Bayreuth Festival

Bayreuth Festival

The Bayreuth Festival is a music festival held annually in Bayreuth, Germany, at which performances of operas by the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner are presented. Wagner himself conceived of and promoted the idea of a special festival to showcase his own works, in particular his monumental cycle "Der Ring des Nibelungen" and "Parsifal".

Performances take place in a specially designed theatre, the Festspielhaus. Wagner personally supervised the design and construction of the theatre, which contained many architectural innovations to accommodate the huge orchestras for which Wagner wrote as well as the composer's particular vision about the staging of his works. (For more information on the design and construction of the opera house, see the article Bayreuth Festspielhaus.)

The Festival has become a pilgrimage destination for Wagner enthusiasts, who often must wait years to obtain tickets.


The origins of the Festival itself lie rooted in Richard Wagner's interest in establishing his financial independence. A souring of the relationship with his patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria, led to his expulsion from Munich, where he had originally intended to launch the festival. Wagner next considered Nuremberg, which would have reinforced the thematic significance of works such as "Die Meistersinger". On the advice of Hans Richter, however, the focus fell upon Bayreuth which enjoyed three distinct advantages.

First, the town boasted a splendid venue: the Opera House built for Margrave Frederick and his wife, Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine (sister of Frederick the Great) in 1747. With its ample capacity and strong acoustics, the Opera House was a good match for Wagner's vision. Second, the town of Bayreuth found itself outside of regions where Wagner no longer owned the rights to the performance of his own works, which he had sold off in 1864 in order to alleviate pressing financial concerns. Finally, the town had no cultural life that could offer competition to Wagner's own artistic dominance. The Festival, once launched, would be the dominant feature of Bayreuth's cultural landscape.

In April 1870, Wagner and his wife Cosima visited Bayreuth. On inspection, the Opera House proved to be inadequate. It was built to accommodate the baroque orchestras of the 18th century and was therefore unsuited for the complex stagings and large orchestras that Wagner's operas required. Nonetheless, the Burgermeisters proved open to assisting Wagner with the construction of an entirely new theatre and the Festival was planned to launch in 1873. After a fruitless meeting in the spring of 1871 with the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to obtain funds, Wagner embarked on a fundraising tour across Germany, including Leipzig and Frankfurt.

An initial public subscription proved disappointing, however. As part of the effort to secure further financing for the Festival and the building of a new theatre, Wagner, on the suggestion of his friend and admirer Emil Heckel, launched a number of Wagner Societies to increase participation in the Festival's subscription. Societies were established, among other places, in Leipzig, Berlin and Vienna.

Despite making direct appeals based on Wagner's role as a composer of the new German Reich, the Societies and other fundraising channels were well-short of the required investment by the end of 1872. As a result Wagner made another direct appeal to Bismarck in August 1873, again to be denied.

Desperate, Wagner turned to his former patron, Ludwig II who, despite his misgivings, agreed to lend financial support. In January 1874, Ludwig granted 100,000 Thaler and construction on the theatre, designed by architect Gottfried Semper, started shortly thereafter. A planned 1875 debut was postponed for a year due to construction and other delays.

Early history

Since its opening in 1876, the Bayreuth Festival has been a socio-cultural phenomenon. Present at this unique musical event was an illustrious list of guests: Kaiser Wilhelm, Dom Pedro II of Brazil, King Ludwig (who attended in secret, probably to avoid the Kaiser), and other members of the nobility, as well as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; and such accomplished composers as Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Franz Liszt.

Artistically, the festival was an outstanding success. ("Something has taken place at Bayreuth which our grandchildren and their children will still remember," wrote Tchaikovsky, attending the Festival as a Russian correspondent.) Financially, however, the festival was a disaster and did not begin to make money until several years later. Wagner abandoned his original plan to hold a second festival the following year, and travelled to London to conduct a series of concerts in an attempt to make up the deficit. Although the festival was plagued by financial problems in its early years, it survived through state intervention and the continued support of influential Wagnerians, including King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

From its inception, the festival has attracted the world’s most talented conductors and singers, many of whom performed without pay. Among these was Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere of the Ring Cycle in 1876. Another was the talented conductor Hermann Levi, who was personally chosen by Richard Wagner to conduct the debut of "Parsifal" in 1882 with the assistance of the young Engelbert Humperdinck.ref|Spotts

