Friday, March 12, 2010

Bayreuth Opera Inferno

From the Summer of 2003

My girlfriend and I recently won the right to purchase a package of tickets for this year's Wagner opera festival, in Bayreuth, Germany. As there is a ten-year waiting period for tickets to this, the most celebrated of all operatic gatherings, being able to purchase tickets and attend the festival in the same year normally takes an act of the Bundestag, or, even more likely, an instance of Grace granted from On High. Fortunately, and more pragmatically, we are members in good standing of the Swedish Wagner Opera Society and won this privilege without the use of seared oxen thigh bones wrapped in fat, dead horses hung in trees, or the more traditional firstborn man-child offering that many Wagnerites feel compelled to resort to.

After having found out that we had won, I looked forward to scalping the tickets and being able to live comfortably off the proceeds for the next three years. My girlfriend--die-hard enthusiast that she is--insisted on actually going. This was probably for the best, for, as we discovered, the market for festival tickets can be surreal in ways that resemble the more bizarre parts of the narcotics trafficking industry.

An example from our first day at the festival: Picture several hundred Euro-sophisticates fawning around outside the famous festspielhaus in their evening gowns, tuxedos, tailored suits, and silk dresses. In the middle of this gathering stood a mustached man in a corduroy suit jacket, flared blue jeans, a black tie over a white t-shirt, and shod in silver, white polka-doted running shoes. The individual in question wore sunglasses and held an alligator hide briefcase in one hand. In the other, a fluttering piece of paper bore the German equivalent of "seeking ticket to show."

It was a complete Miami Vice moment, certain to end with this gentleman in the sweaty confines of the men's room in a nearby gasthaus swapping two kilos of Peruvian flaked cocaine for a pair of passes to the evening's performance.

Another reason to actually attend was the pleasure of Bayreuth itself. The city is a part of my old stomping grounds. In the days of GI living, Bayreuth and its environs served as a very pleasant backdrop for the off-duty search for hefewiezen and novel entertainments.

This area of Bavaria has a rural, conservative charm about it, and as with the inhabitants of the US's southern states, Bavarians tend have a thick agrarian accent and enjoy a lifestyle that is more laid back than those practiced by northerners.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had decided to up the deep-south similarity to an entirely new level of intensity during our visit. When disembarking the plane in Nürnberg, we were hit with a sodden-steamy blast of Arkansas Vietnam-like jungle-beat-down heat. Instead of being greeted with the gingery scent of Lebkuchen and the tang of sauerkraut, I had flash backs to fetid east-Texas swamps and mid-summer Korean rice paddies. We had, of course, wandered into the middle of the Euro-inferno, a summer of burning political questions, inflamed pro-reform and anti-reform tempers, and the worst recorded heat wave in European history—one with utterly tragic consequences in neighboring France.

Even before this, it had been a season of strikes and protests that had left the mild-mannered Swedes riled up. This takes some doing as Swedish electoral debates are generally calm to the point of graveness. The hobbits see American political discourse as being loud, violent, and generally vulgar, and it has required much patience on my part to convince them that the disputed presidential election of 2000 was not settled by a contest of unarmed gladiatorial combat between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore on the floor of the Supreme Court. They have a hard time letting go of that image here.

But for those who might be worried that the political process is boring in the land of blue and gold, I offer you the following highlight. This summer's unusual heat has apparently provided the needed irritant to make Swedish politics interesting. We are only a few weeks away from a national referendum on whether Sweden will or will not adopt the Euro as the national currency, and it has been a lively debate.

Skipping over their normally staid campaign posters, members of the Left Party have employed images of a towering blood-red guillotine with the blade shaped in the form of the Euro "€" symbol. Below is the slogan, "Why not try it?" The right, in turn, has resurrected some 1930s posters displaying red banners with pseudo-Cyrillic, Swedish lettering. The written text seems to imply that a defeat of the currency will be the kickoff in a round of Stalinist purges, show trials, and gulag construction.

