The Trip of a Lifetime

Innocents abroad at the Wagner festival in Germany

Volume 114, No. 10October, 2014

Amy Camus

When I developed a fascination for all things Wagner several years ago, a visit to the Festspielhaus opera house in Bayreuth, Germany to see a performance was something I planned for my next life, along with a full-time cook and chauffeur and millions of discretionary dollars to spend on anything that caught my fancy. The legendary ten-year wait for a ticket to a performance seemed like something out of reach for a woman “of a certain age.”

This summer, through serendipity and incredible good luck, we were able to obtain two tickets to the opening performance of the 2014 Wagner season for “Tannhäuser.” After a day admiring and enjoying the beautiful rolling Franconian landscape, we boarded the bus arranged by our hotel for the 30-minute trip to the Festspielhaus. I freely admit that I was nervous. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Would we somehow get lost on the way? Lose our tickets? Starve during the performance because we would not be able to make a reservation at the on-site restaurant? Worst-case scenario, would I fall asleep during the performance (as usual!) and risk certain death or at least imprisonment, knowing how seriously the European opera audiences take their performances?

Once we arrived, my calmness returned, and we immediately realized that this was a truly different experience from our usual opera sojourns. The couture gowns on the incredibly slim and elegant German women, both young and old, were enough to inspire awe. Even more miraculous was how they do this eating the standard German fare of fat-laden meat and dumplings, each the weight and density of a bowling ball. Standard dress for the men was impeccable tuxedos and bow ties, with the result that it was difficult to tell who was a waiter or worker and who was a guest. Suddenly, we in our crumpled, slightly-more-dressy-than-usual travel clothing, felt like homeless people caught at a White House dinner.

As we milled around the large area surrounding the hall, checking out the dining facilities, we noticed a large group of guests, some policemen and women, and a large number of press people gathered around the front of the house. They were waiting for the dignitaries to arrive – including Chancellor Angela Merkel, affectionately called “Mutti” (Mommy) by the Germans. Finally feeling more relaxed, we headed toward the house entrance and proceeded up the stairs through door number five where our seats were located.

The house was attractive and typically 19th century, although not breathtakingly beautiful as some opera houses are. The most interesting thing about the hall was the seats. Each one consisted of two square pieces of wood forming a seat and a back, attached to a metal bar. The seat portion appeared to be free of upholstery and it sprang to an upright position when one was not actually sitting on it. The house had no center aisle, so everyone had to enter their row from one or the other side of the house and slither in a most intimate manner past those already standing in front of their seats. And stand they did, everyone in the house, because sitting in the seat caused your knees to snuggle up against the seat in front of you, making it impossible for anyone further into the row to get past you. After watching several people pass by, I began to see the problem for those moving towards the center. Do you pass all these perfect strangers, two inches to spare, with your front to their front, or your back to their front? In either case, it seemed like a frying pan or fire decision. Seating the 1,925 people in the audience took at least 20 minutes and every time we sat down thinking that the row must now be full, another straggler would show up and all would have to stand again.

At last everyone was seated and the performance about to begin. The stage was set up as an oil refinery, or perhaps as a brewery. (I later found out that it was supposed to be a waste management factory that converts excrement into “bio-gas,” whatever that is.) It was hard to tell quite what it was supposed to be, but whatever it was meant to be had no relationship to the story of “Tannhäuser” as written by the great Wagner. This seemingly is the one unwritten rule for modern directors: whatever you do, you must ignore the story line. In this case, the entire center stage consisted of wooden scaffolding, forming three floors around the sides of the set. Audience members were seated on the stage outside the scaffolding. They must have spent the entire performance hoping that they would not forget to maintain decorum and would not, heaven forbid, do anything untoward, as 1,925 people could watch their every move. Other than that, my only other impression of the stage was that it was a mess. There was “stuff” everywhere, and the singers were constantly being upstaged by other activity going on around them.

Every orchestral musician knows the overture to “Tannhäuser,” in all its beauty, complexity and difficulty. As the fine orchestra began to play, one was swept away by the warm sound of this hall. From our seats in row 22 on the side, both sound and sight were excellent.

