Posts Tagged ‘Bavaria’

Mention anything about Bayreuth to someone even vaguely familiar with the opera world, and they’ll tell you that it’s impossible to get tickets to the yearly festival. The Bayreuther Festspiele, an annual celebration of all things Richard Wagner in the sleepy Bavarian town he once called home, is the Wagner buffa’s Mecca.

Wagner himself thought up the festival of his work, and the specifically-built, carefully designed Festspielehaus — Wagner was not known to be all that humble of a guy — and as such, the mystique of the place and the event and the work is built up so much that, coupled with an insanely complicated formal ticket application process, you have to wait at least a decade to break into the ranks of the Festival-regulars.

But not this intrepid young opera scholar. Using a string of elaborate and distant acquaintances — a magazine editor who knows an opera critic who knows a chorus girl at Bayreuth — I managed to snag a pass to the festival grounds during my recent weekend jaunt in the Bavarian hamlet, wandering around the fantastic theatre, talking to chorus members and staff, and sitting in on an unusually crazy staging of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” a work which I am not entirely familiar with. It should also be said that after having seen this rehearsal, I am still not really sure what was going on in the opera.

First, a little background on Wagner, the festival and the like. Richard Wagner, an absolute giant of a 19th century composer, is most known for his very specific and very elaborate ideas on opera creation as culturally expressive art form. He was kind of a political radical — pushing for a national German theatre at a time when there wasn’t a nation of Germany to have a theatre for, being really terribly anti-Semetic, running around Europe trying to get funding for his crazy operatic visions — and today most people not familiar with opera know him for being both anti-semetic and really into vikings. (You’ve read “Ride of the Valkyries,” so you know at least some of his work.)

In the music world, Wagner is also really known for his epic four-part, 15-hour monster of an operatic story arc “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” or simply, “The Ring Cycle.” The ring cycle is full of battles between Gods and mortals, dwarves and elves and vikings and everyone else, all for the sake of this one powerful ring that will control all of the Universe. Yes, J.R.R. Tolkien is often accused of stealing his major plot points from Wagner. Go figure.

But Wagner mostly just revolutionized the way people approached opera. His works were meaty and the content was heavy stuff, making the fluffier, lighter operas of some of his immediate and preceding contemporaries seem silly at best. He was very concerned with the audience’s absorption of his work, going so far as to build a whole theatre just for the specific staging of his works — the orchestra pit is hidden beneath this huge curved shell thing under the stage so you focus on the singers and not the musicians, and the brass is stuck under the stage, giving the orchestra a rich, echoing sound. Plus, the stage appears bigger than it actually is and the audience is arranged in an admittedly unusual way for an opera house; i.e. kind of outdoor stadium seating. He also was a big anti-establishment guy in the music world, shaking things up at a time when some felt music was getting kind of ho-hum.

My favorite story of Wagner being a musical bad-ass was his premiere of “Tanhäusser” in Paris in 1861. Like all good Germans, Wagner hated the French, and especially the elitist French who were opera patrons at the time. A big group of these faux-noble patrons, called the Jockey Club, were known for their late arrivals to operas, having long and luxurious dinners beforehand and then arriving just in time for a ballet in the beginning of the latter acts.

This wasn’t just a Paris thing — for a long time, opera patrons didn’t go to the opera to see the production, they went to be seen themselves (you could make this case today as well, I realize) and rather than sit through three hours of complicated plot and overwrought singing, many frequent patrons would just come for specific parts of an opera, or open their box curtain for the ballet. (For an excellent look at this and other intricacies of the opera world, as well as a great read, I strongly recommend John Berednt’s In the City of Falling Angels, a winning book about the reconstruction of Venice’s Fenice Opera House by the guy who brought you the equally excellent Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

Wagner really pushed the idea of opera as a complete work, so when he staged “Tanhäusser” in Paris, he put the ballet at the beginning, forcing the Jockey Club and their friends to sit through the whole opera, which they did not appreciate. There was a riot, and Wagner had to run away and cancel the production. Basically, Wagner was kind of a musically brilliant jerk.

Now, I’m not a real particular fan of Wagner — his politics kind of disturb me, to say the least, and I don’t like his music. I’m a fan of the Mozart / Verdi / Bizet school of opera, and I don’t speak German — but I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop in Bayreuth on my way from Berlin to Milan on my summer opera adventure. Even I couldn’t see an opera there, I could still see the place.

