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Why I won’t go back to Bayreuth

In the new issue of Standpoint, I give account of my first visit this summer to the Bayreuth Festival. I attempt to examine its magnetic attraction for many music lovers and, for me, its repellent properties.

There were two aspects of Bayreuth overwhelmed me almost from the moment of arrival: megalomania and dishonesty.

No other place that I know on earth is so dominated, physically and ethereally,  by a single man in the way that Richard Wagner rules this innocuous little town.  His theatre is the first thing you see as the train pulls in, his name and works are everywhere. Almost 140 years after his first arrival, his descendants continue to run the festival as of divine right. The abuse of power is innate to the place.

As for hypocrisy, few can match the reigning Wagners for equivocation over their family’s misdeeds, ancient and recent.

Read the piece. See what you think.

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  1. Martin Bookspan says:

    I vowed years ago never to soil my feet and soul by visiting Bayreuth. Your article is the perfect explanation for that vow and why I’ve kept it. Thanks, Norman…..

  2. This are the internet search tags you gave your article:

    Anti-Semitism, Bayreuth, Germany, Hans Neuenfel, Hitler, Lohengrin, Music, Music, Nazi Party, Nazism, Wagner, Yevgeny Nikitin


    You came with an agenda, wrote accordingly and left. To be expected.

    “The first shock struck as I stepped off the train. “Look right,” said my BBC colleague. At the end of the platform rose a green hill and, in the thick of it, the carrot-coloured brick of the theatre that Wagner built in 1876. He set it there to ensure that no one entered the town without acknowledging his dominance. His was a megalomania unparallelled in the history of Western art.”

    You are shocked by seeing a medium sized opera house on a hill? “unparallelled Megalomania”? Seriously?
    Have you never seen the Opera houses of pretty much any major European town from the late 19th century, which are all bigger, many substantially bigger?

    • I did not give it any such tags. Please avoid making false assumptions. The tags were added automatically by Google. I had no specific agenda. If you don’t like what I write, Wanderer, leave the site.

  3. richard hertz says:

    why does it have to be any other way?

    i’m curious why you should be the mayor, or judge when it’s your choice to go.

    i hear they play music there as well. any thoughts on what you heard?

  4. Gregg Whiteside says:

    Norman, obviously you have very strong feelings about this, and I have no choice but to respect them. What I miss, however, is that Lebrechtian sense of balance that I look forward to. Suggesting that Wanderer “leave the site” if he doesn’t like what you write seemed churlish. I believe he was simply taken aback by what seemed to be your instinctive revulsion, a predisposition to abhor Bayreuth. I’m supposing that you — well-informed on just about anything musical — have seen Stephen Fry’s BBC documentary on Bayreuth. He has also struggled, as a Jew, with its sullied past, and found a way to reconcile his very conflicted feelings about it with his unashamed love for Wagner’s music. I was very moved by his emotional journey, and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it:
    In any case, Norman, I still love your writing, and always find it thoughtful and provocative.

  5. Noah Weber says:

    For those who claim that Norman has an agenda and was unwilling to see past what he wanted to see – have any of you ever been to Bayreuth?

    I was driving between München to Leipzig last year. On the way up, I saw that Bayreuth was almost exactly on the way, so I figured I would stop in on the return trip. It is one of those things that everyone should see once – right?

    Yet, when I did arrive, just a little before sunset, with the golden rays kissing the bronze visage off der Meister, it all became a bit uncomfortable. The opera house on the hill is intimidating, even for its relatively modest size (I believe that this was the point). The streets are all named after this house of Wagner (think of the house of Tudor and their need to live up to a blood line while still distinguishing themselves from their predecessors). Whereas Salzburg has an odd blend of touristy kitch and interesting historical tidbits, Bayreuth feels like an entirely artificial monolith.

    We all come with certain preconceived notions of things – yet there are places which are curated to further such notions. For months after visiting, the ghost of old Klingsore kept appearing.

