Music theater: Turbulent season at the Bayreuth Festival

It is a remarkable season that is coming to an end on the Green Hill: Allegations of sexism had overshadowed the start of the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Corona cases in the team kept messing up the plans - and the new "Ring des Nibelungen" took care of it for discussion, to put it mildly.

Music theater: Turbulent season at the Bayreuth Festival

It is a remarkable season that is coming to an end on the Green Hill: Allegations of sexism had overshadowed the start of the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Corona cases in the team kept messing up the plans - and the new "Ring des Nibelungen" took care of it for discussion, to put it mildly.

"Above all, it was a very strenuous season. We had over 100 corona cases and it's a miracle that we were really able to play every day. It was a puzzle," says festival director Katharina Wagner of the German Press Agency.

No one has come forward since the allegations of sexism became known. "And we don't know who the allegations were made against," says Wagner. Nevertheless, she drew conclusions: The festival wants to include a "code of conduct" in all employment contracts. There will also be anti-discrimination workshops in the fall. "We are considering setting up a whistleblower office that you can turn to in confidence," says Wagner, who, despite all the adversities, speaks of a successful season.

The festival has had 50,000 spectators since it started on July 25th and, according to Wagner, was sold out "except for a few remaining tickets for the concerts" - not a matter of course in post-corona times, when many theaters and opera houses are still waiting that the audience returns.

There were storms of protest against Valentin Schwarz

However, this audience was not completely enthusiastic. After the four "Ring" operas, which the young Austrian Valentin Schwarz brought to the stage this year, veritable storms of protest shook the Festspielhaus - at least in the week of the premiere. Katharina Wagner says: "Let's wait and see how this develops. Already in the second and third "Ring" cycle, the reactions were significantly different, many were enthusiastic."

Such storms of protest are nothing unusual in Bayreuth anyway. Overall, says Wagner, however, "the tone has become rougher". But that applies not only to Bayreuth and not only to the opera, but in general. "Debates are now sometimes held in society in a completely different and much less objective way than they were a few years ago."

Is Katharina Wagner extending her contract?

A debate - sometimes factual, sometimes less so - is also always being conducted about Wagner himself. She has never been undisputed since she took over the management of the festival in 2008 as the successor to her father Wolfgang Wagner - initially together with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, since 2015 alone. And how things will continue after 2025, when the contract with Richard Wagner's great-granddaughter expires, is unclear. However, it should be clear: If Wagner leaves, it will probably be the end of the family of composers at the top of the festival. No other family member is expressing interest at this time.

The head of the Bayreuth board of directors, Georg von Waldenfels, says talks on this should begin in 2023. "We'll talk about it next year," says Wagner - and sets conditions: "I make an extension dependent on certain structures having to change. It's about the shareholder structure and especially about the finances. We need a viable and long-term concept and, above all, a professional sponsorship and marketing department."

At the moment it is mainly the patrons of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth who take care of donations. Waldenfels also presides over them. He reports on the displeasure of many "friends" about the new "Ring" and raves about a "brilliant Christian Thielemann" who must be bound to the festival in the long term. In fact, he says, in Bayreuth it must be much more about the music than about directing. "In my view, how the music is perceived is more important than what happens on stage."

He expects a "vision" from the festival management. "How will things continue in the next five years? In which direction should Bayreuth develop?" The question also arises: "What can the festival management shoulder even more intensively?"

There will be a 3D "Parsifal".

Katharina Wagner has actually made it quite clear in recent years what she stands for. She has given young directors a chance - with great success in the case of Tobias scratches and his "Tannhäuser", but with moderate success in the case of Schwarz - and has shown that she is particularly interested in what used to be called director's theater: creative, innovative and worthy of discussion with the work of her great-grandfather Richard Wagner (1813-1883).

She has announced a 3D "Parsifal" with augmented reality for the coming year and is now also trying to pull the festival, which always seems to be taking place a little removed from Bayreuth's reality, further into the city with cinema broadcasts and open air -Concerts that will be held again next year. The children's opera, which is staged anew every year, has been a successful project for years.

The question now is whether the shareholders of the festival, which include the "Freunde" as well as the federal government, the Free State of Bavaria and the city of Bayreuth, will follow this path or whether they will rather opt for the more classic, Waldenfelsian one.

The audience in Bayreuth should get younger

"There is really a lot of need for reform on the Green Hill," said Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth of the German Press Agency. She wants simpler structures and a younger audience. The Bayreuth audience is "not a reflection of our diverse, colorful society," says the Green Party politician. "Young people are also clearly underrepresented." She sees "a clear need to catch up".

Before the start of the festival, Wagner announced that she also has some plans outside of the festival for the coming years: She is staging a "Macbeth" in Asia and a "Parsifal" in Riga. Her "Lohengrin" has been waiting for its premiere in Barcelona since the beginning of the corona pandemic. The plans act like a sign: Wagner doesn't need the festival. But does the Festival need a Wagner? Roth's answer to the question of whether a descendant of Richard Wagner should continue to direct the festival is: "There is no ritual duty here."

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