Following Wagner's death, his widow Cosima continued running the festival at one or, more frequently, two year intervals. She gradually introduced the remaining operas which complete the Bayreuth canon of Wagner's last ten completed operas. Levi, the son of a Jewish rabbi, remained the festival’s principal conductor for the next two decades. Felix Mottl, who was involved with the festival from 1876 to 1901, conducted "Tristan und Isolde" there in 1886. Until the 1920s, performances were strictly in accordance with the traditions established under King Ludwig's patronage. Not a note was "cut" from any of the enormous scores; no concessions were made to the limits of human patience on the part of the audiences. Cosima Wagner preserved the productions of Parsifal and Der Ring des Nibelungen just as they had been in Wagner's day, defending any proposed changes with appeals to her son Siegfried: "Was this not how Papa did it in 1876?"

After Cosima's retirement in 1906, Siegfried Wagner took over management of the festival, introducing new staging and performance styles. His early death in 1930 left the Festival in the hands of his English-born wife Winifred Wagner, with Heinz Tietjen as artistic director.

Bayreuth under Nazi Germany

In the 1920s, well before the rise of the Nazi party, Winifred Wagner became a strong supporter and close personal friend of Adolf Hitler. Because of this support, Bayreuth was able to maintain some artistic independence under the Third Reich, despite the use of Wagner's works as Nazi propaganda tools. Ironically, Hitler attended performances that included Jewish and foreign singers, long after they had been banned from all other venues across Germany. Winifred's influence with Hitler was so strong that Hitler even wrote a letter (at her behest) to the anti-fascist Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, begging him to lead the festival. Toscanini refused. From 1933 to 1942, the festival was conducted principally by Karl Elmendorff.

It was under the Third Reich that the festival made its first break from tradition, abandoning the deteriorating 19th century sets created by Richard Wagner. Many protested the changes, including prominent conductors such as Toscanini and Richard Strauss, and even some members of the Wagner family. In their view, any change to the festival was a profanation against "the Master" (Wagner). Nevertheless, Hitler approved of the changes, thus paving the way for more innovations in the decades to come.

During the war, the festival was turned over to the Nazi party, which continued to sponsor operas for wounded soldiers returning from the front. These soldiers were forced to attend lectures on Wagner before the performances, and most found the festival to be tedious. [Spotts, Frederic, Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.] However, as "guests of the Führer," none complained.

The new festival

Two-thirds of the town of Bayreuth was destroyed by Allied bombing in the final days of World War II, though the theatre itself was undamaged. Following the war, Winifred Wagner was sentenced to probation by a war court for her support of the Nazi party. (To her credit, however, the fact that theatre itself was spared and avoided destruction, is that she refused to use theatre for any military purposes whatsoever.) The court also banned her from administration of the Bayreuth Festival and its assets, which fell eventually to her two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland.

During American occupation of the region after WWII, theatre was used for army recreation and religious services for American soldiers. Only popular concerts and mixed entertainment were allowed: comedy, dancing, acrobatics, and then only Die Fledermaus was staged. In 1946 the Festival House was handed over to the city of Bayreuth, and then used for concerts of the Bayreuth Symphony Orchestra, and the performances of such operas as Fidelio, Tiefland, Madama Butterfly and La Traviata. And talks about reopening of the Wagnerian Festival started. Finally it reopened with the performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony on July 29, 1951, followed by the first post-war premiere of Wagner's opera, Parsifal [cite book |title=Wagner in Bayreuth: A Documentary |last=Emmerich |first=Peter |year=1992 |publisher=Philips Classics Productions, Baarn |location=Belgium |pages=69-71 ] .

