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The Bayreuth Festival (German: Bayreuther Festspiele) is a music festival held annually in Bayreuth, Germany, at which performances of operas by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner are presented. Wagner himself conceived and promoted the idea of a special festival to showcase his own works, in particular his monumental cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal.
Performances take place in a specially designed theatre, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Wagner personally supervised the design and construction of the theatre, which contained many architectural innovations to accommodate the huge orchestras for which Wagner wrote as well as the composer's particular vision about the staging of his works. The Festival has become a pilgrimage destination for Wagner enthusiasts.
The origins of the Festival itself lie rooted in Richard Wagner's interest in establishing his financial independence. A souring of the relationship with his patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria, led to his expulsion from Munich, where he had originally intended to launch the festival. Wagner next considered Nuremberg, which would have reinforced the thematic significance of works such as Die Meistersinger. On the advice of Hans Richter, however, the focus fell upon Bayreuth which enjoyed three distinct advantages.
First, the town boasted a splendid venue: the Markgräfliches Opernhaus built for Margrave Frederick and his wife, Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine (sister of Frederick the Great) in 1747. With its ample capacity and strong acoustics, the opera house was a good match for Wagner's vision. Second, the town of Bayreuth found itself outside of regions where Wagner no longer owned the rights to the performance of his own works, which he had sold off in 1864 in order to alleviate pressing financial concerns. Finally, the town had no cultural life that could offer competition to Wagner's own artistic dominance. The Festival, once launched, would be the dominant feature of Bayreuth's cultural landscape.
In April 1870, Wagner and his wife Cosima visited Bayreuth. On inspection, the Opera House proved to be inadequate. It was built to accommodate the baroque orchestras of the 18th century and was therefore unsuited for the complex stagings and large orchestras that Wagner's operas required. Nonetheless, the Burgermeisters proved open to assisting Wagner with the construction of an entirely new theatre and the Festival was planned to launch in 1873. After a fruitless meeting in the spring of 1871 with the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to obtain funds, Wagner embarked on a fundraising tour across Germany, including Leipzig and Frankfurt.
An initial public subscription proved disappointing until Wagner, at the suggestion of his friend and admirer Emil Heckel, launched a number of Wagner Societies to increase participation in the Festival's subscription. Societies were established, among other places, in Leipzig, Berlin and Vienna.
Despite making direct appeals based on Wagner's role as a composer of the new German Reich, the Societies and other fundraising channels were well short of the needed sum by the end of 1872. Wagner made another appeal to Bismarck in August 1873 and was again denied.
Desperate, Wagner turned to his former patron, Ludwig II who reluctantly agreed to help. In January 1874, Ludwig granted 100,000 Thaler and construction on the theatre, designed by architect Gottfried Semper, started shortly thereafter. A planned 1875 debut was postponed for a year due to construction and other delays.
Since its opening in 1876, the Bayreuth Festival has been a socio-cultural phenomenon. The inauguration took place on 13 August 1876, with a performance of Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony, which tradition has been repeated at every opening ever since. Then came the first performance of Das Rheingold. Present at this unique musical event were Kaiser Wilhelm, Dom Pedro II of Brazil, King Ludwig (who attended in secret, probably to avoid the Kaiser), and other members of the nobility, as well as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who committed much effort to helping his then good friend Wagner establish the festival, and such accomplished composers as Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, and the young Arthur Foote.
Artistically, the festival was a success. ("Something has taken place at Bayreuth which our grandchildren and their children will still remember", wrote Tchaikovsky, attending the Festival as a Russian correspondent.) Financially, however, the festival was a disaster and did not begin to make money until several years later. Wagner abandoned his original plan to hold a second festival the following year, and travelled to London to conduct a series of concerts in an attempt to make up the deficit. Although the festival was plagued by financial problems in its early years, it survived through state intervention and the continued support of influential Wagnerians, including King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
From its inception, the festival has attracted leading conductors and singers, many of whom performed without pay. Among these was Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere of the Ring Cycle in 1876. Another was the talented conductor Hermann Levi, who was personally chosen by Richard Wagner to conduct the debut of Parsifal in 1882 with the assistance of the young Engelbert Humperdinck.
Following Wagner's death, his widow Cosima continued running the festival at one or, more frequently, two-year intervals. She gradually introduced the remaining operas which complete the Bayreuth canon of Wagner's last ten completed operas. Levi, the son of a rabbi, remained the festival's principal conductor for the next two decades. Felix Mottl, who was involved with the festival from 1876 to 1901, conducted Tristan und Isolde there in 1886. Until the 1920s, performances were strictly in accordance with the traditions established under King Ludwig's patronage. Not a note was "cut" from any of the enormous scores; no concessions were made to the limits of human patience on the part of the audiences. Cosima Wagner preserved the productions of Parsifal and Der Ring des Nibelungen just as they had been in Wagner's day, defending any proposed changes with appeals to her son Siegfried: "Was this not how Papa did it in 1876?"
