Writers down the ages have left trenchant impressions of their first visit to Bayreuth. George Bernard Shaw was adulatory, Mark Twain quizzical, Thomas Mann sceptical, Tchaikovsky physically uncomfortable. The dream world of Richard Wagner leaves no sensitive mind unaffected, such is its madness, its black history and its cherished aura of exclusivity. The woman beside me on the Nuremburg train, head of a German company in Shanghai, had sought tickets for eight years before she got lucky in the ballot and jumped on a plane.
My own entry was more circumspect. I had pledged never to attend the festival while it remained in the soiled hands of the Wagner family. Always racist, the Wagners turned the festival into a Nazi showcase and ran a small concentration camp on the side of the estate. After the war, they continued to hold court for wealthy Hitlerites well into the 1960s. Although the Festspielhaus is now publicly owned, two of Wagner’s great-granddaughters remain unassailably in charge, stonewalling on their family’s past.
Foul echoes resound every year. This summer, a Russian bass-baritone withdrew from The Flying Dutchman after the German media showed what appeared to be a swastika tattoo on his shoulder. Yevgeny Nikitin insisted he had done his body art as a teenager and had no political views, but Bayreuth panics at the first hint of Nazism and the unfortunate singer was shoved onto the next train out.
I wanted no part of this circus and was prepared to wait until the Wagners fell before I set foot in the place. What finally took me there was an appointment with a conductor so busy that there was nowhere else we could meet all summer. The maestro gave me his tickets and I was able to enter Bayreuth unsullied by the dirty dynasty.
The first shock struck as I stepped off the train. “Look right,” said my BBC colleague. At the end of the platform rose a green hill and, in the thick of it, the carrot-coloured brick of the theatre that Wagner built in 1876. He set it there to ensure that no one entered the town without acknowledging his dominance. His was a megalomania unparallelled in the history of Western art.
At the opposite end of the town stands Wahnfried, the family home, now a museum. We found it shut for renovations and were told that it will not reopen for the composer’s bicentenary next year, being a couple of million euros short on budget and some way behind schedule. The inefficiency was mildly reassuring, almost charming.
Before leaving for the opera, we were served champagne in the hotel lobby. Black tie is optional, festivity obligatory. Fifteen minutes before curtain time, the brass section steps onto the outside balcony and blows a themed fanfare from Lohengrin, repeated at five-minute intervals.
Inside, the wooden seats are arranged in a hemisphere, unbroken by aisles. If someone falls ill, they are borne aloft down the row, the music uninterrupted. Once the doors shut, there is no escape.
The lights go down and what follows is a silence unlike any other, a silence so profound that it qualifies as a musical sound. The orchestral chords that emerge shrink the auditorium to pocket size. Wagner buried his orchestra unseen beneath the stage, allowing the audience close proximity to the singers, who can deliver without vocal stress even when the accompaniment is ffff. At Bayreuth, Wagner is soft on the voice.
The acoustic is incomparable to any other musical space on earth. I enjoy the opera with a depth of concentration that is hard to sustain in less perfect surroundings. I feel privileged to be here.
This intensity is a Bayreuth miracle. Never have I sat among so rapt and motionless a crowd, many of them whole families and young couples whose tickets must have come by legacy or connections. These are the regular attenders, at home in their pews. I have fallen among true believers: men and women who fulfil an annual ritual for reasons unquestioned, reasons whose origins they have long forgotten.
Expecting a preposterous production, I am not disappointed. Hans Neuenfels dresses his Lohengrin chorus as rats and presents the famous swan as a piece of white sanitary ware that, in the finale, reverses to display a human foetus in the womb. What this has to do with Lohengrin is anyone’s guess. Regietheater (“director’s theatre”) is the ruling creed in German opera, nowhere more so than at Bayreuth where its faux-modernism serves as yet another layer of deception to conceal an odious past. Don’t look, advises a conductor friend, just listen to that inimitable sound.
Outside, in hour-long intervals between the acts, half the audience takes dinner in chintzy restaurants while the rest mills around the grounds, flaunting designer outfits and jewellery. Usually, there is not much else to do. This year, however, an exhibition has been installed on the lawns — and its title nearly knocks me off my feet.
Verstummte Stimmen (“Silenced Voices”) is a comprehensive account of Richard Wagner’s inflammatory anti-Semitism, of his family’s Nazism and of the many Jewish artists who were driven out of Bayreuth before and after 1933, some to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps. Members of the audience study each panel with the same concentration they apply to the live performance, and often with white-faced shock. The truth, it seems, is out. Bayreuth has shaken the skeletons out of its closet and is preparing to face the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth with a clean slate. A further segment of the exhibition, detailing Wagner’s noxious influence on German politics, continues in the town hall. Witnessing Verstummte Stimmen, I am relieved and happy to be in Bayreuth.
But all in Wagner is never as it seems. Next morning I ask a flack in the Festspielhaus for a copy of the exhibition texts. “Can’t help you,” he shrugs. “It’s a town hall thing. Nothing to do with us.” I beg your pardon? “This is not a festival exhibition.”
Of course not. The democratic town of Bayreuth may be keen to come to terms with its unsavoury past, but the Wagners cannot budge. So long as the family controls the festival, it will remain tainted by crimes against humanity. I won’t go back.