Under the direction of Wieland Wagner, the "New Bayreuth" ushered in an era that was no less than revolutionary. Gone were the elaborate naturalistic sets, replaced with minimalist modern productions. In comparison, the pre-war changes seemed tame. For the first time in its history, the Bayreuth audience booed at the end of productions. Wieland was particularly derided for his 1956 production of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg." Stripped of its pageantry, conservatives viewed the breaking of this "sacred German tradition" as an outrage. ref|Spotts

Wieland defended the changes as an attempt to create an "invisible stage" that would allow the audience to experience the full psychosocial aspects of the drama without the baggage and distraction of elaborate set designs. Others have speculated that by stripping Wagner's works of their Germanic and historic elements, Wieland was attempting to distance Bayreuth from its nationalistic past and create productions with universal appeal. Over time, many critics came to appreciate the unique beauty of Wieland's reinterpretation of his grandfather's works.ref|Spotts

Wieland’s innovative productions invited comparison to Wolfgang’s, which critics unanimously found to be uninspired. If Wieland’s productions were radical, Wolfgang’s were regressive. Although still minimalist in approach, Wolfgang resurrected much of the naturalistic and romantic elements of pre-war productions. Thus, when Wieland died prematurely from lung cancer in 1966, many wondered if Bayreuth had a future. They began to question Bayreuth’s primacy among German opera houses, and some suggested that more interesting productions were being staged elsewhere.ref|Spotts

Around this time (1955), in order to broaden its audience, the whole Bayreuth Festival company conducted performances in Paris and Barcelona, performing Parsifal, Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde.

In 1973, faced with overwhelming criticism and family infighting, the Bayreuth Festival and its assets were transferred to a newly created Richard Wagner Foundation. The board of directors included members of the Wagner family and others appointed by the state. As chairman, Wolfgang Wagner remained in charge of administration of the festival.

The Wagner Werkstatt

While Wolfgang Wagner continued to administer the festival, beginning in the 1970s, production was handled by a number of new directors in what Wolfgang called "Werkstatt Bayreuth" (Bayreuth Workshop). The idea was to turn the festival into an opportunity for directors to experiment with new methods for presenting the operas. The change came out of necessity, as it was impossible for Wolfgang to both administer and direct the festival. It also provided an opportunity for Bayreuth to renew itself with each production, rather than continue to present the same operas in the same way, year after year. Ingmar Bergman, who famously made a film version in Swedish of Mozart’s "Die Zauberflöte", turned down an invitation to direct the festival.

The most sensational production in "Werkstatt Bayreuth" was the Centennial Ring Cycle under the direction of French director Patrice Chereau. Chereau used an updated 19th century setting that followed the interpretation of George Bernard Shaw who saw the Ring as a social commentary on the exploitation of the working class by wealthy 19th century capitalists. The audience reaction was split between those who saw the production as an offence and those who considered it the best Ring Cycle ever produced. The ensuing conflict, short only of outright riot, between supporters and detractors was unprecedented in the history of the festival. The performances, and the performers, however, were without dispute some of the best seen in the world of opera.

Other notable directors to have participated in "Werkstatt Bayreuth" included Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Sir Peter Hall of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Götz Friedrich of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Harry Kupfer of the Berlin State Opera in the former communist East Germanyand Heiner Müller of the Berliner Ensemble. In the end, Wolfgang’s decision to bring in experimental directors helped rejuvenate Bayreuth and restore its reputation as the world leader in Wagnerian opera.

21st century

There was uncertainty over how the Festival was to be managed after the retirement of Wolfgang Wagner at the end of August 2008. In 2001, the Festival's 21-member board of directors had voted for his daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, to succeed him. Wolfgang Wagner, however, proposed to hand control over to his second wife, Gudrun, and their daughter Katharina.ref|BBC Gudrun died in 2007. [ [,1518,520138,00.html Der Spiegel obituary 28 November 2007] ] No successor was named at that time, but it was speculated that Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina would eventually be named as joint directors of the festival. [Deutsche Welle 29.04.2008 Bayreuth Festival's Wolfgang Wagner to Retire [,2144,3301199,00.html] ] Directors have stated that preference will be given to descendants of Richard Wagner, and that a non-descendant would have to be a clearly better candidate.Fact|date=September 2008

