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BAYREUTH, Germany—“You want to visit the Festspielhaus? Impossible.”
One condescending smile is enough to dash my hopes of visiting one of the most celebrated opera houses in the world, host to an exclusive festival each summer. It’s the middle of June, rehearsals are well under way. My presumption that a day in Bayreuth (I am here at the behest of Let’s Go) would bring me closer to Richard Wagner and his music already seems dubious.
The day builds up this feeling of exclusion. The odd visitors who haunt this northern Bavarian town even in the off-season smile at secrets to which I am not privy. Locals are also obviously in the know, yet keep their distance.
The Wagner Museum, in a house named Wahnfried (“Peace from Delusion”) because the Meister’s restlessness found peace here, only succeeds in annoying me. The exhibits neurotically proceed along corridors winding upstairs and down, then up and down again. Display cases document a so-called “Viennese fiasco” without providing any clear exposition. Much innuendo and few facts are offered about the composer’s mysterious relations with Nietzsche, Liszt and Bavarian King Ludwig II.
Middle-aged couples nod knowingly at the banishment of Wagner from Venice, but I just feel ignorant. If I was searching for initiation into the mystery that is the cult of Wagner, I am, strangely enough, in the wrong place.
In the garden, the imposing grave of Richard and his wife Cosima is unmarked. Who else could be buried here, after all? After a day of failing to share the passion, I head back to my pension with a sense of disgust. The connection between Wagner’s son and the Nazis is particularly appalling, and makes me discount the whole musical phenomenon as folly, an incomprehensible collective mistake.
Of course, I did have a few brief moments of recognition: The unhappy faces of the young Wagner children dressed up as Nordic heroes make me realize that they too, at one point, thought the hysteria had gone too far. And when I enter the empty Wagner living room, loudspeakers blare the ride of the Valkyries, from the only Wagner opera I have experienced live. But in the pension, sappy German love songs make me feel that Wagner is ever distant; I did not find him in Bayreuth. I chat with the pension owner about local cuisine and head to bed.
The next morning is warm enough for breakfast in the garden. The train leaves at nine, but there is still time to enjoy the start of the day. Sonja, the friendly pension owner, sits down to drink a coffee with me and discuss the impossibility of getting tickets to the Festspiele. Soon she proudly shares her Wagner calendar, with photos from recent Bayreuth productions signed by assistant directors and former stars: “You are the fourth Rhine Maiden, Sonja.” Next on display is a clay bust of Richard, from her daughter’s days in elementary school.
We convince the only other two pension guests to join us in the courtyard. Sonja brings more coffee and the four of us chat around the table. The two are from Frankfurt, but they decided to stop by Bayreuth for one night—“It’s such an irresistible place.” Max has loved Wagner since the ’70s. He puts himself in the lottery for Bayreuth tickets every year. So far it has worked out three times.
I look at my watch: I have to leave now if I want to catch the 9 a.m. train. Sonja tells me to stay: “Mornings as pleasant as this one are rare, we don’t know when the next one will be.” Although the next town on my itinerary beckons, and there is precious little time to waste, the 10 a.m. train suddenly appears a viable option. The lush courtyard is really too pleasant to leave.
The maid Gerlinde joins us. She also takes some coffee. “But Sonja, it’s such a beautiful Saturday morning. What I would really like to drink is some champagne.”
Sonja jumps up, and is soon back with a French bottle. Gerlinde fetches glasses and proceeds to uncork the champagne with a confident hand. I am still a little surprised: at the early hour for champagne, and at the friendly atmosphere of this motley group.
“To Richie!” toasts Max, and how could we have done otherwise? There is some gossip to be heard about the controversial new Parsifal production—no one could have doubted that hiring that young director would start a major uprising on part of old Wagner devotees. We move on to other topics—opera productions elsewhere, but also the issues that middle-aged people all over the world love to harp on: why aren’t everyone’s children married yet; detailed descriptions of everyone’s health; the sorry state of politics; and so on.
Yet constantly, Wagner drifts in and out, not like a specter, but like an old friend. For Sonja and Gerlinde, Festspiele productions are ways to remember the year something happened. And of course, there were the times when Gerlinde’s brother-in-law worked at the Festspielhaus: How many productions they got to see then!
The sun is warm and Gerlinde’s idea really seems excellent. Soon I have missed the 10 a.m. train. But Richard Wagner is a little closer now. I have found those for whom he is not an elitist pleasure, but just a very regular, if exciting, part of life. As Sonja clucks about a new recording she just bought, and Max asks her to play it for us, I bask in my new understanding of this town.
It’s noon by the time I end up at the train station. When I left, the orange-labeled bottle had disappeared. But Sonja was pouring a glass of white wine for herself and the clay bust of Wagner glistened in the sun. My train speeds south to Nuremberg, and soon I am typing up my coverage of Bayreuth—opening hours, phone numbers and other small details. The morning is driven out of my head.
When a few weeks later the paper tells of the young Parisfal director storming out of the Festspielhaus, I remember Sonja and Gerlinde. By now, the pension will be buzzing with the cast and crew members. As Sonja serves their beers, she will collect all the latest intelligence about what’s up on the Festspielhaus hill. I smile. I wish I were back where Cosima and Richard are household names.
Alexander Bevilacqua ’07, a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. He has learned to love corpulent sopranos who believe they are athletic Nordic heroines and plans to convince Harvard University Dining Services that champagne breakfasts really are an excellent idea.
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