It had its origins in what is known in marketing today as “USP,” embodies its founder’s conception of the total artwork, and continues to be the object of heated discussions to this day.
Wagner’s first ideas about creating a festival date back to 1850. The plan would gradually mature over the course of the next 26 years, and in August 1876, the first stage production of the Ring was presented on Bayreuth’s Green Hill. The three performance cycles, however, ended in financial disaster.
Through his own personal efforts, Wagner succeeded in overcoming this difficulty, and the second season took place in 1882. Following Wagner’s death, the Festival was directed by members of his family until 1944.
Bayreuth resumed its annual performances in 1951, presenting ten operas that were specified by Wagner himself.
Wagner’s problematic nationalist and racist views, together with the close personal relationship between Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler, continue to accompany the Festival to this day. Recently, however, this chapter of history has been examined self-critically, notably at the exhibition Silenced Voices. The Bayreuth Festival and the Jews from 1876 to 1945.
It is hard to avoid the impression that all the “happenings” regarding the Festival direction were meant to correlate, as much as possible, with the story of the Ring - a tendency that will continue in the future?
In a letter from September 14, 1850, Wagner first mentions the idea of creating his own festival to stage the Ring, which he was writing at the time. In 1863 he draws up concrete plans for the future festival, including its theater.
The cornerstone was laid on May 22, 1872, Wagner’s sixty-first birthday. The Festival Theater was built by Otto Brückwald according to Wagner’s plans.
In 1883 the first festival under the artistic direction of Wagner’s widow Cosima (the daughter of Franz Liszt) takes place. Due to health reasons, she passes on the direction to their son Siegfried in 1908.
Siegfried dies from complications of a heart attack in 1930, at the age of only sixty-one, after which his widow Winifried seamlessly takes over the direction.
Between 1876 and 1944, a total of 39 festival seasons take place, with 30 years without a festival. After the outbreak of the First World War, the festival is not resumed until 1925.
1951 reopening as the “New Bayreuth” under the direction of Wagner’s grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang. The Festival’s role in Nazi Germany was dealt with only occasionally, though the gaps were (and continue to be) filled in from the outside.
After the unexpected death of Wieland Wagner in 1966, his younger brother Wolfgang reigns over the Green Hill for overall more than 50 years.
1973 the Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth is created, with the involvement of the public sector.
After the passing of Wolfgang Wagner in 2008, the half-sister duo of Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner takes over the festival direction in tandem, carrying on the family tradition.
2015 Eva withdraws from her position, and Katharina Wagner currently continues the tradition of artistic direction and production that dates back to Cosima. She is joined by conductor Christian Thielemann as music director.
Did you know?
The Bayreuth Festival Theater has 1974 seats, the majority of which are simple wooden flap chairs and quite hard.
Wagner’s first ideas about how to finance the Festival anticipate “crowdfunding.” He was only able to realize the project in the end with the help of King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Wagner’s original plan (1870) was to adapt the stage at Bayreuth’s Margravial Opera House for his festival. Its High Baroque architecture, however, ran counter to his vision of a modern theater.
The first festival season in 1876 resulted in a deficit of what would today amount to around 1.15 million euros.
In 1924 the audience begins singing the “Deutschlandlied” following a performance of Die Meistersinger. Siegfried Wagner subsequently makes an official announcement prohibiting such manifestations.
With the performance of the so-called “Centenary Ring” in 1976, which was staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez, the Festival created a benchmark for the work that is still valid today.
Virtually the entire “Who’s who” of the opera world has appeared in Bayreuth, including Herbert von Karajan, Arturo Toscanini, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Birgit Nilsson, Cheryl Studer, Annette Dasch, Nina Stemme, Stephen Gould, Placido Domingo, and Heinz Zednik.
In terms of gender, the Bayreuth Festival has had a balanced history: the Festival has been directed by four female and four male representatives of the Wagner family since its founding in 1876.
Much media attention is devoted to “who” attends the festival premieres. Prominent politicians such as Angela Merkel and television entertainer Thomas Gottschalk keep the gossip columnists busy from late July until late August.