Sarah Coles

Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth

IMG_2987 It was after seeing the Ring performed by the Met Opera in New York at the cinema in Winchester, and hearing those notes of the beginning of the world  in the Rhinegold that I thought, I must go to Bayreuth, I must hear and see it there! So, I downloaded a form from the web, and applied. Every year thereafter the Bayreuth Festspiele sent me a form, which I filled in, choosing dates for the Ring for the following year. Last October I included a pathetic note in my application, saying I was nearly eighty and did not want to die without having been to the Ring at Bayreuth.

Did that work?  The usual waiting time is ten years.  Along came a letter in the post from Germany, offering seats! It was the Christmas period, but I managed to get to the bank and transfer the money, about 739 euros for the four performances. They enclosed details of the tourist office who could arrange a hotel – which they did, within walking distance of the Festspielehaus, and the town centre, and the railway station.   The hotel Wiehenstephan. 

Several months to go. I got a dvd of the Ring, and thought, oh dear, am I going to like this, I wondered, but kept quiet about misgivings. 

I booked train tickets, by Eurostar to Brussels, then Deutchesbahn to Frankfurt, then to Nuremberg and then another to Bayreuth, and return, with a Premium Standard for coming back to London. So, all done – and all through spring and summer, while climbing in the Lake District giddy with the heights my thought was, if I break a leg, I’ll never get to Bayreuth, or with Bob, if he gets ill, ditto. Also, as I watched this dreary dvd of Siegfried in an oil tanker, will I actually like it? I knew I’d put on a show saying I did, but was it really worth the effort? Then, on the day I was due to leave, will I make the connections?

I did. I stopped for the night at an Ibis hotel in Brussels where all the other evening clients were black, and then at breakfast all brown, with very few whites around.  Next day found the right platform and along under this cavernous station to the stairs to the ICE German train. All ok then, though I had to change seats because mine was reserved for a family who apologetically turfed me out. Change again at Frankfurt, and then again at Nuremberg after passing through forests, miles of them, and under mountains, and past villages with steep ochre roofs and steepled churches – the vastness of Germany. A little local train to Bayreuth – which split half way along, but an uptight couple – obviously Wagnerites – affirmed I was in the right section. The fields, unlike England, had no hedges. Smartly dressed couples were po faced, somehow pre-war.

IMG_3348Bayreuth! Out of the smart station, and up there, on the green hill, I can see the festspielhaus, a brick dome. Cross the road at the traffic lights, and how obedient they are here! Even without traffic everyone waits for the green ok sign. And to the Wiehenstephan Hotel – which is more a b & b. I climb stairs and ring and a plump welcoming woman shows me my room overlooking the street, and gives me keys and a town map.

Ah! Arrived! Walk to the festspielhaus, nothing’s on today so it’s all locked and empty, but outside are gardens, on one side with a tall bust of Cosima Wagner (vicious anti-semite, French and actually brought up in Paris, and Wagner’s mainstay) on one side with roses, and on the other side a memorial garden, with portraits and information in both German and English of all the conductors, singers and musicians hounded out of Bayreuth and exiled or murdered by the Nazis. With the lesser musicians, often their fate is unknown. Every one was Jewish or part Jewish or married to a Jew or part Jew (here called ‘Jew’ as if they were only so called, which I found odd, as if the very word is derogatory). I am  relieved at the horror and repugnance of today’s Germany for its Nazi past – I had felt misgivings about coming to this place so hallowed by the Fuhrer, but here they face the past head on.  I was told how at one rehearsal the singers had to appear bare chested, and one showed a chest tattooed with a swastika.  He got the sack on the spot!


IMG_3206IMG_2920Supper, ah swinersnitzel and apfel strudel, in the restaurant below, Germanic with beams and a young nice waitress in dirndl dress and a low flouncy white blouse showing off her breasts, I eat and dream – and although Hitler would very much have approved of all this, and I can even see him eating in that alcove, and in Bayreuth I have not seen a single person who is not white Aryan, yet I feel utterly at home.


Breakfast, and I am placed at a table with Pat who is New Zealand, and a member of the Wagner Society. She becomes a friend and we have breakfast together every day, and she lends me a spare adaptor for my iPad, me having left mine at the Brussels Ibis. Today is Wednesday, with 6 pm, Rhinegeld, then we have Thursday 4 pm the Walkure, Saturday 4pm Siegfried and finish on Monday with Gotterdammerung 4 pm. Explore Bayreuth – considerably smashed by bombs but they have rebuilt the centre as it was, and the amazing baroque/rococo theatre survived, as did the Wagner’s Festspiele up the road.

