© Bayreuther Festspiele, Lohengrin, 2018

The Bayreuth Festival

The Idea

Wagner's rejection of contemporary repertory theatre (which he considered aesthetically and qualitatively inferior and inadequate, after his experiences as a music director in Magdeburg, Königsburg and Riga) became stronger under the influence of the prevailing revolutionary atmosphere during his tenure as court music director in Dresden (1842-1849). His contact with revolutionary-minded friends such as August Röckel and Michael Bakunin, in addition to Feuerbach's intensive programme of lectures, led to his rejection of contemporary repertory theatre and his development of an increasingly comprehensive cultural critique. The theory that cultural decay was indicative of a more general degeneration of politics and society, whose root cause lay in the unification of industry and capital as the basis of the ruling power as embodied primarily by Judaism, led Wagner to the conclusion that an aesthetic and democratic public similar to the idealised role model of the ancient Greek polis could only be brought forth through revolution. As early as 1848, a first draft of a drama, Siegfried's Death, later to become Götterdämmerung, (Twilight of the Gods) and, with that, the last part of the later tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung, detailed Wagner's critique of power politics and capitalism as the antithesis of love and freedom, thus providing his revolutionary convictions expression. At the same time Wagner was convinced that the breadth, content and significance of the tetralogy could hardly be properly performed under the then prevailing conditions of established theatre. Due to this, the "Bühnenfestspiel" (stage festival play) Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung)  -  at the same time a contemporary equivalent to Aeschylus' Oresteia - was intended to be presented as part of a festival performance, thus liberating it from the allegedly complacent routine of the despised repertory theatre practice and also creating a fundamental alternative to current theatre. Thus, the emergence of the concept of the stage festival is intimately linked to the story of the emergence of The Ring of Nibelung. The performance of which, under special  temporal, spatial and discursive conditions was intended to create an exclusive artistic space, separated from the degenerated contemporary civilisation, where, ultimately, politics as well could be suspended. The idea of the theatre festival is a special concept in theatre aesthetics which sets a new benchmark for production, reception and conditions for a paradigmatic opus as a model for a public aesthetic in the idealised Hellenic style. Again, a revolutionary socio-political ideal of Wagner's underlies the idea of a theatre festival, cooperatively organised and free of the ruling political command. He featured and exemplified this ideal in The Mastersingers of Nuremburg; even in his later artistic-religious and cultural-theoretical considerations, his anarchic roots cannot be denied.

After the disappointment of the failed March Revolution, Wagner neither revised his original ideas and beliefs fundamentally, nor did he abandon them, but a paradigm shift took place. Influenced particularly by Schopenhauer's philosophy, as of 1854 Wagner anticipates a renewal of aesthetic consciousness in the public sphere no longer as a result of violent change in external political and social conditions but, rather, views art as the paradigm itself, as the exemplary utopian role model of that very aspiring social-political constitution.

The cult-religious implications of the stage festival idea, as essentially presented by Wagner in the so-called “regeneration scriptures” surrounding Parsifal and within the framework of his later cultural theoretical reflections, likewise arose from his pre-March revolutionary, young German critique of religion and its anthropological materialism.Through the effects of enlightenment, natural science and positivism, religion has lost its previously important function of creating a sense of purpose and now exists only as meaningless ritual.Therefore, according to Wagner in Religion and Art (1880), it becomes the responsibility of art to assimilate and transport the meaningful elements of religion.Laden with Schopenhauer's Buddhism-inspired ethics of asceticism in overcoming the “will”, as well as his criticism of classical metaphysics with its aim of human self-redemption, and also as a consequence of his leftist Hegelian roots, Wagner consistently negated all Christian denominational-ism and, rather, projected this religious function and mission onto art through the term “stage consecration festival opus”, which he used to describe Parsifal.All in all, the underlying assumptions of the stage festival concept include not only a reform-oriented sense of aesthetic conceptualization with the aim of achieving a high quality, self-confident production and reception form of theatre, whereby the scenes of the “Gesamtkunstwerks” (works of comprehensive arts) unite not only individual art forms to a creative whole, but performers and audience to a creative community as well. The idea equally presupposes a comprehensive integrative concept for politics, society, art, religion and the body politic.This integration is the consequence of an indispensably needed, comprehensive “regeneration” of culture and society, surmounting differences and separating barriers of nationality, language, religious denomination and race.This regeneration notion, however, links mono-manic cultural ideology to Gobineau's racist teachings (the fact of inequality of races necessitates the claim to power of the superior “Aryan”, white race), a dubious concept of purity and an increasingly obsessive anti-Semitism and proved in his intensely populist reception and proactive history his precarious world view potential all the way to ideology and propaganda of national socialism and its cultural symbiosis with the Bayreuth Festspiele.