  6. Michael Hurshell says:

    Norman did say in his article that “I enjoy the opera with a depth of concentration that is hard to sustain in less perfect surroundings. I feel privileged to be here.” The remarks about history and family history are of course subjective, more about his feelings than about the festival; and that is perfectly legitimate. I would say, though, that the “intimidating” thing about the Festspielhaus is merely a result of the fact that there are no other buildings of note there – it’s a very small town. And there are other small towns where the size of the theater is equally disproportional – like Meiningen. Usually, Wagner’s having succeeded in getting Ludwig to build a special theater for his own works is regarded as a feat, and a worthy one; again, let’s please remember that what happened in Germany after 1933 was not caused by Richard Wagner. We can’t help associating him with Hitler, because of his descendants’ actions; but let’s not confuse the centuries.

  7. The Nazis strongly appropriated Wagners music and person as a symbol of their philosophies. Given Wagner’s own brand of nationalism and his anti-Semitism, this was not difficult. For these reasons, Wagner understandably makes many people uncomfortable – and all the more for those who happen to be Jewish.

    I’ve lived in Germany for over 30 years, but I’ve never gone to Bayreuth, and even though two of my wife’s students are members of the trombone section. I’m not Jewish, but I just don’t feel right about the place, though my thoughts are slowly changing. I applaud Katharina Wagner for her attempts to deal with the family’s past in her production of Meistersinger. Those familiar with the deification of Wagner in Bavaria will know how courageous her actions have been. Another important step in reconciliation will come when scholars are allowed to inspect the 278 letters between Winifred Wagner and Hitler. They are currently in the hands of a family cousin, Amélie Lafferentz, who is keeping them secret.

    There have been a lot of discussions here on Slipped Disk about the Wagner’s, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen mention of Gottfried. He could not have done more to oppose the intractable attitudes of some of his family’s older members, to the point that he was banished from Bayreuth. This is especially notable, since as Wolfgang’s son he would have been the natural successor to the leadership of the opera house. And even more ironically, he has a Ph.D. in theater studies. Some of his theatrical work has been done in residencies in Israel. Here is a good article about Gottfried:

    • Since Winifred Wagner, the Hitler collaborator, was born in Hastings as Winifred Marjorie Williams, perhaps we should be wary of the Williams family as well?

  8. I too enjoy much of Mr. Lebrecht’s writing, but find much of his reactionary commentary on the Wagner family so over the top it borders on the ridiculous (a feeling heightened when contrasted with all that he writes which appears thoughtful and good). ‘He set it there to ensure that no one entered the town without acknowledging his dominance’…really? Or did circumstances just make it a convenient spot? I have never been to Bayreuth (unfortunately) so cannot comment with any authority, but would hate to learn that much of the city appeals to little more than the basest of tourists. One must consider, however, that the town may have remained nothing but a point halfway between Munich and Berlin if not for Wagner. The whole thing is SUPPOSED to be about visitors. I wonder if anybody complains that there is just too much Disney in Disneyland…

    As for removing the Wagner clan from leadership, I see no reason to break the tradition (and not only because it is tradition). Just as it is a stretch to blame (directly or indirectly) R.W. for the atrocities of A.H., we cannot continue to persecute the (then nonexistent) offspring for the sins of their fathers (some real, some fabricated…claiming that the Wagners “ran a small concentration camp on the side of the estate” is somewhat misleading). Sure, personally I would love to see more traditional productions. But they must be doing something right….many wait longingly for YEARS for tickets to that particular show and, aside from now one critic it seems, rate the experience as one worth repeating.

    But I want to know, Mr. Lebrecht — how are the Wagner sisters ‘stonewalling on their family’s past’? Everyone knows the story, the girls were not there. They have made the documents available to them available to others. Would you be satisfied with anything less than their resignation?

  9. Jacques Manheit, a baritone in the Olmütz opera, will recall “…just as I was going from my home to the theatre, I saw a man running through the streets; he was quite distraught, sobbed loudly, and pressed his handkerchief against his eyes; I recognized Mahler (22) with difficulty…I went up to him anxiously and asked him quietly, ‘In heaven’s name, has something happened to your father?’’ ‘Worse, worse, much worse,’ he howled at the top of his voice: ‘the worst, the worst has happened, the Master has died.’…After that it was impossible to talk to Mahler for days. He came to the theatre for rehearsals and performances, but was inaccessible to everybody for a long time.”

    I think you know that one Norman, because it’s in your own book “Mahler remembered”.

