaus is a coarse hall, lacking charm. The awful seats are like torture devices for those who did not arrive prepared with special cushions. The long rows are too close to each other and crowded, and anyone who sits down is trapped until the end of the act, without any option of leaving in the middle. But listening to music there is like being in a dream.

Wagner built the orchestra pit from reverberating wood and positioned it deep below the stage, with a very narrow opening so that the musicians themselves are not visible, nor is the conductor who raises his baton in an arc that spans in sharp angles downward to the orchestra and upward to the stage and singers. The music appears to burst forth from the earth's belly and fills the hall; every tone is heard, every instrumental fine point stands out. The music merges gently with the voices of the singers, who do not exert themselves at all and sing naturally, without shouting or making a particular effort to enunciate the words: They sound clear as crystal.

Wagner became the hero of Bayreuth. He built his home here, Villa Wahnfried, together with his wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, and in 1876 founded the festival intended solely for performing his works. He is buried in the courtyard of the villa together with his wife in a giant grave, on which nothing is inscribed nor is there anything written nearby.

It has become a romantic pilgrimage spot, fresh flowers are always placed on the grave and at the opening of every festival there is a small concert held there. The site is located behind the villa and the elegant fountain, and at the edge of a large and tranquil park.

But what is this? Nearby one can distinguish what appears to be another small grave, with a small monument on which there are indeed words engraved. Yes, this too is a grave; a grave that either attests to Wagner's humanity or to a distortion in his personality. It is the grave of his dog, Russ.


The 'ritual'

There is no place like Bayreuth for really understanding Richard Wagner's music. The man who came up with the "comprehensive work of art" and "music of the future" is revealed in his full musical and political intensity only here: among an audience dressed in very festive attire that is excessive in its grandeur, all part of the half-religious Wagnerian "ritual." This ritual includes trumpet blares heralding the start of each act, and people gulping a pretzel or ice coffee at Steigenberger during the intermission. Each act is an hour and a half to two hours long and there are three acts and two hour-long intermissions. Go figure how much time is spent here at just one opera, surrounded by richness, German tradition and conservatism.

And most important - there's the music. No throat was cleared, no candy was unwrapped and no cell phone rang throughout all the operas I saw here. The choir was divine. The orchestras and conductors played angelically in succession, and singers on the level seen here one can only dream about anywhere else in the world, certainly in Israel. And the music flows, captivates and, as the composer himself once put it, seeks to make the listener forget time and place and take him further, and further, with the never-ending melodies, and the soaring and emotional outpouring and the frightening marches, and the archetypal, mystic, mythical themes.

To paraphrase Woody Allen: You hear this music and start getting the urge to conquer Poland.

First article in a series