Origins & Formation

Wagner first mentioned the idea of special music festivals as a showcase for The Ring in a letter to Ernst Benedikt Kietz Sept. 14th, 1850. „I'm seriously considering putting Siegfried to music but I'm not the least inclined to leave the performance realisation to the next best theatre. Quite the contrary: I'm harbouring the most audacious of plans, the implementation of which would cost no less that 10,000 talers!!Then I would, as I stand here, build a theatre after my own designs. I would gather the most suitable singers around me and provide all that is necessary for this one special production, so that I am assured of an excellent performance of this opera. (Wagner, Complete Letters, Vol. 3, p. 404). The stage festival plan becomes openly public in the autobiographical Message to my Friends (1851): “I plan to present my myth in three dramas, preceded by a lengthy prelude. Although each drama is in and of itself self-contained, I don't have “repertoire pieces” in the modern theatre sense in mind, but rather, plan concretely the following for their realisation: At a festival specially created for this one day, to present each drama over the course of three days plus a first evening for the prelude. I will consider the purpose of these performances as fulfilled when my artistic comrades, the true performers, and I manage on these four evenings to artistically convey my intentions of true emotional (not critical) comprehension to those audience members who gather to become familiar with these intentions(Wagner, Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, Bd. 4, S. 343f.).

But Wagner would not realise his plans until 25 years later in BayreuthImmediately after ascending the throne, King Ludwig II of Bavaria's salvation of Wagner from a deep personal and financial crisis was crucial.The king's life-long patronage made it possible for Wagner not only to continue composing; with the newly-won material possibilities the realisation of the stage festival idea was finally tangible.Plans for a Wagner Theatre in Munich however, were foiled when the King's Cabinet ordered Wagner's deportation.It wasn't until 1870 in Tribschen by Lucerne that Bayreuth captured Wagner's interest and soon after a first exploratory trip, plans were made to relocate to Bayreuth and settle down to found the stage festival enterprise.

 The financial costs of building and running the stage festival were estimated at 300,000 talers, to be raised by issuing 1000 so-called “patronage certificates”, costing 300 talers a piece. Each patron was entitled to a seat, leaving 500 seats to be given away free of charge to less well-endowed friends of the arts, according to Wagner's plan. Due to Widespread scepticism of the prospects of success for Wagner's plans, the patronage certificate system was not particularly well-received and the sales of certificates were far more sluggish than planned. Thus, the topping-out ceremony at the festival theatre on Aug. 2nd, 1873 suffered under a sombre atmosphere. The stage festival originally planned for 1874 had to be postponed first till 1875 and, finally, until 1876. The Royal Court Secretary's Office in Munich declined to underwrite a financial guarantee for the stage festival organisation in early 1874, bringing the enterprise to the brink of disaster.It took the personal intervention of King Ludwig II, who wrote to Wagner Jan 25th, 1874, “No! No and no again! It will not end like this! Help must come! We cannot allow our Plan to fail!”, to nonetheless secure a loan which, at least for the moment, afforded relief.Financing, however, required ticket-sales, in effect abandoning the idea of free-of-charge access. Construction of the festival theatre was completed in August 1875 and rehearsals began.The Bayreuth Festspiele officially opened with the debut performance of the full cycle of The Ring of the Nibelungen from Aug. 13th-17th, 1876 (the debut premieres of The Rhine Gold and The Valkyrie having taken place in Munich on Sept. 22., 1869 and June 26th, 1870 respectively)Despite the resounding success achieved directly though the Bayreuth Festspiele, Wagner was dissatisfied with the performances themselves, particularly stage-sets and costumes and promised fundamental changes for the following year.At the same time, these performances were petrified and preserved for decades as a sacrosanct, stylized archetype of model performance and staging of Wagner's works, not only in Bayreuth.Due to a deficit of 148,000 talers, continuation of the Festspiele was cancelled and the festival theatre itself was closed until further notice. It was primarily the 100,000 mark payment from Schott Publishing for the Parsifal score that made the second and, in Wagner's lifetime the last, Bayreuth Festspiele possible (ending July 29th). The debut premiere of Parsifal, begun in 1877, was given July 26th, 1882.