On 1 September 2008, Wolfgang Wagner's daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, were named by Bavaria's culture minister, Thomas Goppel, to take over the Festival. They were to take up their duties immediately, since their father had announced his retirement at the conclusion of the 2008 Festival. [BBC News (2008-09-01). Daughters chosen to run Bayreuth. BBC News. Retrieved on 2008-09-01 from] They were chosen in favor of the pair of their cousin, Nike Wagner, and Gérard Mortier, who had placed a late bid for the directorship on August 24. [Cite news| last = Hickley | first = Catherine | title = Wagner Sisters Katharina, Eva Named to Lead Bayreuth (Update2) | work = | accessdate = 2008-09-01 | date = 2008-09-01 | url = ] [Cite news | last = McGroarty | first = Patrick | coauthors = Ron Blum | title = Bayreuth names Wagner half-sisters as co-directors | work = International Herald Tribune | accessdate = 2008-09-01 | date = 2008-09-01 | url = ] The conductor Christian Thielemann has agreed to act as chief adviser to the new directors, effectively taking the role of music director of the Festival. [ Roger Boyes, 'Wagner hits a note of peace over Bayreuth', "The Times", 2 September, 2008.] ]


The festival draws thousands of Wagner fans to Bayreuth every summer. It is very difficult to get tickets, because demand (estimated at 500,000) greatly exceeds supply (58,000 tickets); the waiting time is between five and ten years. The process entails submitting an order form every summer, applicants are usually successful after eight years. Failure to make an application every year results in being placed at the back of the queue. Although some tickets are allocated by lottery, preference is given to members of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth (financial donors), famous patrons, and to regional and international Wagner societies, which are distributed to their own members through lottery or the willingness to pay a high contribution.

However, turning up on the day in the hope of securing return tickets is a practical alternative. In particular, Friday afternoons often entail autobahn traffic jams on the motorway past Bayreuth resulting in ticket holders calling the ticket office to place their tickets on sale, sometimes at a substantial discount. Returns may be available for performances later in the season. If seeking returns, if is advisable to get to the box office in the early morning hours, as there is invariably a substantial queue. Again, preference is given to Friends of Bayreuth for whom a separate ticket office and queue applies.

The Festival authorities also assiduously police the illegal traffic of tickets, and monitor sites such as eBay. If the authorities suspect that a ticket has been resold without their consent they are likely to demand identification from the ticket holder on presentation and may refuse entry to those who cannot prove to have purchased their tickets legitimately. In practice, this is uncommon.


A new production of the "Ring" is presented every five to seven years, following a year in which no "Ring" is presented. In years in which there is a "Ring", three other operas are presented. When no "Ring" is presented, five other operas are presented. The newest production of the "Ring" (by Tankred Dorst) premiered in 2006.

ee also

*Bayreuth Festspielhaus
*Bayreuth canon



* "Tannhauser" (1972) Director: Gotz Friedrich, Conductor: Colin Davis, Soloists: Spas Wenkoff, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Bernd Weikl, Hans Sotin, Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel.
* "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (1980) Complete Cycle Director: Patrice Chereau, Conductor: Pierre Boulez, Soloists: Dame Gwyneth Jones, Donald McIntyre, Peter Hofmann, Jeannine Altmeyer, Matti Salminen, Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel
* "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" (1981) Centenary Production: Wolfgang Wagner, Conductor: Horst Stein, Soloists: Bernd Weikl, Siegfried Jerusalem, Marianne Haggender, Hermann Prey, Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel
* "Parsifal" (1981) Director: Wolfgang Wagner, Conductor: Horst Stein, Soloists: Siegfried Jerusalem, Eva Randova, Bernd Weikl, Hans Sotin, Matti Salminen, Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel
* "Der Fliegende Holländer" (1985) Director: Harry Kupfer, Conductor: Woldemar Nelsson, Soloists: Simon Estes, Lisbeth Balsev, Matti Salminen, Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel
* "Lohengrin" (1990) Director: Werner Herzog, Conductor: Peter Schneider, Soloists: Paul Frey, Cheryl Studer, Manfred Schenk, Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel
* "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (1992) Director: Harry Kupfer, Conductor: Daniel Barenboim, Soloists: John Tomlinson, Anne Evans, Nadine Secunde, Siegfried Jerusalem, Warner Classics
* "Tristan und Isolde" (1995) Director: Heiner Müller, Conductor: Daniel Barenboim, Soloists: Siegfried Jerusalem, Waltraud Meier, Falk Struckmann, Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel


* "Tristan und Isolde" (1983) Conductor: Daniel Barenboim, Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Staged and Directed by: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Soloists: René Kollo, Johanna Meier, Matti Salminen, Hermann Becht, Hanna Schwarz, Unitel, Laserdisc Philips 070-509-1