After several minutes one forgot the awful set and got lost in the music. We did not expect to have titles and had prepared by reading the libretto and watching a video performance, so we had a fairly good idea of what was going on. After the overture, which is at least twice the length of the concert version, Tannhäuser and the goddess Venus (inexplicably pregnant; I thought goddesses knew how to prevent such inconveniences) made love, sang of love, made love, and got into an argument because he was having such a great time with her that he suddenly wanted to leave and return to his earthly love, the pure, virginal and decidedly unsexy Elizabeth. The singers and orchestra came to a brief cadence, and then suddenly stopped dead in their musical tracks. The curtain closed and a tuxedoed man stood before us. He said something in German and everyone got out of their seats and started to exit the hall. Relatively few people speak English in this part of Germany but I was able to get an explanation from a young lady usher. The large cage in the center of the stage that was supposed to raise and lower was refusing to cooperate. They hoped to have it fixed in about 20 minutes. I later found out from friends at our hotel who had been listening to the news that this was the first time in the history of the house that a performance had to be stopped due to a technical difficulty. (Knowing that the first performance of the “Ring” in 1876 had at least one live horse on the stage, I find it hard to believe that, at the very least, no one slipped on horse manure during that performance.)

The unintended 20-minute intermission stretched out to 40 minutes but we were not bored for a moment of it. As we stood outside the doors chatting, I noticed a gentleman behind us, looking at us with some interest. He asked if we were from New York and introduced himself to us. He was Fred Plotkin, opera commentator for WQXR and author of “Opera 101” and other books. We had an interesting discussion about various opera matters lately in the news. After about 10 minutes, a gentleman with an Italian accent appeared as if out of nowhere. He was clearly someone of some importance, or so I assumed, because he charged into our conversation while we were in mid-sentence. We excused ourselves and re-entered the house, I visiting the ladies room, which incredibly, had no line whatsoever. At the sound of the brass players on the balcony, we resumed the seating process once again, renewing unwanted but unavoidable physical contact with our audience mates in our row.

The first scheduled intermission lasted an hour, customary at this house, where all intermissions are an hour long to allow for leisurely meals in between acts. There was a large formal dining room where one could order dinner and reserve a table before the start of the performance. Your order would be ready when you sat down to eat. Instead, we opted for the cafeteria, which had barely edible food but at not too exorbitant a price, considering the large and captive clientele. We reconnected for a short time with Fred Plotkin and discovered people we knew in common, like the famed soprano Catherine Malfitano, who had been a student violinist in my eighth grade orchestra class in the junior high school on the Upper West Side where I taught for a few years just after graduating from college. She was also a good friend of Fred’s. New York’s musical world is a small one.

After lunch, we browsed the gift shop, where Rolex watches and other expensive items were for sale (we passed). We bought ice cream cones, learned more about the opera in the garden below the main level of the house, and, best of all, we simply watched people. See the photos below!

The rest of the performance proceeded without incident. We had become accustomed to ignoring the stage set and the crawling creatures that looked like large bugs with human legs dragging behind. The actions of some of the characters could not so easily be ignored. Venus, who does not appear in the second act in the libretto, did wander across the stage several times with no apparent purpose. Elizabeth, who is supposed to be pure, virginal and holy, came across as a materialistic flake. She walked around in a trance-like state, moving her arms around in the air in floating motions, and played with jewels. Walther von der Vogelweide, well known to music students everywhere and a character in this opera, appeared dressed as a manual laborer (which the real Walther actually was, in some sense. In case you’ve managed to forget someone with such a fabulous name which comes tripping off the tongue so easily – pronounced ValtervonderVOgelviduh – he was the famous songwriter, or Minnesinger, circa 1170 to 1230, whose music no one has heard since.)

All these strange staging events aside, when the singers took their bows, the usually staid audience went wild. They hooted and hollered, stamped their feet and applauded enthusiastically. They did the same for the chorus, chorus master and conductor. When the director stepped out, he was greeted by a huge chorus of boos that echoed through the house for a good several minutes. One had to admire his aplomb. He stood there with a somewhat forced smile as though being applauded.

By 10:30, the evening was over, an hour later than scheduled, with a total of seven hours devoted to the event, not including transportation. I had to wonder whether hour-long intermissions would ever work in New York where no one even has the time to call her mother. We managed to find our bus. The sickening crunch we heard as we pulled out of the very-crowded bus parking lot turned out to be an accident behind us, not involving our huge vehicle, and we headed back to our hotel and had a wonderful meal with our friends from Luxembourg who had arranged the whole evening for us. The event of a lifetime quickly started to become history, taking on more and more luster with each passing moment.

GLAMOUR IN GERMANY: Scenes from the Wagner opera house known as the Festspielhaus.