Vignettes of Bayreuth

Bayreuth by B&B

Planning to attend the Bayreuth Festival inevitably brings up the question of where to stay. The big package tours assume that all opera lovers are extremely well heeled and will accept only grand luxe restaurants and hotels—with prices to match. For festival-goers whose budget won’t allow five-star establishments—and particularly for those who relish encountering the real citizens and cuisine of the countries they visit—guest houses are an attractive option.

My trips to Bayreuth in 1970 and again in 1995 were made extremely pleasant by stays in private homes. In 1970, the Festival’s own booking service arranged for lodging with Frau Schricker, a widow in a post–World War II subdivision who provided modest but comfortable accommodations and a sizable breakfast. She had little English, but we were soon able to establish successful basic communication, and while her home was not within walking distance of the Festspielhaus except for the hardiest, the trade-off was extreme affordability. On the day we left, Frau Schricker presented us with a lunch she had packed, which was never part of the deal but made for a wonderful send-off with hugs and best wishes all around.

In 1995, I attended the Festival with the Wagner Society of New York, whose Bayreuth coordinator placed me with the Bauers, in a home not five minutes’ walk from the Green Hill—more than close enough to hear the fanfares from the Festspielhaus balcony calling the audience to each act. My room opened out onto a terrace where breakfast was served, overlooking a large garden from which came the apples that went into each morning’s home-baked strudel. Frau Bauer brimmed over with warmth and offered to assist with everything from directions to obtaining extra Festival tickets; she also offered delicious, informed gossip about the Festival, its artists, and interesting rehearsal stories, all of which she couldn’t wait to relate. The Bauers opened their library and television room to me and seemingly couldn’t do enough to make me feel welcome and comfortable. Bavarian hospitality is no myth, and the guest houses of Bayreuth offer it generously.

A Day Off around Bayreuth

On non-performance days I was able to travel easily by train to Nürnberg, which was heavily bombed in World War II and has been restored as much as is possible—but much is gone forever. The Hans Sachs house is gone, but I was able finally to track down the remains of the Katherinekirche, scene of the first act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, although the Masters did not meet there until sometime after the actual events of the opera. The sexton at the Sebalduskirche had told me St. Katherine’s was destroyed, but this is only partly true. Now enclosed in the courtyard of a building complex, you can miss the site very easily. Most of the shell of the church still stands, the masonry capped to preserve it, no tower or windows remaining. A summer arts festival (the Hans Sachs Festival, natürlich) performs there. It was a very small parish church, a simple, intimate brick-and-plaster building. There are prewar pictures somewhere, I’m sure.

Those who recall the splendid first act of the Met’s old Nat Merrill/Robert O’Hearn production will feel at home in the vast high-Gothic Lorenzkirche, the inspiration for that set, including the magnificent hanging medallion over the choir that first attracted O’Hearn to the church.

Albrecht Dürer’s house was spared and will give a good idea of what Sachs and his household might have lived in. I am fated never to set foot inside: 25 years ago when I was there it was closed for renovation pending the 500th anniversary of the great artist. This time I fell afoul of the standard German Monday closure for museums and historic sites. It just means I will have to go back again someday!

The Understudies

A visit to Wahnfried, the restrained neoclassical home of Richard and Cosima Wagner near the center of Bayreuth, is a must. The historic music room was completely restored after its wartime bombing, and the house contains a treasure trove of Wagneriana.

On the top floor, the level to which Cosima retreated during her reclusive final years, two seemingly unrelated items sit next to each other in a glass case: a three-foot-high carved wooden stage prop of a man and a woman holding onto each other with somewhat startled expressions, and a dilapidated little settee whose upholstery hangs in dry-rotted shreds. When I first visited in 1970, I thought the placement was random. When I returned in 1995, I began to understand that, together, the settee and the carving portray one of the central myths of Richard Wagner’s life.

Richard and Cosima, the deepest of soul mates, were convinced that when one died, the other would simply cease to live, and the two would be reunited forever in another world. That this fevered vision more resembled a grand Romantic melodrama—or Wagnerian libretto—than anything in life didn’t stop them from creating a scenario for when the inevitable should occur: The Stricken One would repair to a handsome rose-colored chaise specifically chosen for this moment and expire nobly. The Great Bereaved would collapse upon the body and follow immediately.

But it wasn’t to happen that way. The Wagners were staying in a Venetian hotel when Richard suffered his fatal heart attack, dying on a small sitting-room loveseat of no particular distinction. And despite clutching her husband’s body for virtually 24 hours in intense grief, Cosima was unable that night to play the death scene they had both envisioned. She returned to Bayreuth to bury him in the garden of the house. The little settee that had served in place of the previously announced rose-colored chaise stands behind glass now with a tag identifying it as “Richard Wagner’s Death Sofa.” Next to it the effigies of Senta and the Dutchman, who rose triumphantly to heaven at the end of the first Bayreuth production of Der fliegende Holländer, act out in perpetuity the grand apotheosis Richard and Cosima never had.


An Audience with theWagner Grandson

When I attended the 1995 Bayreuth Festival as a member of the Wagner Society of New York, I was included in a 15-minute audience that Wolfgang Wagner granted to active groups.

Before the evening’s performance of Siegfried, in a small side garden of the Festspielhaus, Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner’s grandson, came bounding out of his office with vigor and warm greetings. He waded into our small crowd with handshakes all around and began arranging chairs for the older members of the group (some of whom were younger than he).

Through an interpreter, Wolfgang made a short statement intended to be welcoming and humorous: “We Germans know well that the only subject on which we should speak in public is Art. Art is, after all, the universal.” He then sat down and signed anything that was placed in front of him, writing extended dedications to those who had brought copies of his book [Acts: The Autobiography of Wolfgang Wagner]. His style isn’t suave and rehearsed but informal and hearty. He posed patiently for photos with individual people and various groupings. When the first fanfare sounded, he led us to the gate, shook every hand, and spoke to each person, with best wishes for their trip home at the end of the Festival. He does this sort of thing very well with visitors. Just—if you have read his book you’ll know exactly why—don’t ever be a relative of his: your treatment will be very different.

–William Fregosi

William Fregosi is Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts at MIT and a member of the Boston Wagner Society. On January 10, 2004, he gave the Boston Wagner Society’s first presentation, titled “Wagner and Post-Modern Production.”