* "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" (1984) Conductor: Horst Stein, Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Staged by: Wolfgang Wagner Video Director: Brian Large, Soloists: Bernd Weikl, Siegfried Jerusalem, Hermann Prey, Mari Anne Häggander, Graham Clark, Unitel


Historical productions

* "100 Jahre Bayreuth auf Schallplatte": The Early Festival Singers, 1887-1906, Gebhardt Records:This 12 CD set put together all of the surviving recordings done by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1904 at Bayreuth and includes some of the original artists from the 1876 debut. [ Listen]
* "First Bayreuth Recordings Vol. 1: Tristan und Isolde" (1928) Conductor: Karl Elmendorff, Soloists: Anny Helm, Gustav Rodin, Label: Grammofono 2000
* "Götterdämmerung - Live 1942" (1942) Conductor: Karl Elmendorff Soloists: Camilla Kallab, Egmont Koch, Label: Music & Arts Program:Original radio broadcast from "Deutscher Rundfunk". This is what German soldiers would have heard as "Guests of the Führer."

Postwar productions

* "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" (1951): Conductor: Herbert Von Karajan. Soloists: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Otto Edelmann, Erich Kunz, Hans Hopf, (EMI, mono)
* "Götterdämmerung" (1951) Conductor: Hans Knappertsbusch, (Testament Records, mono)
* "Parsifal" (1951): Conductor: Hans Knappertsbusch. Soloists: Wolfgang Windgassen, Ludwig Weber, George London and Martha Mödl, (Teldec, mono)
* "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (1953): Conductor: Clemens Krauss, (Archipel Records, mono)
* "Lohengrin" (1953) Conductor: Joseph Keilberth, (Decca Records LW 50006, mono)
* "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (1955): Conductor: Joseph Keilberth. Recorded live. (Testament, Stereo)
* "Parsifal" (1962): Conductor: Hans Knappertsbusch. Soloists: Jess Thomas, Hans Hotter, George London and Irene Dalis, (Philips, stereo)
* "Tristan und Isolde" (1966): Conductor: Karl Böhm. Soloists: Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Christa Ludwig, Martti Talvela, Eberhard Waechter, (Deutsche Grammophon, stereo)
* "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (1967): Conductor: Karl Bohm. Soloists: Helga Dernesch, Birgit Nilsson, Theo Adam, James King, Leonie Rysanek, Wolfgang Windgassen, (Philips, stereo)
* "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" (1968): Conductor: Karl Böhm. Soloists: Theo Adam, Karl Ridderbusch, Waldemar Kmentt, Dame Gwyneth Jones, (Orfeo, stereo)
* "Parsifal" (1970): Conductor: Pierre Boulez. Soloists: James King, Franz Crass, Thomas Stewart, Sir Donald McIntyre and Dame Gwyneth Jones, (Deutsche Grammophon, stereo)
* "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (1980): Conductor: Pierre Boulez. Soloists: Dame Gwyneth Jones, Sir Donald McIntyre, Manfred Jung, Peter Hofmann, Jeanine Altmeyer, (Philips, stereo)
* "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (1991): Conductor: Daniel Barenboim, (Warner Classics, stereo)


*"Bayreuth", Time Magazine, August 11, 1924
* Spotts, Frederic, "Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
* "Wagner in Bayreuth", Documentary film on the festival narrated by Wolfgang Wagner. In German with English subtitles. Polygram Video, 1992
*"Wagner wins Bayreuth battle", [ BBC News Online] , December 14, 2001

External links

* [ Description of the process for obtaining tickets]
* [ Bayreuth Festival] (in German and English)
* [ The German Wikipedia entry lists all Bayreuth productions, their directors, set and costume designers.]
* [ A detailed review of Patrice Chéreau's Centennial Ring on DVD - Götterdämmerung]
* [ A detailed review of Patrice Chéreau's Centennial Ring on DVD - Siegfried]
* [ A detailed review of Patrice Chéreau's Centennial Ring on DVD - Die Walküre]
* [ A detailed review of Patrice Chéreau's Centennial Ring on DVD - Das Rheingold]
* [ A detailed review of Patrice Chéreau's Centennial Ring on DVD - "Making of..."]

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