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Bayreuth: our personal pilgrimage for Wagner

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What draws hundreds of people from all over the world every night for a month (including me and my husband) to a green hill set in the Bavarian countryside just outside the small, typical German town of Bayreuth?

The answer lies in the music of ‘The Meister” – namely, Richard Wagner, a visionary whose genius, self-belief and egoistic nature guaranteed that his music would enchant and thrill audiences for generations to come.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria, without whom, the Bayreuth Opera House would never have been built. He is reported to have been in love with Wagner. Wagner, never one to turn down patronage, was not blind to his adoration and even basked in its glow.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria, without whom, the Bayreuth Opera House would never have been built. He is reported to have been in love with Wagner. Wagner, never one to turn down patronage, was not blind to his adoration and even basked in its glow.

Wagner’s ultimate achievement was the “modern” total experience – not only did he write the music for his operas, but he wrote the libretto, too. To ensure that they would be truly represented as he intended, he then oversaw the creation of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. He was assisted by patronage from King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

So, how did our own personal pilgrimage to this hallowed music ground come about?

The operas of Wagner have become a lifelong passion for my husband. He was first captivated at the age of thirteen, by a schoolmaster blasting chords of the Ring Cycle out across the school courtyard.  In England, the delights of the Royal Opera House whetted his appetite.

When we arrived in Leipzig in September 1998, the actual pilgrimage moved closer. It was an interesting first experience to find the house where Richard Wagner had been born. We were told that the house no longer exists, but a plaque marked the site of the building. It was several moments before we eventually found a small plaque tucked away on a pillar of the old Karstadt on Richard Wagner Straße.

Over the years, Leipzig has developed the Wagner story to declare him “forever a son of Leipzig”. This culminated in 2013, with the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. Oper Leipzig has produced a number of Wagner’s operas, but the real dream for us has always been to obtain tickets for the Bayreuth Festival of Wagner.

Unfortunately, since we are neither Bundespräsident nor Bundeskanzlerin, our only option was the annual application for tickets. It is well known that tickets are incredibly difficult to actually get. People say that the average waiting time is ten years.

Each October, we would send off the application form and not hear back. Until November 2015.

A normal-looking envelope popped into the postbox then. But, no, it was not normal. Its cover bore the signature of “Bayreuther Festspiele”. The priceless tickets had come. They were not exactly without price, but for such an occasion, we would pay the earth!

There were nine months to wait until finally the day arrived. We were blessed with beautiful warm weather which made the whole experience a delight. We arrived in style by coach provided by our hotel, the Hotel Rheingold (rather a suitable name, we thought). We had booked two nights to ensure the whole evening was relaxed and fully enjoyable.

The hotel provided an aperitif of sekt before we left, and once on the “Green Hill”, there were many opportunities for more food and drinks before and during the intervals. Anticipation mounted outside as a small group of brass players from the orchestra came out onto the famous balcony to herald the audience inside.

The theatre, designed by Wagner himself to be acoustically perfect, proved to be so. Even the wooden seats had some slight padding to lessen the discomfort often spoken about.

Bayreuth Opera House orchestra pit designed by Wagner. Prior to that, the orchestra had been on or to the side of the stage. Wagner created the pit so the audience would not be distracted from the visual and aural experience.
Bayreuth Opera House orchestra pit designed by Wagner. Prior to that, the orchestra had been on or to the side of the stage. Wagner created the pit so the audience would not be distracted from the visual and aural experience.

A highlight for us was also to see the Bayreuth bats – flitting about the stage during Isolde’s brilliant performance.

They obviously also enjoyed it. I will not comment on the stage production itself. There are more learned people who can do that, but close your eyes and you are wafted away two centuries to a magical scene.

Bayreuth has taken on the mantle of protecting this tradition for the many pilgrims from across the globe in such a way that visitors can truly enjoy their musical time spent on the “Green Hill”.

written by Hilary Sams

Ticket applications to the Bayreuther Festspiele must reach the office by 15 Oct. Hurry to try your luck!

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