Face to Face With Wagner

Wagner Grave

All opera fans read of great performances of the past and wish they could have been there. Oh, to have been at the old Met that afternoon in 1899 when Lilli Lehmann and Jean de Reszke sang the Tristan und Isolde the great Lehmann later recalled as “the ideal Tristan performance of my life”! To have seen Chaliapin’s Boris or almost anything with Caruso! The list goes on and on.

We also live in hope that certain dreamed of events will come to pass and that we will be there. Fans waited for years for Franco Corelli’s Otello to materialize, for example, though they waited in vain. For my part, the greatest unrealized dream for years was to hear Sir Georg Solti conduct Wagner’s Ring. The waiting came to an end when Bayreuth announced that the 70-year-old Solti would finally make his Bayreuth debut conducting a new Ring in 1983, the centenary of Wagner’s death. He was also scheduled to return each summer for the following two seasons for more Ring performances.   Getting tickets for Bayreuth usually means being put on a waiting list for a couple of years until your number comes up. Fortunately for The Ear, my long term employment at the Kennedy Center and connections with the Washington, D.C. German Embassy were enough to obtain the 1983 Ring tickets without delay. The Ring, Solti and Bayreuth; talk about dreams coming true! Little did I know that my arrival in Bayreuth would place me right in the middle of something resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone.

The trip to Bayreuth coincided with my then annual month long vacation in Spain. I already had my round trip ticket from Washington, D.C., with a plane change in New York, to Madrid and back. Upon arriving in Madrid, I picked up my pre-paid round trip ticket for Madrid/Munich and soon proceeded without rest to Munich, including another change of plane in Frankfurt. As there was always a considerable wait between all these planes, I finally arrived in Munich nearly exhausted. Then came another wait for the next train to Bayreuth. Finally seated on that moving train, remaining conscious was barely possible, but I struggled to remain awake to savour every moment of the trip.

I was seated opposite a well-dressed man who turned out to be on the way to the Ring from Stockholm; he informed me that this was also the last part of his voyage toward the fulfilment of his own dream, which was exactly the same as mine. How could he look so relaxed and composed if he felt the same exhaustion as I did? He pulled the answer out of his jacket pocket: a silver flask of the finest whisky. With a smile, he handed it over to me, saying it was obvious that I badly needed it. Needing no coaxing, I indulged in his magic elixir and soon felt restored and ready for a jubilant arrival. When we at last arrived at the destination of our pilgrimage, we parted ways and agreed to meet for refreshments after Das Rheingold, the prologue to Wagner’s amazing 15 – hour, 4 day tetralogy. I then took a taxi to my hotel for a needed rest before the marathon began the next evening.

Attempting to check in, I learned to my dismay that I had somehow gotten there one day ahead of the start of my hotel reservation! Not having slept for 24 hours, I took the news with less than my usual composure. Panic quickly turned to despair when I learned that no hotel rooms in town were available at short notice during the annual Festival. The lovely young woman I was speaking with spoke excellent English, though her bartender husband did not. My German was all straight out of Wagner’s libretti. She told me to follow him to the bar and she would try to find a solution to that night’s problem.

The bartender and I soon established an excellent method of communication through gestures and mime. It was clear to him that a very large beer was what I needed most at that moment. No argument there. When he finished filling the enormous glass from the tap, I was faced with a glass full of foam, which seemed to fit in perfectly with the way my day had gone so far. He smilingly gestured for me to remain patient. I watched the foam slowly morph into the most magnificent glass of beer I had ever seen. It tasted better than it looked, as anyone who has been in the region would testify. Before that beer was finished, the woman came to the bar with the news that someone in a hotel across town had had to leave a day early because of illness. Not only did I now have a place to stay for that night, but a taxi had been summoned to take me there. I expressed my thanks and the taxi soon arrived to drive me through the already nearly deserted streets to my temporary abode. On off days for the Wagner festival or starting a couple of hours after a performance , Bayreuth at night often takes on the appearance of a newly deserted town.

My temporary host greeted me and invited me to have a delicious pot luck late dinner, presented me with a key and retired. I soon followed his example, but sleep seemed impossible in my high state of excitement. Finally giving up, I dressed and began taking a stroll to examine my surroundings. There was not a soul to be seen as I followed the road up a hill in the darkness of a cloudy night. Soon, I spotted what appeared to be a park, with a large building which was set far back from the street. I wandered in and as I looked at what I could make out of the building, I felt a strange familiarity but had no idea where I was.

Walking around to the side of the building, I soon seemed to be walking on something resembling ivy. Continuing, I suddenly stumbled over a large object on the ground and fell face down on an ivy-covered hard surface. Lighting a cigarette lighter to see what it was, I parted the ivy slightly on a large bronze tablet and read the words “Richard Wagner, 1813-1883.” At that moment, the clouds parted and the moon suddenly made everything quite visible. I had literally stumbled into Wagner’s grave on my first night in Bayreuth.

Bayreuth 1983

Part II


Having run back to the hotel in terror, I finally collapsed into a long sleep.  Upon awakening, I immediately began wondering if the climax of the previous night had been a dream. It seemed too improbable to be true.  After my morning ablutions, I again followed my previous path. Soon, there it was, most recognizable in the light of day: Wahnfried, the lovely home built by King Ludwig the Second of Bavaria to house the Master in the sleepy town Wagner had chosen as the site of his Festspielhaus, where to this day, only Wagner’s works are performed after opening the Festival with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. For one month a year only, Bayreuth comes alive, as Wagner continues to lie eternally alongside his home.

