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Bayreuth: can Wagner be saved ? (2/2)
How should we proceed?
The festival management seems to be sticking firmly to its "Regietheater" aberration, even if the response is moderate. At the same time, ticket prices are rising astronomically. What will become of the festival? Can it still be saved with Katharina Wagner?
Author: Bernd Fischer
The problematic sales of tickets for the Ring point to a fundamental problem of the Festival. By focusing on an over-the-top director's theater, the festival has increasingly alienated its core audience, including many members of local Wagner societies or the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, who would easily be willing to purchase the now overpriced tickets for the Ring (see below), and who would also be financially able to do so, if it were presented in an appealing form. Their absence has become increasingly noticeable in recent years. This is compensated by visitors who are more interested in the "event experience" and do not have a closer connection to the actual work. However, these visitors tend to attend individual events. Now one has reached the point where it is actually no longer possible to ignore it. The festival management, however, seems to be sticking firmly to its erroneous path of "Regietheater".
The second fundamental problem of the Festival is that since the end of Wolfgang Wagner's era it has become more and more an "ordinary" festival. Twenty years ago, Wagner enthusiasts still had the feeling that they were attending a pilgrimage. The thought of belonging to the small, illustrious circle of ticket holders was uplifting. Although the ticket allocation process was abundantly non-transparent, the ticket prices were quite low - compared to the festivals in Salzburg and Glyndebourne, for example. This was a very democratic idea, because it made it possible for a music-loving teacher who had a family to support to attend the festival. Providing two events at reduced prices exclusively for union members was also intended to be a socially responsible measure. This tradition grew out of the substantial financial support the unions had provided in the run-up to the reopening of the Festival in 1951.
In the years that followed Wolfgang Wagner's departure, the festival was reorganized. Ticket allocation became more transparent, but the price level was not only raised, but pushed to the limit. The number of seats in cheaper categories was reduced, the performance for union members was cancelled. Even the parking lots were suddenly charged. In 2007, one had to pay 208 € (row 1, seat 8) for a first-class ticket of the Parsifal, in 2011 already 260 €, in 2023 such a ticket then would cost 460 € (most expensive category)! How many middle-class families can now afford a visit to the entire Ring at the Festival? If one calculates with a ticket price of 1,200 € per person (for all four parts), then one easily arrives at 3,500 to 4,000 € for two persons for one week Bayreuth (or surroundings) including board and lodging and journey!
The economic reasons for this are certainly understandable, but these measures have also severely damaged the feeling of "belonging to the community". Today, many people think about whether they would rather spend the money on a performance of the Ring in Berlin, Munich or Düsseldorf. In the past, most people would not have considered this to be comparable at all.
Always new rabbits pulled out of the hat
If one looks at her work at the Festival without prejudice, then this question must be answered in the negative, because on the one hand she simply has too few successes to show for it, and on the other hand she does not show that she understands the reasons for her failures or is prepared to take the necessary measures to counteract them. If one were to choose a single term to describe her leadership activities, it would probably be erratic. Of the productions during her tenure, perhaps four or five can be considered at least halfway successful, which makes for a pretty lousy ratio. It is striking that not a single director was rehired either; not even those who were celebrated by critics or audiences, such as Stefan Herheim or Hans Neuenfels. The only - albeit dispensable - exception was Katharina herself, who made a mess of two productions (Meistersinger and Tristan). For these events, by the way, one could - perhaps with the exception of the premiere years - always get tickets quite easily...
Instead, new rabbits are always being pulled out of the hat with which she wants to dazzle the experts and (temporarily) silence her critics. The best example is the choice of artistic directors for the Ring des Nibelungen - certainly by far the most complex artistic challenge in Bayreuth and the most economically significant "product". For the new production planned for 2020 (and completed in 2022 due to the corona), she engaged the hitherto rather unknown conductor Pietari Inkinen and the director Valentin Schwarz, who was just in his early thirties at the time, in a completely surprising move. For both of them it was the very first production in Bayreuth. Schwarz had not staged a single Wagner opera before (according to the information on his website)! He was active in particular in Weimar and Darmstadt; at the Staatsoperette Dresden he had just staged "Die Banditen" by Jacques Offenbach in 2020. Inkinen has been chief conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, among others, since 2017.
Nothing against these two still young artists, but which owners of a company operating according to the laws of the free market economy would rely for their by far most important product on executives who have virtually no experience in the field in question? To put this in perspective, let us take a brief look back: Christian Thielemann was allowed to perform in Bayreuth for the first time at the age of 40. At that time, he merely took over an already established production with the Meistersinger in Wolfgang Wagner's production. It was not until 2002 that he was entrusted with the musical direction of a new production. Yet he had long established himself as an internationally recognized Wagner conductor, including at the Deutsche Oper, a weighty "Wagner house," where he was general music director in those years.
Quite good has never been enough for Bayreuth
Compared to this, the appointment of Schwarz and Inkinen seems as if Volkswagen were commissioning two designers who had previously only worked in a bicycle factory to develop a new design for their most important model. In general, it can be assumed that the unconventional choice was also intended as an affront to Christian Thielemann, who had probably become too dominant for Katharina: "Look, it works without Thielemann! There are so many who can do it, too"; this was probably meant to be the message. After getting rid of her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who was forced upon her in 2008 as co-director, and many an unpleasant employee, the last step now seems to be the emancipation from Thielemann.
