Bayreuth Festival

The Bayreuth Festival

The Bayreuth Festival is truly one of a kind. The whole enterprise was the culmination of Richard Wagner’s lifelong dream for a place to stage his operas and to this day the festival is dedicated purely to performances of Wagner’s works. Every year the short summer season features either The Ring + three other Wagner operas or in years without a Ring, five other Wagner operas.

The Festspielhaus is a huge structure containing an unusual auditorium that has a seating arrangement not unlike an arena with the seats fanning outwards and upwards away from the stage. There are no central aisles so everyone enters from the sides and shuffles towards the center. The orchestra pit is hidden like a black void between the front row and the stage. No one in the audience can see a single musician or the conductor.

Bayreuth Auditorium
The Bayreuth Festspielhaus auditorium

Tickets have historically been monumentally difficult to acquire, an ancient system involving dubious Wagnerian societies and paper forms that left many waiting a decade or more for a chance at tickets. Recent seasons have considerably liberalised the process finally making the festival accessible to regular folks. First in 2013 a single performance was sold to the general public online, then in 2014 a whole cycle (one of the three in the festival) and a collection of other performances were sold in the same manner. However tickets will never be easy to get, with fewer than 6000 total seats available for the Ring across the whole season.

Though one might expect Bayreuth to offer up fairly traditional Wagner, in reality it is at the cutting edge of operatic staging. Directors tackle the works in extremely unconventional ways with some truly bizarre results (some excellent and some less so). The current Ring is by Frank Castorf and his is a tough, uncompromising vision that certainly won’t please traditionalists.

Siegfried - Act I Bayreuth
Act I of Castorf's Bayreuth production of Siegfried © Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuth Festival

The Bayreuth Experience

We were lucky enough to attend the Ring and Tannhäuser at Bayreuth during the summer 2014 festival. We can honestly say it is a place like few others we have visited.

The audience is impeccably behaved with virtually no coughing and not a single person leaving during the act. No one applauds until the last note has drifted off into the aether. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Yet despite the stillness, the atmosphere before the show and during the intervals feels genuinely festive. People are there to worship Wagner's operas, but also to have a good time! Lots of alcohol is drunk and what must be thousands of Bratwurst eaten.

Every performance starts at 4pm excepting the single act operas (Rheingold and Dutchman) which start at 6pm. Intervals are each an hour in length with the majority of the audience eating either at the restaurant or picking up food at the various food stands around the hill. The next act is announced by a fanfare from the balcony at the front of the house. The fanfare is always a motif from the music of the upcoming act played by brass players from the orchestra.

The audience is on the older side even by operatic standards and fairly conventionally dressed, mostly in evening wear though plenty just in business attire. The vast majority, as far as we could tell, were German though over our six days we encountered a decent number of US/UK attendees as well as a solid Japanese presence.

(We repurposed this from an article Rob wrote on Quora.)

Getting to Bayreuth

Bayreuth is a small town in the north of Bavaria, on the eastern edge of Germany near the Czech Republic. It is significant almost entirely because of the Festival, though has a few other gems as well.

Getting there is reasonably easy. The closest major city is Nuremberg, about an hour by train. There aren’t that many flights into Nuremberg airport however so Munich, Dresden and Frankfurt are also viable options with train journeys of about 4 hours. Train tickets are inordinately cheap if you’re used to UK/US prices. A Bayern ticket will give you unlimited travel in Bavaria for a day for an extremely low price (especially if you’re travelling as a group as the pricing barely increases for each extra person). The trains do get busy however (and are not without delays) so do leave plenty of travel time.

Getting around town is easy as virtually everything is walkable. Cabs are easy and cheap if you’re not feeling like a walk or it’s raining which it does with reasonable frequency.

FAQ: Attending Bayreuth

  • Is there a Dress code?

  • Programmes and Information?

  • Cloakroom?

  • Food and Drink?

  • Can I get in late?

  • Where Can I Buy Tickets?

  • Sold Out Shows?

FAQ: Cheap Tickets!

  • Are all the seats expensive?

  • Discounts?

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