After Cosima's retirement in 1906, Siegfried Wagner took over management of the festival, introducing new staging and performance styles. His early death in 1930 left the Festival in the hands of his English-born wife Winifred Wagner, with Heinz Tietjen as artistic director.
In the 1920s, well before the rise of the Nazi Party, Winifred Wagner became a strong supporter and close personal friend of Adolf Hitler; her correspondence with Hitler has never been released by the Wagner family. She and other festival leaders were members of Nazi chief ideologue Alfred Rosenberg's Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur, which actively suppressed modernist music and works by "degenerate" artists. The festival maintained some artistic independence under the Third Reich. Ironically, Hitler attended performances that included Jewish and foreign singers, long after they had been banned from all other venues across Germany (including heldentenor Max Lorenz, married to a well-known Jewish woman). Winifred's influence with Hitler was so strong that Hitler even wrote a letter (at her behest) to anti-fascist Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, begging him to lead the festival. Toscanini refused. From 1933 to 1942, the festival was conducted principally by Karl Elmendorff.
It was under the Third Reich that the festival made its first break from tradition, abandoning the deteriorating 19th century sets created by Richard Wagner. Many protested at the changes, including prominent conductors such as Toscanini and Richard Strauss, and even some members of the Wagner family. In their view, any change to the festival was a profanation against "the Master" (Wagner). Nevertheless, Hitler approved of the changes, thus paving the way for more innovations in the decades to come.
During the war, the festival was turned over to the Nazi Party, which continued to sponsor operas for wounded soldiers returning from the front. These soldiers were forced to attend lectures on Wagner before the performances, and most found the festival to be tedious. However, as “guests of the Führer”, none complained.
During the 1970s Winifred Wagner was repeatedly petitioned to install a memorial to the Jewish singers at the Bayreuth Festival who had been murdered in concentration camps. A plaque was finally installed honouring Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann and Henriette Gottlieb after Winifred's death.
Two-thirds of the town of Bayreuth was destroyed by American bombing in the final days of World War II, taking with it the rotunda, living room and guest room of Wahnfried, though the theatre itself was undamaged. Following the war, Winifred Wagner was sentenced to probation by a war court for her support of the Nazi party. The court also banned her from administration of the Bayreuth Festival and its assets, which fell eventually to her two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland.
During American occupation of the region after World War II, the theatre was used for army recreation and religious services for American soldiers. Only popular concerts and mixed entertainment were allowed: comedy, dancing, acrobatics, and then only Die Fledermaus was staged. When the Festival House was handed over to the city of Bayreuth in 1946, it was used for concerts of the Bayreuth Symphony Orchestra and the performances of such operas as Fidelio, Tiefland, Madama Butterfly and La traviata. And talks about reopening of the Wagnerian Festival started. Finally it reopened on 29 July 1951 with, as always, a performance by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra under conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, followed by the first post-war premiere of Wagner's opera, Parsifal.
Under the direction of Wieland Wagner, the "New Bayreuth" ushered in an era that was no less than revolutionary. Gone were the elaborate naturalistic sets, replaced with minimalist modern productions. In comparison, the pre-war changes seemed tame. For the first time in its history, the Bayreuth audience booed at the end of productions. Wieland was particularly derided for his 1956 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Stripped of its pageantry, conservatives viewed the breaking of this "sacred German tradition" as an outrage. 
Wieland defended the changes as an attempt to create an "invisible stage" that would allow the audience to experience the full psychosocial aspects of the drama without the baggage and distraction of elaborate set designs. Others have speculated that by stripping Wagner's works of their Germanic and historic elements, Wieland was attempting to distance Bayreuth from its nationalistic past and create productions with universal appeal. Over time, many critics came to appreciate the unique beauty of Wieland's reinterpretation of his grandfather's works.
Wieland's innovative productions invited comparison to Wolfgang's, which critics unanimously found to be uninspired. If Wieland's productions were radical, Wolfgang's were regressive. Although still minimalist in approach, Wolfgang resurrected much of the naturalistic and romantic elements of pre-war productions. Thus, when Wieland died prematurely from lung cancer in 1966, many wondered if Bayreuth had a future. They began to question Bayreuth's primacy among German opera houses, and some suggested that more interesting productions were being staged elsewhere.
In 1973, faced with overwhelming criticism and family infighting, the Bayreuth Festival and its assets were transferred to a newly created Richard Wagner Foundation. The board of directors included members of the Wagner family and others appointed by the state. As chairman, Wolfgang Wagner remained in charge of administration of the festival.
