The Wagner Festival, often simply referred to as the Bayreuth Festival, is an annual celebration of the works of Richard Wagner, centered around the Festspielhaus Opera House. It was the composer himself who founded the summer festival in Bayreuth in 1876 and such eminent figures as Kaiser Wilhelm, Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Franz Liszt, Peter Tchaikovsky and Friedrich Nietzsche attended. It was largely because one of the first guests, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, took such a keen interest that the festival was able to survive – the first being something of a financial disaster for Wagner. It was at the 1876 Festival that Wagner’s Ring Cycle was first performed and later, in 1882, Parsifal had its premier here.
Wagner himself was prominent in the design of the Festspielhaus, which was better suited for the massive orchestras and sets which the composer required to give his works their full justice than the Margravial Opera House – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered to be perhaps the most striking Baroque theatre in Europe. The Festspielhaus was opened in 1876 and, with its incredible acoustics, perfect viewing positions, hidden orchestra pit and sumptuous décor, it remains one of the world’s most prized musical venues.
The Wagner family still plays an active part in the organisation and artistic direction of each year’s Wagner Festival. It is generally accepted that a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen will be presented about every six years. When no Ring cycle is programmed, five operas are performed.
Clearly, the Wagner Festival is the world’s premier venue for performances of the composer’s work and, as such, the demand for tickets is enormous. It has been estimated that annually more than half a million applications are received for the approximately 58,000 tickets which become available. There is a waiting list for tickets which can be anything from seven to ten years. In order to have your name entered on the waiting list, you have to apply each year, with the official application form which can only be obtained by post from the Box Office, whose address can be found on the festival website. There are some tickets each year allocated by means of a lottery and others given to the Friends of Bayreuth but it is also possible to actually turn up on the day of a concert and go to the Box Office and queue for a ‘return’. This is more likely to happen towards the end of a season’s performances.
Bayreuth, the largest city in the Upper Franconia region of northern Bavaria, is a delightful city, especially in a pleasant German summer. A thriving university town of only about 75,000 inhabitants, it has some architecturally interesting palaces; the beautiful and historic Eremitage Gardens – with some spectacular fountains and, as it is situated on a hill, some wonderful ‘framed’ views– and the Lohengrin thermal spa. The New Castle and the Franz Liszt Museum are also popular tourist destinations. There is a good range of hotels and hostels to cover all needs, although the prices are subject to an increase at festival time. The official website for the Bayreuth Tourist Board has plenty more information.
The nearest international airport to Bayreuth is at Nuremberg and the two cities are connected by a regualr train service. It is also easily reached by car on the A9 and A70 autobahn motorways.
The Wagner Festival at Bayreuth is a pilgrimage for many followers of the renowned composer – and the productions of his works always fully vindicate their decision to attend. More details can be found at the official website.