© Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Siegfried 2019


A lively Wagner debate in Singapore
Assuming the names of characters in Wagner operas, a group of passionate Wagnerians debated the relevance of the Bayreuth Festival.
This article was written by John Gee, a member of the Management Committee of the Richard Wagner Assocation of Singapore.

“Passionate but good humoured” is probably a fair description of the spirit of a debate held on 24 February by the Richard Wagner Association (Singapore).

The proposition before the gathering was “This house believes the Bayreuther Festspiele is no longer a must do’ for Wagnerians – it has lost its relevance.”

Debaters adopted character names from Wagner’s works: Amfortas and Loge in the proponents’ camp, and Fafner, the Woodbird and, most curiously, Tarnhelm who maintained that the Bayreuth Festival did indeed remain a “must do”. The comperes for the debate were Richard and Cosima Wagner, alias Ong Yong Lock and Suon Kwok. Regrettably, the third of the resolution’s original proponents, Grane (Natalie Ng) came down with an illness shortly before debate.

Fafner had been to the festival for the first time in 2017 and enjoyed the experience enormously. He argued that the festival, presenting as it does the works of one composer, has to be innovative. The producers “know that they are going to get packed houses every night for almost whatever they put on; they can experiment, they can do something totally new,” which is not so easy elsewhere, in places where filling the house is important for the opera company’s viability. Bayreuth is also a place where Wagner fans from all over the world meet each other. It is here that Wagner made his home, “Wahnfried” and where he is buried.

Wagner closely supervised the construction of the opera house. Its design creates the illusion that the stage is further away than it actually is and the orchestra pit is recessed and covered by a hood so that the orchestra itself is invisible to the audience. Wagner intended, through means like these, to ensure that audiences would be immersed in the music and focussed upon the drama onstage. The opera house’s design balances the orchestral music and singers’ voices, so that the voices are not overwhelmed or at least, made inaudible at times.

Amfortas (Daniel Happel) recounted how, in the past, what happened at Bayreuth had been very familiar to Germans, and news of the festival, but also of Wagner’s family members who have played a key role in it, was something that repeatedly came to their attention, but this is something that has receded in prominence in the more recent past. There is now less of a focus on what happens at Bayreuth and more on the music of Wagner, which can be well performed in other venues, across the world.

There have been many innovative perfomances elsewhere, and they have been staged in opera houses that have fine acoustic qualities too. The ability of Wagner’s works to appeal across borders and to different peoples is something to be welcomed and it can do that without those who appreciate it having any sense that they need to go to the Bayreuth Festival to make their experience complete. Elevating the ethos of Bayreuth tends to reinforce a sense of opera and Wagner being for a closed circle of followers, when they should be for all.

While endorsing Fafner’s points, Woodbird (Juliana Lim) stressed that the issue under debate was not that of whether the Bayreuth Festival was an essential experience for opera lovers in general, but of its significance for Wagnerians, and she maintained that, in their case, it remained a “must do”.

Woodbird praised the qualities of the Bayreuth opera house. She said, “The pit is unique and the acoustics so special such that the music bathes the audience, wraps itself around you, envelops you as it spreads into the hall. Bliss! Wagner’s intent was that you should watch his operas not just anywhere but in Bayreuth, in the perfect setting that he created in his opera house.”

Noting criticism of some modern Bayreuth productions, Woodbird said,

“When Wolfgang started the Bayreuth Workshop giving independent directors the opportunity to direct the operas, he opened the Pandora’s Box, exposing the operas to interpretations and treatment, obviously to mixed reactions.  However, the Bayreuth audience is a loyal and discerning audience.  They jeer at specific aspects of productions - the costumes, the staging, the directing, even the conductor - but never fail to applaud the overall effort and the singers and the Bayreuth Chorus.”

Woodbird expressed concern that, if Wagnerians’ support for the Bayreuth Festival declined, then so might its financial base, with consequences for the sustainability and quality of the festival.

Loge (Clinton Lai) spoke of his experience in watching performances of Wagner’s works in opera houses in various parts of the world, illustrating his comments with images of their interiors. He had seen productions that were well-conceived, original and had attracted much critical praise and audience enthusiasm. In these opera houses, unlike in Bayreuth, the seats were comfortable and the temperature was controlled. The acoustics could be adjusted by state-of-the-art equipment. All of these are in stark contrast to the experience of sitting on hard seats at Bayreuth for around five hours, which does not enhance the audience’s enjoyment of the performances. 

Some of the attempts in Bayreuth at innovation seemed to be attempting something different for its own sake, without complementing Wagner’s work and in some cases, detracting from it. Loge cited the Frank Castorf “Ring” as a case in point: how did inserting a plastic crocodile into the climactic scene of “Siegfried” harmonise with or complement the original work? Loge believed that the future of Wagner’s works is assured regardless of what happens at Bayreuth and that any special significance it once had as a birthplace for innovation has gone: Wagner may well be appreciated fully elsewhere.

Tarnhelm (Margaret Chew) explained that she preferred not to call herself a Wagnerian as that suggests having an expertise she did not have and that one was old and grey, but rather a Fangirl of Wagner and his operas.  Despite seeing a production of ‘Tannhauser’ (her all-time favourite in the Wagner canon) at Bayreuth that was, in her view, the worst she had ever seen, with dancing sperm and a pregnant Venus, Tarnhelm maintained that due to the continuing legacy of Wagner and the history of Bayreuth, the Bayreuther Festspiele is positioned to interpret Wagner’s works on a unique level. Exclusively, it can offer a penitential perspective as was seen in Stefan Herheim’s ‘Parsifal’ and Barrie Kosky’s ‘Meistersinger’.  Indeed, on Tarnhelm’s first visit to Bayreuth in 2012, the exhibition Verstummte Stimmen (Silenced Voices) was installed at the Festspielpark. The frank and atoning exhibition which charts the discrimination and expulsion of Jewish musicians at Bayreuth moved Tarnhelm who had been uneasy with Bayreuth’s dark past. Tarnhelm has since changed her posture (as Tarnhelms do) to one who has come to increasingly appreciate and respect the critical introspection and passionate commitment of those behind the Bayreuther Festspiele.

The audience responded enthusiastically to the debate and, when the speeches had ended, asked questions of the speakers and offered some views of their own on Bayreuth and on the presentations: sometimes strongly felt, but always good-natured.

The two sides made their summaries, but in the end, a vote was not taken: it was felt that persuasive and well argued cases had been presented by able protagonists, and the audience left well satisfied with a worthwhile and enjoyable debate.