 Cosima, Wagner’s much younger and long-lived wife, lies beside him. Their children and grandchildren resided there until grandson and fellow genius Wieland Wagner eventually decided to turn the family home over to the town to house the Wagner archives and a Wagner museum. It is open to the public and still looks much like it did during Wagner’s time there. I, of course, went through Wahnfried slowly and attentively, concluding my visit with an homage at the grave, which had lost its terrifying aspect overnight.

 The second of the three Ring cycles began that evening, with Solti in his place in the invisible orchestra pit. A proper criticism of the performances belongs in another article, but luck was with those of us who attended that second of the three 1983 cycles. The opening cycle of the new Ring had seemed plagued from the start. Temperatures had risen to a record high for the entire cycle. As the Festpielhaus has neither heating nor air conditioning to protect the perfect though delicate acoustics of the wooden structure, only outside air can be circulated. Since the theatre is open only each August, the lack of heating can never be a problem for the audiences, but the outside air in that first cycle had made the temperature inside the Wagner “temple” even worse than the suffocating outside temperature. Also, the promised advent of the man who appeared to be the Siegfried everyone had been praying for for decades, Reiner Goldberg, did not come to pass when the hapless Goldberg, whose only qualification for the two Siegfried operas was the voice itself, arrived unprepared and seemingly unable to learn anything from either Solti or the production’s director, Sir Peter Hall. He had to be replaced at the eleventh hour by Manfred Jung, who was already in Bayreuth to sing Loge in Rheingold. Jung had sung the two Siegfrieds in the previous production and all around the world since. Despite his professionalism and sure knowledge of his roles, Jung was, to put it kindly, of modest vocal talent, but at least he could be depended upon, which was much more than anyone could claim for Goldberg. In addition to these considerable problems, the opening cycle had other serious last-minute cast substitutions and all these things resulted in disappointing just about everyone in the administration, production team and audience. Later, the third and last of the ’83 Ring cycles was beset by such problems as even the dependable Manfred Jung losing what voice he had after the first act of Gotterdamerung and being replaced by a retired former Siegfried in his 60’s who happened to be in the audience! He performed so poorly that he received boos for his efforts until Wolfgang Wagner himself, the only surviving grandson and absolute monarch of Bayreuth, appeared before the curtain to give the audience a lesson in manners. Wagner even threatened to stop the performance if further boos were heard.

 In the end, only the second cycle went without problems of any kind. The weather had returned to normal and the announced cast remained intact. Those of us who were there later realized how lucky we had been to be present at the only problem-free Ring that year. However, the curse of The Ring had not been exhausted. As previously mentioned, this was to have been Solti’s first of three seasons at Bayreuth, but after the last performance of that second cycle, I had a long chat with Solti’s doctor, who happened to be staying at the same hotel as I and with whom I had become friendly throughout the week. That last night he asked me if I would be leaving Bayreuth the next morning. When I replied in the affirmative, he told me that Solti’s debut season would also be his last, though the great conductor didn’t know it yet and would not learn of it until after the final cycle. The 70-year-old maestro had heart problems and conducting such long and demanding works in the “covered” orchestra pit unique to Bayreuth had been wreaking havoc on his blood pressure and heart rate, which were constantly being monitored between acts by the doctor. That disappointing news was made public later, when I was enjoying my relaxing vacation on the northern coast of Spain, and, indeed, Solti never appeared in Bayreuth again, though thankfully he lived on until well into his 80’s.

 Everything about the theatre was designed by Wagner himself. The continually rising uninterrupted rows of seats (aisles only on each side) and the relatively small size of the auditorium allow perfect sight lines for everyone, but the real wonder is Wagner’s legendary invisible orchestra pit, which is revealed from the stage to be a brilliantly designed optical illusion. Sitting in  the audience, the floor seems to rise up toward the stage and connect to it directly, The audience sees no sign of either orchestra or conductor and the eye’s focus is completely on the stage. From the stage, the conductor is clearly visible to the singers. Actually, the cowl over the orchestra begins on the floor and  slopes up toward the stage. While the audience sees an unbroken surface from floor to stage, the cowl is actually open toward the stage. An acoustic wall at the rear of the stage bounces the orchestral sound back toward the audience a millisecond after the voices, causing a natural sound mixing process before sound mixers were ever thought of. Thus, the voices are never drowned by the 110-piece orchestra and the sound is beautifully blended, another of the countless examples of the great visionary Wagner was. This solution seems so ideal that it would seem that other opera houses would have followed Wagner’s example. The egos of star conductors have kept that from happening anywhere but at Bayreuth since Wagner opened his Festpielhaus with the first Ring in 1876.

 With that digression ends the tale of The Ear’s Wagner pilgrimage, with its detour through The Twilight Zone. I will probably never return to Bayreuth, but every time I listen to the C.D.’s of the first recorded Ring cycle, conducted by Solti and still the best ever for me, I close my eyes and it’s 1983 all over again, but with an even better orchestra and singers. Face to face, indeed.


 For an excellent behind the scenes report on the trials and triumphs of the preparations, rehearsals and performances of the 1983 Bayreuth Ring cycle, The Ring, Anatomy of an Opera, by Stephen Fay and Roger Wood (Longwood Press, 1984) is highly recommended.


Greg Stanford

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