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 of 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, who often must wait years to obtain tickets.
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, however. As part of the effort to secure further financing for the Festival and the building of a new theatre, Wagner, on 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 required investment by the end of 1872. As a result Wagner made another direct appeal to Bismarck in August 1873, again to be denied.
Desperate, Wagner turned to his former patron, Ludwig II who, despite his misgivings, agreed to lend financial support. 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 August 13, 1876, with a 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, and such accomplished composers as Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Franz Liszt.
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 Jewish 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. Because of this support, Bayreuth was able to maintain some artistic independence under the Third Reich, despite the use of Wagner's works as Nazi propaganda tools. Ironically, Hitler attended performances that included Jewish and foreign singers, long after they had been banned from all other venues across Germany. Winifred's influence with Hitler was so strong that Hitler even wrote a letter (at her behest) to the 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.
Two-thirds of the town of Bayreuth was destroyed by Allied bombing in the final days of World War II, 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. (To her credit, however, is the fact that the theatre itself was spared and avoided destruction, as she refused to allow its use for any military purposes whatsoever.) 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, 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. In 1946 the Festival House was handed over to the city of Bayreuth, and then 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 with the performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony on July 29, 1951, 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 Chereau. 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 in favor of the pair of their cousin, Nike Wagner, and Gérard Mortier, who had placed a late bid for the directorship on August 24. 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. The process entails submitting an order form every summer, applicants are usually successful after 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, turning up on the day in the hope of securing return tickets is a practical alternative. In particular, Friday afternoons often entail autobahn traffic jams on the motorway past Bayreuth resulting in ticket holders calling the ticket office to place their tickets on sale, sometimes at a substantial discount. Returns may be available for performances later in the season. If seeking returns, it is advisable to get to the box office in the early morning hours, as there is invariably a substantial queue. Again, preference is given to Friends of Bayreuth for whom a separate ticket office and queue applies.
The Festival authorities also assiduously police the illegal traffic of tickets, and monitor sites such as eBay. If the authorities suspect that a ticket has been resold without their consent they are likely to demand identification from the ticket holder on presentation and may refuse entry to those who cannot prove to have purchased their tickets legitimately. In practice, this is uncommon.
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. The newest production of the Ring (by Tankred Dorst) premiered in 2006.
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The Bayreuth Festival is a music festival held every year in Bayreuth, Germany, at which performances of operas by the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner are performed. It was Wagner's own idea to start a festival for his operas in Bayreuth in a theatre which he designed himself because he was not satisfied with the way that theatres were usually designed.
The theatre that he designed is called the Festspielhaus (Festival House). Wagner watched the theatre being built, making sure that it was done the way he wanted it. He had some new ideas about theatre design. For example: he wanted the orchestra pit to be so low that the orchestra would not be seen by the audience.
The festival immediately became internationally famous. Almost every serious musician in Europe wanted to go to Bayreuth to hear Wagner's music performed there. Composers usually either loved it and were strongly influenced by it, or they hated it and reacted against it.
The festival still continues now. Every August there is a festival of Wagner's operas. It is extremely difficult to get tickets because so many people want to go. People often wait for ten years before they can get a ticket.
Wagner wanted the festival to be in a small town where people could just concentrate on his music. Bayreuth already had a theatre, the Markgräfliches Opernhaus, but it was not suitable for modern opera. The town did not have a cultural life that would be in competition with Wagner's music. Another reason for choosing Bayreuth was that it was outside the area where the rights to perform his operas were not under his control (he had sold these rights many years earlier in order to raise money).
King Ludwig II of Bavaria gave a lot of money to Wagner to built the new opera house. Wagner also made tours across Germany to get money for it. Societies were established to raise money.
The architect who designed the opera house was Gottfried Semper.
The opening took place on August 13, 1876, with a performance of Das Rheingold. A lot of important people were there, including Kaiser Wilhelm, Dom Pedro II of Brazil, King Ludwig (who came in secret, perhaps because he did not want to meet the Kaiser), and other members of the nobility, as well as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and the composers Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Franz Liszt. Hans Richter was the conductor.
During Wagner's life the festival just performed the Ring Cycle and, later, his opera Parsifal. After Wagner's death, his widow Cosima continued to run the festival. She gradually introduced the other operas Wagner had written, so that all ten operas were in the repertoire. The operas were always performed exactly as Wagner had done. Nothing was allowed to be changed in any way.
After Cosima retired from running the festival in 1906, Wagner's son Siegfried took over management of the festival. He did some things differently, introducing new staging and performance styles. When he died in 1930 the festival was run by his widow Winifred.
In the 1920s, some years before the rise of the Nazi party, Winifred Wagner became a close friend of Adolf Hitler. Because of this, Bayreuth was able to continue getting a lot of money during the Nazi period. Wagner's works were used by the Nazi as propaganda tools. It is strange that Hitler went to performances in Bayreuth that included Jewish and foreign singers, long after they had been banned from performing in all other places in Germany. Winifred's influence with Hitler was so strong that Hitler even wrote a letter to the anti-fascist Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, begging him to lead the festival. Toscanini refused.
It was during this time that the festival made its first break from tradition. They stopped using the 19th century scenery on the stage. Many people disagreed with this, including Toscanini and Richard Strauss, and even some members of the Wagner family. They thought it should stay exactly like Wagner had known it.
During the war, the Nazi party ran the festival. Operas were performed for soldiers who had been hurt in the fighting. These soldiers were forced to go to lectures on Wagner before the performances, even if they were not interested in music.
A lot of Bayreuth was destroyed by bombing in the last days of World War II, though the theatre itself was undamaged. After the war, Winifred Wagner was sentenced to probation by a war court because she had supported the Nazi party. Ironically, it was because of Winifred that the theatre was not bombed. She had not allowed it to be used for military purposes, so it was not a military target. After the war the theatre was used for other kinds of concerts for the next few years. The festival started again in 1951, opening with a performance of Beethoven's Symphony no 9, followed by a performance of Wagner's opera, Parsifal
Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson, had some very new ideas, including very abstract scenery. Some of the audience even booed. What Wieland was trying to do was to make a big break from the past with its association with Hitler. Wieland died in 1966. For a time people wondered whether the festival would continue. There were a lot of arguments within the Wagner family. Wieland's brother Wolfgang Wagner remained in charge of running the festival for the next 42 years, while the money was controlled by the Richard Wagner Foundation.
Wieland Wagner started a workshop in Bayreuth in which directors could meet and discuss new ideas for presenting the operas. This made it easier for new ideas to be accepted, and gave new life to the festival.
The centenary of the festival was celebrated in 1976 with a great production of the Ring directed by the French director Patrice Chereau. His production concentrated on showing how the Ring was about the 19th century working class being used by the wealthy capitalists. Some people thought it was the best opera performance they had ever seen, others hated it.
There has been a lot of uncertainty about what would happen after Wolfgang retired. Many people wanted the festival to continue to be in the hands of the Wagner family. On 1 September 2008, Wolfgang Wagner's daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, were named by Bavaria's culture minister to take over the Festival. They have said that they want to "bring opera to the people" . In 2009 Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde will be live on the web. It will only cost £12.90 to watch online. People will also be able to watch it for free on a big screen in the centre of Bayreuth.
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