IMG_3348So, I love visiting the place, and a man takes my photo between Wagner and his dog outside the Information bureau, and I go up the Operastrasse, and then along the Richard Wagner Strasse – looking in to see Wahnfried, his house, and along into the garden where he is buried under marble and a mass of ivy, and on the marble are flowers and bouquets placed by devotees.   I don’t go in the museum (in my heart of hearts I am still appalled by Wagner and his anti-semitism), but walk along past the houses and museums – Liszt,  everyone came here – and into the Hof garden. It is a large wooded park with water, though I am dismayed by notices saying children must be kept under strict control and not play around – the logo shows a woman holding a child’s hand – maybe all this is in deference to the Master, whose grave is almost visible and garden gates open on the park – here he walked with his dog. Evocative.

Back, and in due course change into black trousers, black silk low cut jacket (first outing for over a decade), white silk blouse and giant pearls. Walk up to the Festspielhaus early, and a couple of gays ask me to take their photo.

IMG_2993IMG_3116IMG_3087IMG_3248IMG_3088IMG_3126And eventually the doors into the auditorium open, only fifteen minutes before, and we all file in. Dressy. There are no gangways across, just one going down in the middle. It starts, this primal music, chords from the beginning of the world, before it awoke. I’m going to be ok with this. Then … the curtain rises and we are in a 1950s motel – with three prostitutes as the Rhine Maidens. The Rhinegold is oil, enabling cars, motels, movement! The Rhine is a plastic swimming pool. Alberich steals a cloth of gold from the pool, but the Rhine Maidens are not too upset – plenty more where that came from. Wotan and Fricka quarrel, and the giants come for payment – they are labourers who have built Valhalla. One giant kills the other. A rainbow flag goes up, the arch to Valhalla, and presumably LWBGT rights. The curtain falls, and applause and appearances go on for at least ten minutes.  No one, thank heavens, claps during the performance.

Thursday, and on Pat’s advice I go to the lecture on today’s Walkure, held in the (renovated) house of the man who tuned Wagner’s piano. The producer grew up in the poverty and control of east Germany, and we hear about the oil produced in Kazakhstan, and the despoliation caused, and how at Baku today you walk along the pavement and up come spurts of flame from cracks in the road.  The lusted after gold is oil!

In due courst to the Walkure – and Seiglinde welcomes Sigismund to her towering wooden home where oil is produced. Later it’s transformed to a pumping donkey in the USA, and joy as oil is discovered. It can be one or the other. The Valkyries slide down from the top, and Brunhilde goes to sleep beside a barrel of burning oil. On the Saturday to Siegfried, where he lives with the dwarf Mime in a chrome caravan under a Mount Rushmore cliff with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin carved io the cliff face, and it changes to east Berlin or another shoddy town. Siegfried doesn’t seem that enamoured of Brunhilde, he really wants to fuck the woodbird. It’s all as unromantic as you can get.  Monday and Twilight of the Gods – Mount Rushmore is morphed into the New York Stock Exchange. Meetings, singing, and the world goes up in flames. Capitalist west is the same and as bad as communist east?  Interesting, indeed a fascinating take on the Ring, but it’s a brutal and unromantic production with, essentially, rubbish theorizing, but Oh, the music, at Siegried’s death! Who would not treat death as a privilege, bringing ecstasy!    It’s worth it all for the music, which often seems in contradiction to what’s happening on stage – but it doesn’t matter, I just love being there.

IMG_3344IMG_3211IMG_2950Each evening, except the first, had two intervals, about an hour long, and not too long either. Just to look at the clothes (some of the dowdy people in these pix just came to gawp at the people and dresses), to eat a massive Festspiel Bratwurst in a roll smothered by mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup and sloshed down but a stein of beer, just to sit and think, or to chat with whoever, like the obviously Jewish young man who emigrated from east London to New Zealand and told me at length about all the church choirs he had sung in. One evening I come back at the hotel  and order a stein of beer, and the waitress puts me beside a man in dj who has also just returned, and we drink together, and he is polite though essentially a solitary.  In the theatre, same people either side for every performance and we are friends at the end, we talk – everyone loves it, the music, but would really prefer something more traditionally romantic, as would I.  A sauve elegant man from Munich, different dj and silk bow tie every time, I compliment him, and an English couple.