While Wolfgang Wagner continued to administer the festival, beginning in the 1970s, production was handled by a number of new directors in what Wolfgang called Werkstatt Bayreuth (Bayreuth Workshop). The idea was to turn the festival into an opportunity for directors to experiment with new methods for presenting the operas. The change came out of necessity, as it was impossible for Wolfgang to both administer and direct the festival. It also provided an opportunity for Bayreuth to renew itself with each production, rather than continue to present the same operas in the same way, year after year. Ingmar Bergman, who famously made a film version in Swedish of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, turned down an invitation to direct the festival.
The most sensational production in Werkstatt Bayreuth was the Centennial Ring Cycle under the direction of French director Patrice Chéreau. Chereau used an updated 19th century setting that followed the interpretation of George Bernard Shaw who saw the Ring as a social commentary on the exploitation of the working class by wealthy 19th century capitalists.
The audience reaction was split between those who saw the production as an offence and those who considered it the best Ring Cycle ever produced. The ensuing conflict, short only of outright riot, between supporters and detractors was unprecedented in the history of the festival. The performances, and the performers, however, were without dispute some of the best seen in the world of opera.
Other notable directors to have participated in Werkstatt Bayreuth included Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Sir Peter Hall of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Götz Friedrich of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Harry Kupfer of the Berlin State Opera in the former communist East Germany and Heiner Müller of the Berliner Ensemble. In the end, Wolfgang's decision to bring in experimental directors helped rejuvenate Bayreuth and restore its reputation as the world leader in Wagnerian opera.
There was uncertainty over how the Festival was to be managed after the retirement of Wolfgang Wagner at the end of August 2008. In 2001, the Festival's 21-member board of directors had voted for his daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, to succeed him. Wolfgang Wagner, however, proposed to hand control over to his second wife, Gudrun, and their daughter Katharina. Gudrun died in 2007. No successor was named at that time, but it was speculated that Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina would eventually be named as joint directors of the festival. Directors have stated that preference will be given to descendants of Richard Wagner, and that a non-descendant would have to be a clearly better candidate.
On 1 September 2008, Wolfgang Wagner's daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, were named by Bavaria's culture minister, Thomas Goppel, to take over the Festival. They were to take up their duties immediately, since their father had announced his retirement at the conclusion of the 2008 Festival. They were chosen ahead of the pair of their cousin, Nike Wagner, and Gerard Mortier, who had placed a late bid for the directorship on 24 August. The conductor Christian Thielemann has agreed to act as chief adviser to the new directors, effectively taking the role of music director of the Festival.
The festival draws thousands of Wagner fans to Bayreuth every summer. It is very difficult to get tickets, because demand (estimated at 500,000) greatly exceeds supply (58,000 tickets); the waiting time is between five and ten years (or more). The process entails submitting an order form every summer; applicants are usually successful after about ten years. Failure to make an application every year results in being placed at the back of the queue. Although some tickets are allocated by lottery, preference is given to members of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth (financial donors), famous patrons, and to regional and international Wagner societies, which are distributed to their own members through lottery or the willingness to pay a high contribution.
However, in 2013 tickets for one opera production were offered exclusively online, on a first come first served basis with no preferential eligibility. It is reported that they sold out within seconds. This offer was repeated for the 2014 season, with tickets being available for eight performances including one complete Ring cycle. As of 2014, retail ticket prices ranged from €320 for a front row stalls seat to €45 for a gallery (third level) back row seat.
The Festival authorities assiduously police the traffic of tickets, and monitor sites such as eBay. On admission patrons are required to show photographic identification matching the name on the ticket.
In 2011 it was revealed that the German Bundesrechnungshof (federal audit office) were investigating the situation where, for a publicly subsidised event, only 40 percent of the tickets were actually available to the general public. Early in 2012 it was announced that changes would be made to the allocation system, including the ending of allocations to Wagner Societies (but not including the Society of Friends of Bayreuth as they make a substantial financial contribution) and a reduction in the proportion reserved for travel agents and hotels. As a result, the proportion of tickets available to the general public would increase to about 65 percent of the total available.
A new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen is presented every five to seven years, following a year in which no Ring is presented. In years in which the Ring is staged, three other operas are presented as well. When no Ring is staged, five other operas are presented. Tickets for the Ring are normally sold only as a complete set for all four performances.
The newest production of the Ring (directed by Frank Castorf) premiered in 2013. Castorf's radical staging of the cycle—a colourful modern setting with the global race for oil as the underlying theme—was received with lengthy booing at its premiere.
Historical performances of Wagner's operas at Bayreuth, available on CD, are too numerous to list. The following are a few outstanding examples.
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