BAYREUTH, Germany — Richard Wagner would no doubt be pleased that music aficionados the world over still flock to the countryside of northern Bavaria to attend performances of “Parsifal,” the only opera he wrote specifically for the theater he built there and the final work he wrote in his lifetime. But it’s another question altogether whether he would approve of the current staging.
The composer’s seven-hour tale of transcendence and redemption — alone among his works, he labeled it not an opera, but a “Buehnenweihfestspiel,” or “a festival play for the consecration of the stage” — was first staged last year as an allegory for Germany’s wayward and yet-to-be resolved modern history. Whatever Wagner would have thought of it, Stephan Herheim’s creative direction is one of several recent correctives to an event that was long overdue for change.
For 130 years, so much has stayed the same at the annual Bayreuth Opera Festival. The audience still comprises a sampling of the world’s elite, who routinely wait more than a decade for festival tickets. The music is still obsessively devoted to Wagner — and only 10 of his operas, at that. The theater, well-maintained but unrenovated, still requires its visitors to endure wooden seats and stifling, uncirculated air. And the proceedings are still organized by the Wagner family: In September 2008, two of the composer’s great-grandchildren, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, were chosen to take over for their father, 90-year-old Wolfgang. But, this year’s festival gave indications that new impulses are finding their way to this small Bavarian city. Indeed, the new festival directors have shown a commitment to change: to experiments with staging, to a wider exposure of the festival’s music to the public and to a challenge of the long-standing taboo against discussing its unsavory relationship with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.
“When I was growing up, I was repeatedly confronted with this topic, the Nazis,” Katharina Wagner told a press conference in June. She announced that she had invited independent historians to examine the complete family archives, much of which have previously been under lock-and-key. “No one in the family ever spoke about it. If my sister and I don’t ask the questions, who then will?”
Much of the notorious history is already on the record. The composer himself bears much of the blame for the cloud hanging over his reputation. His aesthetic theories expressed an aversion to Judaism and paved the way for the eventual appropriation of his work by the Nazis for their own ends.
But it was Wagner's daughter-in-law, the British-born Winifred, who in the 1920s cultivated what would become a long-standing friendship with a right-wing firebrand named Adolf Hitler. Even after Hitler came to power as Germany’s dictator, he continued to regularly visit the Wagner family in Bayreuth and patronize their work: He envisioned Wagner’s concert hall eventually serving as the basis for an empyreal Teutonic cultural temple. Some even suggest that Hitler and Winifred were lovers. What’s clear is that she didn’t hesitate to collaborate with the regime. The opera festival was one of the few independent cultural events that were sanctioned by the Third Reich.
The festival was discontinued after the war, but renewed in 1951 under the leadership of Winifred’s two sons, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner. Like much of their countrymen, they thought it best not to dwell on the specifics of Germany’s recent past, a decision that in the case of the Bayreuth festival has largely held until this day. In the vast permanent exhibition housed in the former Wagner home in Bayreuth, only scant mention is made of the festival’s relationship with the Nazi regime and the family’s close ties with Hitler.
The newfound commitment on behalf of the new festival management to critically examine the past was mirrored in Herheim’s remarkable staging of “Parsifal.” Herheim showed a German nation that had erred often in its search for a national purpose — from the regimentations of the bureaucratized Prussian state that happily marched off to war in 1914, to the decadent perversions of the Weimar Republic, to the repressed fears and self-satisfaction of the post-Nazi years. Whereas Wagner’s stage directions call for his hero’s quest to be repressed in the final scene by a single dove, Herheim replaces the dove with a more ambiguous symbol: a reflection of an eagle, Germany’s national symbol, seen in an enormous mirror that eventually lowers to reveal an image of the audience itself. The nation’s destiny, the production suggestions, is in the people’s hands, not in any single hero’s.
Katharina Wagner and her half-sister Eva also have other changes in mind. They have already arranged to have live transmissions of selected performances made available on the internet, and commissioned several Wagner works to be staged for children every year. They also have plans for podcasts about the productions and an eventual training academy for young people interested in making opera their vocation.
Amid all of the changes, the festival organizers will no doubt make an effort not to shed those things that make the event so special: the intimacy of the surroundings; the communal, familial feeling that develops among the attendees; and the unique combination of high-art propriety and traditional warmth that permeates the atmosphere.
It was, for example, a simple meal of sausage, potato salad and beer at an inconspicuous guesthouse that drew a stream of elaborately-attired theater-goers out of the opera house during the intermission between the second and third acts of “Parsifal," and down through the winding park that precedes it. The innkeepers speak to one another in the local Franconian dialect, but for the duration of this one-hour intermission their dining room resonated with languages from around the world.
But even the casual meal was not without the dint of elitism that the festival organizers are trying to shed. At one table, a former judge at Germany’s Supreme Court discussed the relative merits of the first two acts before admitting that he had been coming to the festival for 15 years. Somehow, he had managed repeatedly to jump to the top of the waiting list for tickets.
“Well, yes,” the justice said with a self-assured shrug. “Normal people do usually have to wait 15 years.”