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Classical Music

Drilling for controversy: the Bayreuth Festival

Celebrities and Wagnerians are in Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival from July 25 until August 28. The new "Ring" production by stage director Frank Castorf is certain to generate controversy.

May 22, 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, founder of the Bayreuth Festival. On July 25, the yearly festival opens in the very theater the composer designed for his music dramas. Only works by Wagner have been performed there since it was founded in 1876.

The opening of the Bayreuth Festival will be a spectacle of celebrities once again this year. Prominent guests in the motorcade to the Festspielhaus are a familiar scene on German TV on opening day. The guest list includes Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck, sharing the red carpet with show business stars and business executives.

Image from the current Bayreuth production of The Flying Dutchman

The festival opens with last year's production of "The Flying Dutchman"

In the days to follow, the celebrities will head home. Taking their place up to the final performance on August 28 are normal opera fans and Wagnerians, braving it out in the summer heat on the uncomfortable wooden seats in the non-air-conditioned hall.

Most of them have had to wait years for a ticket - although admission prices are actually comparatively low at this festival, which enjoys heavy state subsidies.  

Wagner under construction

Anniversary year notwithstanding, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus looks familiar only at first glance. A closer look reveals that the facade is simply painting on canvas with scaffolding underneath. The world cultural monument is to be repaired over a period of years and at a cost of 30 million euros ($39 million). Richard Wagner's former residence, Wahnfried - now a museum - is itself undergoing extensive renovation.

Portrait of Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner's vision of his own festival proved to be enduring

Wagner and his works dominate the scene in the small Franconian city of Bayreuth, with corollary events including readings, exhibitions and program talks. Attractions such as a short film competition titled "Happy Birthday Wagner!" round out the list of extra anniversary year events.

The festival proper begins with "The Flying Dutchman" in a production introduced last year with stage director Jan Philipp Gloger and conductor Christian Thielemann. For the first time, the opening day performance will be transmitted live to movie theaters across Germany. The playbill also includes "Tannhäuser" (directed by Sebastian Baumgarten and conducted by Axel Kober) and "Lohengrin" (stage direction: Hans Neuenfels; conductor: Andris Nelsons).

Oil-based "Ring"

The main attraction this year is the eagerly anticipated new production of Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung." The opera cycle - with 16 hours total length on four evenings - is under the musical direction of Russian-Austrian conductor Kirill Petrenko and with staging by Frank Castorf.

The Rhinemaidens in the first Bayreuth production of Wagner's Ring cycle in 1876

Rhein daughters at the first Bayreuth "Ring" production in 1876

The 61-year-old Berlin resident, who directed the Berlin Volksbühne theater for 21 years, has a reputation for controversy and provocation. In his productions, rich in ideas, radical changes are often made to classical works. The Bayreuth Festival statute prohibits that, yet many see an opera scandal on the horizon.

Only little is known in advance about Castorf's take on the "Ring" tetralogy, apart from the fact that Wagner's story, based on Germanic myths, will be updated to the modern world, with references in particular to the history of oil and today's oil-based economy. Castorf fans anticipate many more images familiar to modern eyes, video projections and social criticism.

The current staging of the "Ring" is the 12th in the tradition-rich history of the Bayreuth Festival. It is also the first project realized completely under the aegis of festival directors Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, great-granddaughters of the composer.

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