After Wagner's death, his widow Cosima assumed the management of the Festspiele.With the Bayreuth world premieres of Tristan and Isolde (1886), The Mastersingers of Nuremburg (1888), Tannhäuser (1891), Lohengrin (1894) a newly staged Ring (1896) and, finally, The Flying Dutchman(1901), she built up the Bayreuth repertoire as Wagner had wished (explicitly excluding three early works, The Faeries, The Ban on Love, and Rienzi) and so it remains to this day.Her outstanding achievement therein was transforming what initially was more an intermittent enterprise into an established institution, even though every second or third year was performance-free, used for the preparation of new productions.Through offsetting the royalties from the Wagner performances in Munich, after a 30-year term, all loans from the State of Bavaria had been paid off by 1906. By the end of Cosima Wagner's era, the Festspiel enterprise was free of debt.After Cosima Wagner suffered a stroke on Dec. 6th from which she, to the day of her death on April 1st, 1930, never fully recovered, she transferred the management of the Festspiele to her son Siegfried in 1907. He had long been gradually prepared for this position, having been a solo coach from 1892 on and first conducting The Ring in 1896, along with Hans Richter and Felix Mottl.

As stage director and set designer, Siegfried Wagner, who possessed a particular affinity to architecture, undertook tentative modernisation and innovation before the outbreak of WWI in 1914 forced discontinuation of the Festspiele.Due to the economic crisis after the war, the Festspiele could not be continued until 10 years later in 1924, the longest interruption until today.Had an ideological appropriation through the Bayreuther Circle and nationalistic-conservative tendencies been noticeable before the war, during the twenties the Festspiele became increasingly politically charged in terms of reactionary German nationalism and its leanings against the Weimar Republic.As early as Oct. 1st, 1923, Adolf Hitler was a guest at Wahnfried and immediately found a glowing admirer in Siegfried Wagner's wife Winifred.Siegfried Wagner was able to present Tristan and Isolde and Tannhäuser under the musical direction of Arturo Toscanini in 1927.But during the rehearsal period Siegfried Wagner suffered a heart attack on July 16th, leading to his death on Aug. 4th, 1930.A first completely new staging, financed by donations of 100,000 Reich marks organized by Winifred Wager, resulted in a spectacular new productio on the occasion of Siegfried Wagner's 60th birthday.