But, thanks to the above-mentioned connections, I did get to see part of a work, and the orchestra pit and the backstage and meet all sorts of interesting singers and stage workers. The Festspielehaus is absolutely beautiful and kind of the centerpiece of the entire town, and I have to admit I had exciting, nervous chills as I walked through the fragrant park up to the theatre.

Sharona, the perfectly lovely British chorus girl, had procured me a day pass, meaning I could wander around freely, talk to people, sit in on the rehearsal — which was very bizarre: as in, giant paper mâché heads of German leaders, modern costumes, rows of identically dressed choristers, a naked man lying in a pile of dirt on a table with wheels (who passed out during the rehearsal from heat stroke!) and other such lovely elements. Needless to say, I didn’t know the plot —  a singing contest in Nuremberg — but sitting through the 3 hour rehearsal didn’t teach me much about the plot, either.

Talking with the choristers, I was shocked and pleased to learn a lot about the crazy politics of the festival. The director of the production I happened to catch, Katharina Wagner, is the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and co-director of the festival, and apparently, her works are not well-received. Her premiere of “Meistersinger” in 2007 was loudly booed, and someone threw a seat cushion at her during curtain calls, meaning that particular patron would never return to the house again. There’s a real disconnect in the festival between old-line, traditional performers and the crazy, modern stylings of people like Katharina. One chorister told me that Bayrueuth audiences, while older and more conservative that normal opera audiences, are willing to take things up to a certain point, but it’s hard to figure out about disappointed patrons because they buy their tickets a decade in advance. He said he was worried about the future of the festival if things kept going they way of Katharina and her ilk.

But that was that. I was a very happy and very excited opera dork the entire day, and early Monday morning, I hoped on the Deutsche Bahn for my 11-hour train trip to Milano, Italy for the last leg of my opera adventure.

Today, after having traveled for more than 21 hours, I can say that I am not a big  fan of Deutsche Bahn anymore.

My train day was going fine: I caught my first train, and made my first quick connection easily, but around mid-afternoon, things started to go wrong.  We were running a little late between two of my connecting cities — Stuttgart and Augsburg — and suddenly the conductor came on to say that we were 15 minutes late. It didn’t seem like we were that far behind, but I believed the conductor, mostly because he said almost everything in German and his English and French announcements were limited to the simplest of informational pieces.

Then, pulling in Augsburg only 2 minutes later than my planned departure to Zurich, the conductor announced that “all passengers to Milano via Zurich should stay with us until Mannheim, and then connect there to Zurich and later to Milano.” Okay, I said, I believe you conductor. You have specifically signaled me out for mention, so I will follow your rules.

In Mannheim, I ran to the connecting platform, only to discover that the train to Zurich was 30 minutes behind schedule. Which became 40 minutes late. Which became 50. Which turned into more than an hour’s delay. Okay, I said, I’m already off-track. I’ll just keep going and be open to changes.

I had no real seat on the train to Zurich — thank you kind first class passengers for giving me a jump seat — and we pulled into the largest Swiss city a full hour behind schedule. (Note: It was then 9:00 pm. I was supposed to be in Milano on my original scheduled train by 10:50 pm. I ceased believing this far earlier in the day.) I wandered around the elegant central train station until I found some dinner, some internet and most importantly, some help for connections to Milano.

“Oh no,” the kind Swiss train official told me. “You’ve missed the last train to Milano today. You’ll just have to take this connecting train to the Italian border town of Chiasso, and then take a train to Milano in the morning.”

Which I did. Meaning that I took a train at 10:13 on a Monday night to Nowhere, Switzerland, where I arrived at 1:46 a.m. I then hung out around this sketchy, quiet and nearly empty train station until 5:17, when I hoped a suburban commuter train to Milano.

Time left Bayreuth: 11:11 a.m. Monday.

Time arrived in Milano: 6:23 a.m. Tuesday

Distance Between Cities: 427 miles

I could go on and on about the craziness of this epic day-long travel adventure, but I’m hungry, and I haven’t eaten anything in a long, long time. I did sleep in my hostel for a brief time, however, and it is a perfectly suitable — albeit very, very warm — place to sleep and stay during my now truncated week in Milano.

Thursday is “The Barber of Seville” at La Scala — and then I begin my westward trek homeward.

And trust me, I can’t wait.

Note: I am fortunate enough to have simple train connections from Milano to Paris and later to London. I hope.

