Bayreuther Festspiele Orchester & Chorus In-depth Biography
Bayreuth is a town in northern Bavaria most famous as the site of the annual Richard Wagner Festival in the theater designed to the composer's specification.
Wagner}, exiled from Germany since his participation in the 1848 Revolutions, was allowed to return by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a hero-worshipper of Wagner}. When some distance had opened between the King and the master musician, Wagner} decided to site the festival within Ludwig's Bavarian realm but not his capital city of Munich. Wagner} went to Bayreuth to assess the old Margrave's Theater (finished in 1748) as a potential site. He found the theater unsuitable for his purposes, but liked the town, and designed his own theater.
With money from public subscriptions, a shortfall being made up by King Ludwig, Wagner}'s Festival Theater had a unique design, especially its covered orchestra pit. The resulting sound is distinctive: warm, romantic, and blended, with the brass softened. The Festival was inaugurated with the complete Ring of the Nibelungen} in 1876. The first (and only) Wagner} opera} written specifically for Bayreuth was Parsifal}, premiered at the second Wagner Festival (1882).
Then, as now, the orchestra for the Festival was assembled each year for that season's summer productions. The chorus for 1882 was loaned from the Munich Court Opera}, but subsequently the chorus was also hired for each season. There is considerable continuity in membership of both from year to year, and a strong tradition and sound developed by generations of the world's greatest conductors.
After Wagner}'s death, his widow, Cosima (Franz Liszt}'s daughter), took over control, ruling with an iron attachment to tradition until 1906, when she turned control over to her son Siegfried Wagner}, who at his mother's insistence did not include his own operas in the Festival. Siegfried and Cosima both died in 1930. Siegfried's English-born widow, Winifred, took over.
Winifred was a notorious worshipper of Adolf Hitler, and happily acquiesced in Bayreuth becoming something of a Nazi shrine. Wartime damage to the theater and her politics prevented the Festival, closed in 1944, could not reopen until a way was found to get her (legally the Festival's sole owner) completely out of any role in it.
In 1951 a deal was struck whereby her sons, Wieland (1917-1966) and Wolfgang (b. 1919) leased the theater from her, with Wieland as Artistic Director. He initiated a period of staging innovation. Wolfgang, succeeding him in 1966, was less radical artistically but undertook structural repairs of the building.
In 1973 the Wagner} family gave up ownership to the newly created Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth, governed by a board including four Wagner}s as members. Wolfgang received a lifetime contract as festival director under a charter that grants the festival director total artistic control. Under the deal, the trustees were to give "preference" to members of the Wagner} clan as future directors.
The deal was not tested until 2000, when an open struggle for the control of the future of Bayreuth developed among four Wagner}s. Wolfgang hinted he would step down if his second wife, Gudrun, were named, but vowed to stay on until death if his the board named his niece Nike Wagner} (who had a liberal agenda for Bayreuth, including playing of Siegfried Wagner}'s operas and admission of works by non-Wagner}s). Wolfgang's daughter by his first marriage, Eva Wagner Pasquier}, was chosen on June 5, 2000.
Wolfgang's reaction was mixed: "Spirit and phrasing of the founding document [of the Foundation] will thus be fulfilled. We can abide by it [the nomination] for the time being." He also warned that he was not about to step down soon. ~ Joseph Stevenson, All Music Guide