To enter the auditorium, they zap our tickets, and thereafter inspect them every time, making sure no interlopers get in. Then, just before it starts, the doors slam shut. Silence and the magic starts. I am not highly musical, I play no instrument and cannot read music (once, I could …) but among all the arts find it the most emotional. Tunes played in my head for days. That was what Wagner wanted, to tumble and pummel you into aubmission – no wonder some people hate him, just for the music! Dionysus rather than the high elevating Apollonian of Bach.

On my last day I thought, I’ll buy an amber ring, my piece of Rhinegold to take home!  Quite a few shops, and I enter one kept by a plump Turk, surely?  He brings out a tray of amber rings and I choose one, and pay, he smiling all the while, laughing when I tell him about my piece of Rhine gold.  It’s the very best, he says, from the Baltic.  (Later, I start to wonder, and when finally home I dab with nail polish remover the stone, and it becomes cloudy and sticky!  Fake.  My very own cursed Rhine gold!)

After the final performance I walk back in the dusk, and it feels a triumph, to have been there, to have slogged along every night in time, dressed up, and thought, and listened, and just sat through it.  Tunes sing in my head.


On one day off I went by bus to the Hermitage, 18th century summer retreat of the margrave (= marquis) and margravine of Bayreuth who was a sister of Frederick the Great. Huge park, follies, a theatre, a long water feature, all very Versailles, and a splendid circular water park with writhing sculptures and backed by a curved crescent with at its centre a cupola with golden Apollo driving his horses. On the pillars, chips of jasper, porphyry, and malachite (I imagine!), forming patterns and grotesques. Here in due course I have something to eat with Andy and Roye, both from the San Francisco Wagner Society. We stop talking when the fountains play.


IMG_3153IMG_3197IMG_3188IMG_3186IMG_3131Later, in the Grotto – have to join a guided tour for this, but they give me the spiele in English and not many people and it is a grander grotto than any I’ve seen, all the patterns in different rocks – then our guide says keep back, we do, she turns a handle and there’s a great fountain in this room, then, she places a crown on the fountain and up the crown rises tottering on the spume of water. What they did to keep the nobs amused, to stroke their egos! Elsewhere, where the margrave slept, and his courtiers, some in tiny cots for, of course, this was a hermitage for a hermit’s life and behaviour. Elsewhere, great rooms, rococo which I love.

At the bus stop talk to a German couple about this production of the Ring, and the man says, Bullshit! I laugh, and so does Pat when I tell her.

IMG_3176 (1)IMG_3305 (1)IMG_3315IMG_3159On the other free day, have a look in the ‘new palace’ in the town centre – again, rococo which although it means shellwork in fact is so adorably vegetable, all these twining twisting growths springing inside these baroque buildings, how I love it – alas, virtually none in Britain, we are too heavy in our tastes, we are neat Palladian inside and out, Wren or Hawksmoor, I suppose – later Adam at Osterley is the nearest we come to it, or some of the public rooms in Bath.  We cannot lightly soar. We don’t like glorious frivolity.

Both at the Hermitage, and here at the New Palace in the music room, where Bach is relayed,  Orpheus is displayed on the ceiling, playing his lyre, luring animals into a world of perfect harmony.  Orpheus is my favourite mythological character, and months later I meet him at Mytilene on Lesbos – a Roman mosaic from the theatre – and see the distant sandy shore where his lyre, still playing, washed up on the sandy shore.

Head home.   Get up early for the 6.30 train, and the smiling breakfast lady is there and lets me out, and so, to Nuremberg with commuters. Change trains at Frankfurt airport, but suddenly the train is cancelled. Chaos! A suicide along the line and the fast train to Brussels has been cancelled. Eventually, get a train to Cologne, along the Rhine – actually, it is lovely with schlosses and churches across the water but no Rhine maidens. At Cologne, after hassle and queuing and waiting and misinformation, take the next train to Brussels. Hot! They hand out free water. Brussels, and anticipating trouble for I am very late for my booked train, and what have German railways got to do with Eurostar?  But, no problem! I have no euros for food, since I lost my little euro purse and only have sterling and a 100 euro note which I am reluctant to break. I am Standard Premium, and eventually, having helped a man who looks like a terrorist with minimal English and is on his way to Derby, sit in a wide lovely seat, with a glass of wine and served a small meal. This is happiness! Flanders whizzes by, and eventually home at 11 am where dear Bob meets me at Winchester.

Love Germany, love Germans.  Their kindness, their hospitality.

Dear Pat, my breakfast companion, has sent me her notes on the lectures.  I’d love to go to the Ring again, but next time, it’ll be Covent Garden’s more traditional take.

Months later – German rail is transferring 44 euros to my account for the delay caused!







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