After Siegfried Wagner's death, his widow Winifred assumed management of the Festspiele, assisted by conductor and artistic director of the German Opera Berlin, Heinz Tietjen.After a repeat of the 1930 program in 1931 and a pause in 1932, The Ring as well as The Mastersingers were newly staged for the 50th anniversary of Wagner's death.Against a backdrop of the governmental takeover by the NSDAP and the election of Adolf Hitler to Reichs Chancellor, the Festspiele became a stage for the demonstrative image cultivation of the national socialist ruling powers.During the entire rule of the Third Reich, the Festspiele remained an expression of cultural identity and propagandist self-portrayal closely connected to the Nazi regime.This was personified in the close personal friendship between Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner.With the Nazi regime at the zenith of its power, a first completely newly staged version of Parsifal and Lohengrin lent extraordinary musical and staged brilliance as well as recognition abroad in the year of the thousand year celebration of the Third Reich and the Olympic Games in Berlin.Since 1936 the Festspiele schedule the same production rotation to the present day.In 1937, after the death of Alfred Roller on June 21st, 1935, a further re-design of Parsifal took place with the set designs of the young Wieland Wagner, in 1938 a new production of Tristan and Isolde and in 1939 of The Flying Dutchman.With the outbreak of WWII, the management of the “War Festspiele” was taken over by the Nazi organisation “Power through Joy”. Neither Tristan, considered by many Nazis to be decadent, nor Parsifal, with his idea of redemption through compassionate love, fit well into the propagandist concept and self-identity of the ruling powers and disappeared from the repertoire.Hitler himself visited the Festspiele for the last time in 1940, attending a performance of Twilight of the Gods.By 1942, only The Ring and Flying Dutchman were presented and in 1943 and 1944 The Mastersingers of Nuremburg alone was performed as a folklorist Reich political convention and an opera exhorting perseverance and staying power. These productions with the sets of Alfred Roller ran into bitter resistance from the “Old Wagnerians”, for whom the original première staging and sets “where the master's eyes had rested” were sacrosanct. The increasing press and public relations efforts of Winifred Wagner, documented for example, by the addition of a balcony between boxes and balcony for members of the press, were also bemoaned in these circles.  After another year of pause in 1935, 1936 saw a further new staging.

In order to facilitate a new begin of the Festspiele after the war as ideologically and politically unencumbered as possible, Winifred Wagner had to pass on management of the Festspiele to her two sons Wieland and Wolfgang. Her political and personal proximity to the Nazi regime, particularly her close personal friendship with Adolf Hitler and a sentence as a follower, confirmed by two court chambers, were too great a liability.A reopening of the Festspiele in 1951 featured a new staging of Parsifal and the Ring directed by Wieland Wagner as well as Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg under the direction of Rudolf Otto Hartmann.At the same time, this was the birth of a “New Bayreuth” characterized by Wieland Wagner's abstractionist, symbolic style of direction and focus on the psychology in drama, which represented a drastic and lasting break with then-traditional staging and ideological history.From that point on, as a matter of principle, one piece each year would be newly staged.The associate management of the Festspiele by Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner was formalized April 30th, 1962 with a partnership agreement, lasting until Wieland's untimely death at age 50 on Oct. 17th, 1966

From 1967 on, Wolfgang Wagner was solely responsible for managing the Festspiele. In 1969 August Everding became the first “external” director in the history of the Festspiele, engaged for new staging of The Flying Dutchman.The new production of Tannhäuser in 1972, directed by Götz Friedrich (sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose) ushered in an increasingly scandalous advent of “Regietheater” (director's theatre) onto the stage of the Festspiele and with that, an openness for stylistic and interpretive pluralism which, under the term “Workshop Bayreuth”, made a continuously progressive, multifaceted diversity of perspectives on Wagner's works possible.In 1973, the festival theatre was transferred to the newly founded Richard-Wagner-Stiftung, providing the former family enterprise with a public trust foundation.