Some of the season's heated continental politics even spilled over into the festspielhaus in Bayreuth. There was applause as well as loud boos and hisses when Gerhard Schröder showed up for a performance of Tanhauser, along with his homie, the current prime minister of Japan, "Elvis" Koizumi. A German newspaper rather cruelly, but perhaps truthfully, suggested that considering the economic situations of both Japan and Germany it was entirely fitting that the two leaders should be seeing an opera with a theme of darkness and foreboding for the future. It also hinted about the appropriateness of Schröder planning to see Carmen with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, an opera with a surfeit of bandits and cross-border shenanigans. The verbal commotion caused by the presence of the ministers prime in the festspielhaus even roused the current reigning Wagner, 85-year old Wolfgang, to peek out from behind stage.

Part of the Bayreuth festival's charm is the ongoing soap opera that is the Wagner family itself. The original Richard was a man of epic ego, who wished to be immortalized with monuments depicting thronging muses and poets gazing rapturously upwards at graven image of himself crowned by marble laurel wreaths.

As a composer in the age when opera was the cutting edge of entertainment, Richard was the late 1800s equivalent of Steven Spielberg in fame, and he never, ever balked at an opportunity to promote his glory. Aside from voluminous self-written essays about what a titan of culture he was--and some brutally anti-Semitic rants that Hitler later found infinitely inspiring--his other monument to self and art was the opera house in Bayreuth. Perched Parthenon-like on a hill overlooking the city, this temple has been home to the festival each August since 1876, excepting a year when occupying American GIs used the building for a cabaret.

Being both an egoist and a sadist, Wagner was determined to preclude any chance of audience members falling asleep during performances of his work. Thus, the original seating in the festspielhaus consisted of hardwood benches handcrafted by the de Sade household carpenter to make a 2 ½ hour non-stop performance of The Flying Dutchman into an ass-numbing marathon endurance trial for opera masochists. This has been improved upon in recent years with the addition of inwardly sloping chairs, built to tilt the victim's weight onto the un-cushioned wooden parabolic arc of the seat back. The point of focus for the curve is centered squarely over the nerves of the lower spine and stimulates the ones evolved to inform you that a surgeon is in the process of removing ruined lower appendages with a hacksaw.

Enjoying the company of the fans after each evening's performance was also entertaining in its own way. These people are Trekkies. All of them. Well, Tolkienites if you want to be precise in your nerd taxonomy. Some of these people have memorized whole catalogs of which opera stars performed in which roles, during which year of the festival. And they have opinions: strong savage, dogmatic opinions over whether Kirk could beat up Prichard...uh...I mean over which singer was the best in any given role. Being a lone American in a group of Swedes, I escaped unmolested by agreeing unquestioningly that Brigit Nilsson was the finest Isolde to ever grace the stage.

As much as some opera goers make a religion of the festival, being there was a lifetime experience. Wagner invented much of the modern musical language of themes used in film music. Even a casual listener can hear the essence of his style in at least two or three generations of Hollywood film scores. The manly-man compositions played in the festhaus are the direct-line ancestor for the battle scene music in Gladiator and the Lord of the Rings films, and it was magnificent seeing 30 gentlemen in real steel plate armor, in 90 degree heat, thundering in a course of vocal glory as orchestra blasted away from its specially designed, subterranean stealth bunker.

It rocked, Conan the Barbarian style.

Then there is Wagner's use of composition to convey broader emotions. Wagner wrote a series of early Romantic operas in which he increasingly relied upon music to express his characters' feelings and reactions. This reached its zenith with Tanhauser and Lohengrin, walking the line between over-the-top kitsch and heart-breakingly powerful.

And therein lies that which makes an apology for Richard's ego: He was truly gifted. As a former platoon sergeant of mine once said "it's not bragging if you can do it," and even the most pretentious of Wagner's operas are genre-defining displays of heart and skill--rich aesthetic experiences that have only been enhanced by modern, minimalist stage presentations. While his later works backed away from the emphasis on music and sought to convey emotion through more complex plots and dialogue, these still contain much of the passion of an age that sought to reject reason and live by the unbridled heart alone.

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