Bayreuth for Beginners


Susan Brodie - Toi Toi Toi

By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!

Bayreuth, a small town in the lush German Bavarian countryside, is famously the home of the annual Richard Wagner Festival, founded by Wagner to perform his operas according to his standards, for audiences freed from the distractions of daily life. After more than a century opera lovers still dream of making the pilgrimage, faithfully applying for tickets for years before at last gaining admission to the Promised Land. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I’ve had the good fortune to jump the queue by participating in an educational institute organized by the Music Critics Association of North America. The experience will be new for me, but in anticipation it seems oddly like other summer experiences I’ve had, involving a long journey to a remote bucolic venue for the purpose of reveling in an intense if obscure obsession among other like-minded souls. Wagner might not like the comparison with summer camp, but there it is.

Arno Breker portrait (©Susan Brodie)
Arno Breker portrait (©Susan Brodie)

It scarcely needs mentioning that Wagner is a deeply controversial figure, primarily because of the inspiration that Hitler drew from his nationalistic and anti-Semitic philosophies. Though for me the music is paramount I would be remiss not to mention this aspect of the experience, not least because the Festival seems unable to exorcise the ghosts of its Nazi history. This year there’s an exhibit on the Festival grounds about Jewish musicians–more about that after I see it. Yet far more attention has fallen on the sudden departure of the exciting Russian bass Yvgeny Nikitin, originally scheduled to make his Bayreuth debut in the title role in The Flying Dutchman. A week before the opening a German television station re-aired a 2005 interview with Nikitin in which he displayed his eye-popping array of tattoos, one of which might have been a swastika (Nikitin denies this). Questions arose about a possible connection with right wing hate groups from his rock musician days, which prompted his withdrawal (fired or quit? not clear) from the cast just days before the new production premiere. Scandal!

Almost 70 years after the end of WW II Europe continues to come to terms with the Nazi madness. This past Monday I was struck dumb by a heartbreaking exhibit at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris about the July 1942 roundup and arrest of nearly 14,000 Parisian Jews by the Vichy government, and a couple of days later watched, on the French-German ARTE TV channel, chilling footage from 1930s Germany filmed, partly in secret, by the documentary filmmaker Julien Bryan. In banal scenes of daily life the viewer saw the rise of enforced conformity, suppression of all religion, and the instillment of suspicion of “the Other”. Scenes of happy peasants and pretty blond children alternated with mass rallies and fresh air camps for young men that clearly were training grounds for a future military elite. Four generations later, disturbing news has been trickling out of small-town Germany in recent months about the rise of neo-Nazi gangs terrorizing their villages. It’s a time of universal confusion over the blurring of national identities, and fear about competition for increasingly scarce resources. But given Germany’s not so distant history, these events have enhanced resonce here. So–perhaps irrationally–the trip to Bayreuth feels a bit like journeying into the belly of the beast.

Of course it’s ridiculous to blame this frightening history and current political climate on a single artist, particularly one who may have been crazier than “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the patron who helped keep him out of debt. The Wagnerian blog recently published a provocative article about Wagner as possibly suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, which seems to be a polite way of calling someone egomaniacally, destructively insane. There’s a tongue-in-cheek Twitter feed by @CosimaWagner consisting of diary entries from Wagner’s second wife, which suggest a fragile and volatile personality. But Wagner was hardly the first and the last transformative creator of questionable personality–I think of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose genius transformed architecture and whose creditors and neighbors (or their descendants) grumble about him still. I’ll say this once: I distance myself from the man, but thrill to his music.

Beyond these mentions I don’t plan to dwell on politics this week, though it does seem that the current production style at Bayreuth is topical, to say the least. But that’s another post. Meanwhile, I can’t wait for the start of a total immersion in some of the most glorious music I know.