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There are many ways to stage an opera. In fact, part of my research this summer has been about these different staging methods, exploring how different opera companies use innovative — and often controversial — productions to draw in audiences and get people talking about the (some say) dying art form.

But at the same time, there are also many bad ways to stage an opera. I was (un)fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see one such difficult production in Berlin last week.

As part of an epic 10 day visit in the once and former and current capital of the German republic, I took in Beethoven’s one and only opera, “Fidelio,” at the Komische Oper Berlin, one of three opera houses in Berlin.

And said production, for a variety of reasons that will be laid out in the following blog post, was very, very bad.

It may have been the steamy July evening on which the opera was presented — the night of the World Cup semi-final between Germany and Spain, which Germany happened to lose. It may have been the work itself — an unusual and sometimes clumsy opera that has been published in many different versions, many of which fail to fix the opera’s narrative flaws. It might have been the opera house — the least prestigious of Berlin’s three state-funded houses, known for its bizarre stagings of mostly German works.

But no matter what the initial reason, the conclusion I must come to is this: “Fidelio,” as presented by the Komische Oper Berlin in June and July of 2010, was not good.

The opera details the trials and tribulations of Leonora, wife of Spanish political prisoner Florestan, and her efforts to free her beloved from the corrupt prison of the evil Don Pizarro and avoid detection as she disguises herself as male prison worker Fidelio.

The Komische Oper Berlin decided to go out on the proverbial limb in their staging of the work and set it in what looked mostly like a junk yard, replete with a big, metal dumpster full of trash. (Many of the reviews I read — or rather, had my German friend Tim read to me — mentioned the trash as indicative of the work as a whole).

Okay, you might say, so you’re setting this in a junk yard. That’s kind of creative. I buy that.

But no. Do not check out of that opera setting store just yet. The Komische Oper decided to take their kind of decent idea and murder it horribly, bringing on actors in costumes from various time periods and revolutionary struggles, making any conclusions about the production’s modern tendencies misplaced or just wrong.

Most of the actors were okay, and some were better than others, but the direction called for such unusual and unfortunate things— none of the main cast left the stage after entering for the first time, melting into the piles of trash when not involved in the action, playing with weird, headless mannequins scattered about the stage and making exasperated hand gestures when things got slow. Maybe it was supposed to be innovative, but this constant presence mostly just came off as annoying.

The soprano who sang Leonora did not have the greatest voice, to say  the least, and the direction called for her to fall down — a lot. Anytime things got rough for Leonora — she got tired, people asked her questions, five minutes passed — she would collapse and curl up into the fetal position. She even delivered a normally moving Act II aria from this position, straining her already poor voice and making the aria kind of unnecessarily comical.

I could go on, but know this: the production was not good — it was comically bad, actually — but even so, it was helpful for my project. The people in the audience with me seemed to really enjoy the production, and the fact that a pretty large number of people managed to show up for a unpopular opera on a night when the national soccer team was playing a big important game says a lot about the cultural relevance of the art form in Europe.

And bad opera is still, after all, opera.

Of course, I did a lot of other things in Berlin with my friend Tim. We biked along canals, swam in hidden lakes, stayed out all night and watched the sun rise over East Berlin at a club that also featured a beach and pool, heard crazy underground music at a secret amateur open mic, ate delicious food – DONER KEBAB — saw movies, cooked a lot, drank coffee and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

I was reminded how much I absolutely LOVE Berlin — the people, the U/S-Bahn, the food, the huge sprawling crazy multi-generational architectural scheme, the silliness of the language — and it was really fantastic to be back there for a relaxing week with Tim.

(Tim, a former Cranbrook classmate, is spending his year of federal public service in Berlin, looking after shut-ins and generally being awesome.)

But all good weeks and bad operas must end, and so I hopped on the Deutsche Bahn rail service yesterday morning, riding the rails — and getting nearly completely lost on a random line in the middle of Bavaria — all the way to Bayreuth, Bavaria, home of famed German composer Richard Wagner and the yearly festival celebrating his work. I’m only here for the weekend — Monday, I leave for Milano, Italy — but I was lucky enough to get access to the festival. (More on that in the next post, coming soon!)

This post is long and rambling and probably reflects the fact that I slept too much today and spent the entire day listening to obscure German opera without context or subtitles, so I’ll end it here.

Catch you in Italia!

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