The new staging of the “Ring of the Century” by Patrice Chéreau (set: Richard Peduzzi, costumes: Jaques Schmidt, conductor: Pierre Boulez) on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Festspiele in 1976 projected the mythological references onto props and costumes of the industrial age and initially created the fiercest uproar in the history of the Festspiele although, by the end of its rotation run, it had found acceptance.Harry Kupfer's staging of The Flying Dutchman 1978 (set: Peter Sykora, costumes: Reinhard Heinrich) presented the drama as a mad dream of Senta's with psychological consistency, nightmarish fantasy and brilliant dynamics.Götz Friedrich's “black” staging of Lohengrin (set: Günther Uecker, costumes: Frieda Parmeggiani) in 1979 was followed in 1981 by Jean-Pierre Ponelles Tristan interpretation in which Isolde's love death occurs only in Tristan's feverish madness and Wolfgang Wagner's Meistersinger version, where Beckmesser receives a delightful upward revaluation.Götz Friedrich set the anniversary Parsifal of 1982 in the war ruins of a toppled fascist building (set and costumes: Andreas Reinhardt). In the Ring of 1983 (director: Peter Hall, set and costumes: William Dudley), naturalistic reminiscences under the musical direction of Sir Georg Solti alternated with the demonstration of elaborate stage machinery.Wolfgang Wagner, in his first Tannhäuser production, chose the original “Dresden Version” and - foregoing a spectacular stage concept – a production faithful to the original with visual references to the '50's.The film director Werner Herzog staged a neo-romantic Lohengrin 1987 in Henning von Gierke's (set and costumes) designs of magical realism.Harry Kupfer's new staging of the Ring 1988 under the musical direction of Daniel Barenboim and in a set design from Hans Schavernoch (costumes: Reinhard Heinrich) was also controversial, dominated by ladders, lasers and recollections of Chernobyl.In his set and staging of Parsifal 1989, Wolfgang Wagner presented the world of the Holy Grail frozen in ritual.The floating upside-down turning house with the spinning room (set and costumes: Jürgen Rose) remains a lasting impression from Dieter Dorn's production of The Flying Dutchman 1990.Heiner Müller's staging of Tristan and Isolde 1993 (set: Erich Wonder, costumes: Yohji Yamamoto) interpreted the inner plot as intimate theatre with an austerely reduced staging and set, nonetheless expressive and suggestive, creating a focused recollection of the abstract “New Bayreuth” style of staging.The 1994 Ring production by Alfred Kirchner (set and costumes by Rosalie who?) with its focus on aestheticism, the appearance of shape and colour, strove for a playful, myth-debunking perspective of the work, thus forming an interpretive antipode to the ideologically critical Ring interpretations of Chéreau and Kupfer; the first year, James Levine conducted the slowest Ring in the history of the Festspiele, lasting 15 hours! Wolfgang Wagner bowed out as a director with his new staging of Die Meistersinger 1996, setting the drama within the context of its social aspects in a time of societal and historical upheaval as well as the conflict between humanity and nature by mixing traditional abstractions of the New Bayreuth style with colourful and stage-technical effects.Keith Warner interpreted Lohengrin 1999 resolutely as a dark tragedy in a magical metaphorical-symbolic staging (set: Stefanos Lazaridis, costumes: Sue Blane)The new interpretation of The Ring by Jürgen Flimm in the set by Erich Wonder (costumes: Florence von Gerkan) in the year 2000 viewed the parable of power and love as current events in a world destroyed by politics.Here the myth is grasped in its contemporary subject matter; the tragedy of the characters in this Ring is the tragedy of human lovelessness, whose hope lies only in metaphysical-aesthetic realms.Philippe Arlaud was responsible for staging and set for a new production of Tannhäuser dominated by light and colour in 2002 (costumes: Carin Bartels) under the musical direction of Christian Thielemann.A new production of The Flying Dutchman by Claus Guth (set and costumes: Christian Schmidt) followed in 2003, set the plot in an enigmatic stairwell passage room in an allusion to the Doppelgänger-metaphor of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Strindberg-like ego-fracture as father-trauma for the child Senta.In 2004, the performance artist Christian Schlingensief delivered yet another controversial new production of Parsifal under the musical direction of Pierre Boulez (set: Daniel Angermayr and Thomas Goerge, costumes: Tabea Braun) using an associative-additive accumulation of various image and symbolic levels, including the use of video projections, in a consistent referential system alluding to a universal, inter-cultural religiousness, ritualism and iconic-ism.

For more information, visit www.bayreuther-festspiele.de


M. Karbaum, Studien zur Geschichte der Bayreuther Festspiele (1876–1976), Regensburg 1976.
F. Spotts, Bayreuth: Eine Geschichte der Wagner-Festspiele, München 1994.
R. Wagner, Sämtliche Briefe, Bd. 3, hrsg. v. Gertrud Strobel und Werner Wolf, Leipzig 21983.
R. Wagner, Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde, in: Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen (Volksausgabe), Bd. 4, Leipzig o.J., S. 230ff.

You can find more Information about the Bayreuth Festival here: www.bayreuther-festspiele.de

Further Information: www.friedrich-bayreuth.info