Merkel tops guest list at Wagner Festival

German Chancellor Angela Merkel topped the guest list Saturday of the gala opening of the Bayreuth Festival, one of the highlights in Germany's cultural calendar.

Merkel tops guest list at Wagner Festival
Preparing for the festival. Tobias Hase / DPA

The legendary month-long summer festival, dedicated exclusively to the works of composer Richard Wagner, was scheduled to begin at 1500 with an eagerly awaited new production of “Tristan and Isolde” by the composer’s great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner.
Along with Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer, regular guests in Bayreuth for many years, a long list of government ministers and regional and local politicians from the southern state of Bavaria were also on the guest list.
Tickets for Bayreuth are still among the hardest to come by in the world of opera and classical music, with the waiting list stretching to as many as 13 or 14 years for some productions, the festival's commercial chief Heinz-Dieter Sense told journalists.
Of the 60,000 tickets on sale this year, around 45,000 were available to the general public, half of them online. The other 15,000 were reserved for the Society of Friends of the festival, one of the main donors.

A lot is at stake this year for 37-year-old Katharina, who has been at the helm of the festival alongside her much older half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier since 2009.
Eva, 70, is stepping down at the end of the summer, leaving Katharina in sole charge, at least until her current contract expires in 2020.
It is only the second time that Katharina has directed in Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus — the opera house built to her great-grandfather's own designs after “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” a few years ago that was heavily panned by audiences and critics alike.
Classical music aficionados also suggest Bayreuth, more generally, could be losing some of its veneer. And Katharina's critics lay the blame squarely at her door.
Under her leadership, the festival's aesthetic preferences have veered towards confrontational directors, such as the self-styled “enfant terrible” of German theatre, Frank Castorf, whose current production of the sprawling four-opera “Ring” cycle has met with deafening waves of boos and whistles since it premiered in 2013.
Dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerians tend to be deeply conservative in their operatic tastes, and seasoned Bayreuthers say they are feeling increasingly alienated by the provocative, in-your-face productions.
Katharina and the conductor of “Tristan and Isolde”, Christian Thielemann, had been scheduled to give a press conference on Friday, but cancelled at the last minute.

In the run-up to the festival, media reports — vigorously dismissed — had claimed that the two had colluded to have Eva Wagner-Pasquier barred from the Green Hill once rehearsals for “Tristan” had started.
More oil was poured on the fire when the current “Ring” conductor, the intensely media-shy Russian Kirill Petrenko, publicly lambasted the way one of his singers — Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, who sang the role of Siegfried in the past two years — was replaced at short notice.
There has been speculation of bitter rivalry between Petrenko and Thielemann after Petrenko was named chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a position Thielemann was perceived to have coveted for years.
Those rumours were given added piquancy when it was announced that German soprano Anja Kampe, reportedly close to Petrenko, pulled out of the role of Isolde with just four weeks to go before the premiere. Thielemann is conducting the new production.
German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius agreed to take on the role, one of the most demanding in a soprano's repertoire.
But she did not sing during the dress rehearsals to save her voice, organisers said.
Ever since the festival's beginnings in 1876, the composer's descendants have torn each other apart in bitter feuds for control of Bayreuth, whose guests traditionally include royalty and the political and social elite of the day.
Adolf Hitler was a fervent Wagnerian and regularly attended the festival.

In peacetime Germany, many heads of government and state have come.
This year marks the 150th anniversary since “Tristan and Isolde” had its world premiere. Katharina Wagner's will be only the 11th production of the work at the Bayreuth Festival.
But she insisted in a recent interview that she does not let such pressures daunt her.
“I'll never be able to fulfil people's expectations of me if those expectations are super-human,” she told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
The Bayreuth Festival runs until August 28 with 30 performances of seven different operas — “Tristan and Isolde”, “Lohengrin”, “The Flying Dutchman” and the “Ring” comprising “Rhinegold”, “The Valkyrie”, “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods”.


Opening opera at famed Wagner festival holds mirror up against composer’s anti-Semitism

An edgy new opera production by Australian Jewish director Barrie Kosky tackling Wagner's anti-Semitism head-on won rapturous applause at Germany's renowned Bayreuth opera festival and rave reviews Wednesday.

Opening opera at famed Wagner festival holds mirror up against composer’s anti-Semitism
Sixtus Beckmesser. Photo: DPA

An audience including German Chancellor Angela Merkel cheered the four-and-a-half-hour staging of “The Master-Singers of Nuremberg” on opening night Tuesday at Bayreuth, the festival dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner.

Critics said they were impressed with the first production ever by a Jewish director at Bayreuth, now in its 106th year, and called it chillingly relevant.

Spiegel Online said Kosky's “remarkably entertaining and convincing” staging effectively used Wagner's notorious anti-Semitism to take on “hatred of Jews in general” in today's Europe.

National daily Die Welt said Wagner's toxic ideology had always been an “elephant in the room” which Kosky had opted to make “the actual subject of his staging”.

Wagner's musical and artistic legacy from the 19th century is infused with anti-Semitism, misogyny and proto-Nazi ideas of racial purity.

His grandiose, nationalistic works were later embraced by the Third Reich, and Adolf Hitler called him his favourite composer.

Nevertheless in purely musical terms, Wagner's achievements are undeniable and his operas figure in the standard repertoire of houses around the world – apart from Israel which maintains an effective ban on public performances of his work.

The Bayreuth festival, still run by the Wagner family, long tried to separate the works from their murky origins.

But reviewers said the pairing of Kosky with one of Wagner's most iconic operas marked a bold break with that tradition.

First performed in Munich in 1868, “The Master-Singers” is essentially a hymn to the supremacy of German art.

It was one of Hitler's most-loved operas and its music was misused for propaganda purposes by the Nazis.

'Frankenstein creation'

In the production, Kosky embeds the opera's setting of Nuremberg in the city's grim 20th century history as the birthplace of the Nazi race laws, the setting of the party's giant torchlit rallies and, after the war, the scene for the trials of Hitler's henchmen.

An entire act is set in the Nuremberg Trials' wood-panelled courtroom, and a key character, the town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser, is presented as a grotesque Jewish caricature recalling Nazi smear-sheets.

“I am the first Jewish director to stage this piece in Bayreuth and as a Jew that means I can't say, as many do, that Beckmesser as a character has nothing to do with anti-Semitism,” Kosky told public broadcaster 3sat.

“Of course it does. In my opinion Beckmesser is a Frankenstein creation of everything Wagner hated – Jews, the French, the Italians and critics.”

Kosky has run Berlin's Komische Oper for five years and introduced a little-known repertoire from the turbulent 1920s and 1930s by Jewish composers later forced to flee the Nazis.

He admitted in an interview with AFP last year that he has “many contrasting emotions” about Wagner's masterpiece.

“Can you just portray the work as just being a simple fairy story, (given) the history of the piece?” he asked.

The Bayreuth festival runs to August 28th.