    You may dislike Wagner’s personality, his family and his legacy, but you simply cannot deny the huge impact he had on (almost all) his contemporaries and composers after him. Sorry to say, your personal grudge seems a bit irrelevant when looking at this man’s enormous artistic influence…

  10. You write

    Expecting a preposterous production, I am not disappointed. Hans Neuenfels dresses his Lohengrin chorus as rats and presents the famous swan as a piece of white sanitary ware that, in the finale, reverses to display a human foetus in the womb. What this has to do with Lohengrin is anyone’s guess.

    All right, I’ll guess. I know this production from the video release of last summer’s telecast. It seems to me that director Neuenfels is looking at the piece through a pessimistic, post 20th century lens instead of the more optimistic mid 19th century romantic attitude prevalent at the time the work was composed. What Neuenfels emphasizes is that Lohengrin is a savior who fails at his mission, or, as it is presented in this production, as an elaborate laboratory experiment. Whoever is controlling the experiment (that same strange power who opens the sliding doors to allow Lohengrin access to the outside world) sets Lohengrin the task of educating and uplifting these mouse creatures until they are fully human. As the action of the opera continues, they seem to evolve, first into a sort of comic opera chorus and then into a uniformed paramilitary squad.

    The thought behind this production seems to be that leadership, even of the most enlightened kind, can do only so much in improving the human condition. There is furthermore a very real danger that the “progress” engendered by a leader will result not in the fullest development of the individual but rather in a conformist, hero-worshipping society. (Obviously this danger is all the more likely when the chosen leader’s message is “follow me blindly and ask no questions.)

    Lohengrin is not evil; rather he is simply not up to what seems to be an impossible task. The next level of the experiment seems to be the advent of a new, possibly higher, form of human, the bewitched Gottfried. He sings,

    .O Elsa! Nur ein Jahr an deiner Seite
    hätt ich als Zeuge deines Glücks ersehnt!
    Dann kehrte, selig in des Grals Geleite,
    dein Bruder wieder, den du tot gewähnt.

    But that “year” has not been completed; Lohengrin has failed to inspire the right kind of trust in the rat-people and Elsa, so the gestation of poor Gottfried is not complete. He is alive, returned to his sister, but only as a ghastly monster.

    With the failed experiment concluded, the laboratory is shut down and decontaminated: everyone is killed off, except horrible Gottfried and Lohengrin himself, who, at the very end of the opera, seemingly is about to go through the entire trial all over again.

    There are a couple of reasons this is an appropriate production for Bayreuth. First, the audience is extremely well-versed in the music, text and performance history of Lohengrin. Thus they have, as it were, a traditional production of the opera playing “in the background” mentally while witnessing this variant telling of the story.

    Second, the production focuses on a topic painfully relevant to German society, i.e., the relationship between the people and a leader. So sensitive is this subject that even in this production, the “F” word is censored from Lohengrin’s final line

    Seht da den Herzog von Brabant!
    Zum Führer sei er euch ernannt!

    Yet Neuenfels’ production still alludes strongly to the danger of a “Führer,” even so seemingly benign a figure as Lohengrin. The “Führer” experiment, it is demonstrated, is doomed to failure.

    I am sorry you didn’t see Katharina’s production of Meistersinger, messy as it is, because it strikes at very similar points though in a much weightier way. Hans Sachs becomes the new authority figure and his final speech is staged in the manner of a 1930s Nuremberg rally, with the implication that when fascism comes, it may well arrive in the garb of a kindly poetic shoemaker!

    • Good guess!
      I, too, found much that was thoughtful and thought-provoking in the production, although the proto-fascist warnings passed way over my head. What I found unnecessary and uncomfortable was the weight of metaphor. If a director wants to show idiocy and evil, there are subtler and more effective ways of doing so without dressing his chorus up as rodents. A political convention setting, for instance, would achieve a more telling effect.
      And the foetus in the finale tipped the hat to every irrelevant political correctness, from a woman’s right to choose to the instrusion of birth issue into national politics. If those were the points he wanted to make, they had nothing to do with Lohengrin. And if not, why put a foetus in the swan.
      But thank you for the analysis; there are several issues that I had not considered.

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