Bayreuth is a mid-size city in Northern Bavaria. It’s history goes back to the 12-th century, but it’s mostly known for its annual opera festival dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner.
At some point in his turbulent career Wagner got a job offer from king Ludwig II of Bavaria (also known as Swan King, Fairy Tale King and Mad King Ludwig). The King was a big fan of Wagner. He settled Wagner’s sizeable debts and provided funding for a new theater that would be suitable for performing Wagner’s epic operas. Wagner chose Bayreuth, probably due to the fact that the city donated a land lot for the theater. The theater, known as Bayreuth Festspielhaus, was designed based on Wagner’s requirements and with his active participation. It was completed in 1875, and the first Bayreuth Festival took place in 1876, immediately becoming a important socio-cultural event.
The Festival usually takes place in August, and involves the performance of all Wagner’s operas (and only Wagner’s operas), with the special significance given to the Ring Cycle. The tickets are hard to get. The attendees dress up in gowns and tuxedos. The atmosphere of the festival is that of inspiration and awe.
We were lucky to get the tickets for a showing of Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) at the last Festival. Here are some impressions from the town and from the festival.
The City of Bayreuth
Founded back in the late Middle Ages, Bayreuth first achieved its golden age in the 17-th century. Many of the building date back to that time. This is the Margravian Theater that Wagner originally wanted to use for his performances. However this theater turned out to be too small:
It seems that these days Bayreuth’s livelihood and its purpose are fully defined by its annual Festival. Wagner’s name is commemorated all over the city. Streets, names and parks are named after his characters, like Lohengrin, Wotan, and Tristan. Half-size statues of the composer, cast in various colors and looking somewhat comic, are all around the city:
Even during the Festival time the city does not look crowded. It looks sleepy, slow-paced, peaceful, even somewhat deserted. At the same time it is impeccably clean, cozy, welcoming end efficient.
Hotel Goldener Anker in central Bayreuth is an old establishment where many of the Festival attendees choose to stay:
Some of pre-Wagnerian buildings include the Old Castle:
and the New Castle:
Apart from the dominating spirit and image of Wagner, I would not call it the most exciting place to visit. However it has its own well balanced charm, and overall is very enjoyable.
Haus Wahnfried – Wagner’s house and museum
Wagner’s residence and now his museum is located in the central part of the town, next to the Hofgarten – the park behind the New Margravian Castle. It is a must-visit pilgrimage site for any self-respecting devotee of the composer.
Wagner named his home Wahnfried. Accoring to Wikipedia, this name is “… a German compound of Wahn (delusion, madness) and Fried(e), (peace, freedom).”
Haus Wahnfried – a view from the Hofgarten:
And this is the view from the front entrance side. The bronze bust is that of Wagner’s sponsor and benefactor, King Ludwig II:
Inside the house it all about Wagner, his work and his characters, and his wife Cosima (who by the way was composer Franz Liszt’s daughter). The audioguided tour of the house is actually rather engaging and entertaining, and I highly recommend taking it.
Busts of Richard and Cosima Wagner at the living room entrance on the ground floor of the house:
The living room features the gem of the collection: Wagner’s own Steinway grand piano. It miraculously survived a WWII bombing when a bomb hit this part of the house. At that very day the piano was temporarily moved to at a different part of the estate.
Bayreuther Festsplielhaus is the theater where all performances take place during the annual Wagner festival. It was built according to the composer’s specs, and apparently it hasn’t undergone too many improvements or renovations since then. The wooden seats are narrow and hard, without any cushions. Usually the some spectators bring their own cushions, but this year it was not allowed due to security concerns. There is no air conditioning. The rows of seats are wall to wall without aisles. But all of this can not deter the true music lovers.
The festival takes place at summer, so before the beginning of the performance and during the intermission the spectators tend to step outside for a cocktail or a smoke:
The beginning of the performance, or the end of an intermission are announced not by a ringing of the bell, but by a squad of musicians playing a short fragment of the musical score at the front balcony of the theater:
The interior of the Theater is the same as it was during Wagner’s time:
If your are passionate about classical music or opera, then you should buy, borrow or steal the tickets for a performance at this Festival. You will have an unforgettable experience.
In the meantime for more pictures of Bayreuth and Bavaria check out my gallery at http://photos.demerjee.com/Europe/Germany.
P.S. Richard Wagner’s personality and his political views were rather controversial. At the same time his music is definitely a work of a genius. Can his work be taken separately from who he was as a person? You may want to watch the documentary Wagner and Me (shot mostly in Bayreuth) by Stephen Fry, in which he tries to ask and answer these questions.