Very strange decisions were also made in both previous new productions of the Ring. Frank Castorf had never staged any opera before. The same was true for Tankred Dorst. He was already 81 years old in the year of the premiere, but Wolfgang Wagner had still engaged him. Neither of the two, by the way, ever staged another opera after that.
Even with the conductors, Katharina Wagner ultimately failed to ensure consistently high quality. For a long time, this was compensated by the fact that the outstanding Wagner conductor of our time, Christian Thielemann, was very present on the Hill year after year. Now it seems that he, too, could not or would not be kept. One also wonders why a great Wagner conductor like Kirill Petrenko no longer conducts in Bayreuth, why an Andris Nelsons can no longer be engaged! Sure, other conductors this year and last year were already quite good. But quite good has never been enough for Bayreuth; for a Bayreuth festival at top prices it is fatal!
Establishment of a marketing department would be an alarm signal
In 2024, Philippe Jordan, who is no stranger to Bayreuth, is to take over as conductor for the Ring. But this and all the marketing activities that Katharina now has in mind will do nothing to change the fundamental problems. The staging is completely screwed up and even further minor interventions will not change anything. The only thing that can be done is to try to cast the 2024 Ring with really first-class singers. If that doesn't help, then the price screw will have to be turned back. This is probably already dawning on the ladies and gentlemen of the Hill, because it has been announced that they will not raise prices next year. A freezing of the ticket prices might be however hardly sufficient. One conceivable option would be to offer a discount for the purchase of an entire Ring cycle, as is the case at other opera houses - perhaps by 15 or 20 percent.
Was sie an anderen Maßnahmen verkündet hat, ist als Fortsetzung ihres erratischen Führungsstils zu sehen. Der geforderte Aufbau einer Marketingabteilung kann schon als Verzweiflungstat angesehen werden. Wenn man für ein Produkt wie die Bayreuther Festspiele auf Werbung setzen muss, hat man eigentlich schon verloren. Überhaupt: Wie soll diese Abteilung finanziert werden? Will man die Kartenpreise in Zukunft noch weiter überreizen?
According to Katharina, they are even considering offering the Ring without rest days in the future, so that guests can save at least two nights. This is the wrong way! One should rather point out that there are inexpensive overnight accommodations in the near surroundings of Bayreuth - for example in the Franconian Switzerland or in the Fichtelgebirge. It remains to be expected that at least the city of Bayreuth and the district of Upper Franconia (both represented in the Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth) finally wake up in order to avert additional damage for the city and the region.
What would be needed is a new, consistently more conservative orientation
With the performance of the early work Rienzi, planned for the anniversary year 2026, and the resulting expansion of the canon of Richard Wagner's performed works from ten to eleven, Katharina finally pulls another rabbit out of the hat. Whether this will be a success remains very much in doubt, for there were good reasons for not including Wagner's three early works in the Bayreuth canon. While Rienzi undeniably features some very beautiful passages, overall this work, still very much rooted in the tradition of French grand opera (Bülow called it Meyerbeer's best opera!), is rather unwieldy. Without cuts, a performance would last nearly five hours - plus the intermissions, mind you. Occasional performances at local opera houses are then also without exception based on a strongly shortened version. The Deutsche Oper in Berlin reports a playing time of two hours and 34 minutes for its version! (Even in this greatly reduced version, some things still seem dispensable).
From an economic point of view, it remains very doubtful whether a still immature opera that has to be cut by half will have a lasting appeal to the audience. An experiment from the anniversary year 2013 went rather wrong. At that time, the three early operas had been performed in the Oberfrankenhalle separately from the official festival (Rienzi in a version by the Leipzig Opera, the other two works in concert). The reviews were anything but enthusiastic and the performances by no means sold out. Christian Thielemann, by the way, has always opposed the inclusion of the early works in the canon of works to be performed, since their sound conception does not fit the acoustics of the Festspielhaus. The Flying Dutchman was already borderline in this respect. Katharina is no longer guided by such well-founded concerns. She wants autocracy; somehow fitting the story of Cola di Rienzi.
Whichever way you look at it, the consolidation of the festival can only succeed if it is given a new, consistently more conservative orientation, and thereby wins back the disgruntled die-hard Wagner lovers. This would mean avoiding the grotesque forms of director's theater. That would work with directors like Andrea Moses, Andreas Homoki, Uwe Erik Laufenberg or Brigitte Faßbender, but not with Schwarz or Tcherniakov. Because they do exist: directors who stage Wagner's works impressively without having to create a parallel world.
For a long time, it was believed that a member of the Wagner family should direct the festival. With the development of the Festival into a festival like many others, this wishful thinking can be safely thrown overboard, especially since no suitable candidate from the family has emerged. Nike Wagner would have been a good choice, but she did not succeed Wolfgang Wagner for (family) political reasons. Katharina Wagner has failed, and those responsible should admit this. Even if it may sound like a paradox at first: turning away from her can also be interpreted as a sign of trust in Richard Wagner's work.