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The Bayreuth Festival

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

The highlight in any true fan of Richard Wagner’s music is a visit to Bayreuth to attend the annual Bayreuther Festspiele to hear a performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The challenge is getting tickets, as they are allocated by lottery through Bayreuth or its friends or the many Wagner Societies around the world. When I first became interested in going to Bayreuth, I was told that getting tickets through the Bayreuth lottery could take a decade, and that the best option is to join a Wagner Society. So I joined the Wagner Society of Northern California.

Wagner’s Vision

Wagner’s vision was to have a society of fans who would promote a festival of his music at Bayreuth, where he built a concert hall for the performance of his works. Wagner started a Society and got King Ludwig II of Bavaria to build the concert hall. (Ludwig is another fascinating story, as he loved the arts more than war which was his eventual downfall.) The Festival House is one of the largest timber structures ever erected (see Wikipedia). But from what friends tell me, it is also one of the most uncomfortable places to see an opera. The seats are hard wood and there is no air conditioning. Patrons typically bring padded seats and dress accordingly. However, I understand that the sound is amazing. Between the historic significance and the great sound, I'm told the pilgrimage is worthwhile. (Image from Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Neitzel -

Ricard Wagner was the first to use a pit orchestra. He was also the first person to NOT have box seats for the rich and famous and the first person to dim the house lights (so you can’t see and be seen) and the first person to make everyone be seated before the first note or you don’t get in. He even turned back a famous king who arrived late. When the king said he was a king, the usher said “Wagner is king here.” (Image from Wikipedia, courtesy of Josef Lehmkuhl.)

Getting Tickets

The rules for getting tickets through the Wagner Society of Northern California (of which I am a member) are that priority is determined by:

  • Whether a person has been to Bayreuth before. Higher priority for those who have not attended.

  • Years of paid membership. Higher priority for those who have been members longer.

  • Service to the organization. Higher priority for those who have served on the board.

I joined the board. I never let my membership lapse. After about 20 years of membership, Glen and I applied for tickets and got premium seats (for a premium price). Woo hoo! Finally! I planned a pre-concert trip through Bavaria to see the castles and the old cities. We were set. Then entered COVID. All was canceled. We were given the option to let our money ride for 2021. The only problem is that Bayreuth will NOT perform the Ring in 2021, only a several of the single operas. So we passed. Now we will need to get back into line and hope that in 2022 we can get tickets and we are still alive.

A Virtual Festival

Until recently, descendants of Richard Wagner were still running the festival. Katarina Wagner, the great-grand daughter of Richard, stepped down temporarily in April 2020 for a medical leave of absence. For the first time, a non Wagner person oversees the festival. Sources say that Katarina will return. But COVID has stopped the festival this year. Fortunately Duetsche Grammophone partnered with Bayreuth to put on a virtual festival that features recordings of past performances at the Festival. That’s where I will be later this month and into August. Each performance costs about 5 EUR. If I see everything that is offered, it will cost me about 60 EUR. This is far less expensive than the $7,000 we would have paid for two people to attend Bayreuth in person for seven operas. That’s not counting travel, hotel, and eating out.

The atmosphere won’t be the same, but I am considering the following:

  • Wearing my opera clothes. Well, except for the shoes. I don’t like dress shoes and think they should be outlawed due to the toll they take on feet.

  • Making German food to go along with the opera. Perhaps I’ll make an appetizer before the opera starts and then courses in between intermission.

  • Allowing myself to make snarky comments if I do not like the production. No one will throw me out of the performance! Bayreuth is streaming two versions of the Ring. One is the groundbreaking 1969 Chereau production and the other is the more recent (and booed) Castorf production. I’ve seen the Chereau, and it is good. I’ve only heard second hand reports about Castorf, with its alligator and prostitute additions. Now I can see that production first hand, for not much money, and judge for myself.

The Ring 2022

After all the virtual Bayreuth operas will I still want to go there in person? Probably. But that’s two years away. I’ll need to have luck in the lottery and maintain my health. Who knows how long the pandemic will last. I heard that people in the 1918 pandemic were better behaved than us in the USA, so they had only 2.5 years to suffer. With all the politicization of mask vs no mask, we could be looking into many years before any country allows US citizen to enter.

In the meantime, I plan to attend the virtual festival. I will dress up. I will eat German food. And I will eat popcorn during the performance just because I can! Stay tuned for my reports of the operas.

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