On a first visit to Bayreuth, there are some things that one expects, of course: the beautiful opera house set in its park high on a hill above the city, the unique acoustic of its sunken, invisible orchestra pit, the cream of elegant German society in the grounds, wall to wall Wagner in the bookshops and names of buildings and streets. But there are also some surprises.

The biggest surprise for me was the fact that Bayreuth contains not one important opera house but two. The city’s Opernhaus-Strasse leads not to the festival theatre but to the Markgräfliches Opernhaus, finished in 1748 during the reign of the margrave Fredirick, brother-in-law of Frederick the Great. Wagner first visited Bayreuth because he hoped that this house and its 81 foot stage would serve his purposes; he was impressed by the acoustic, but at 500 seats, the auditorium was too small for his ambitions. The building’s interior is a wonder of Italianate baroque magnificence, all of elaborately carved wood, gilt and painted. It was named a UNESCO world heritage site earlier this year, and it’s a treat not to be missed.

The other surprise came in the shape of the Steingraeber & Söhne piano showroom, a labyrinthine building with a long series of piano-filled rooms and several recital halls. It’s a family firm that has been making pianos since 1852 and was associated with Wagner: their pianos today crop up occasionally in major concert halls. Their unique proposition seems to be the design of their hammer and damper mechanisms, which are of bewildering complexity.

I went to a splendid concert in their chamber music hall in which Sontraud Speidel and Evelinde Trenkner, two professors from German music schools, gave us a spirited rendering of Bruno Walter’s four-hands arrangement of Mahler’s Titan Symphony, as well as Ravel’s own arrangements of Boléro and Tchaikovsky’s of his Capriccio Italien (which has snatches of musical colour from many countries but, strangely, not including Italy). Listening to the Mahler in this way is rather enlightening: undistracted by the instrumentation, you get a far clearer feel for what he’s doing with harmonic progression and counterpoint. The piano, as you might have expected, sounded wonderful.

As to the festival: I won’t repeat here the reviews of Holländer and Tristan, and I won’t bore you with the things that are extensively covered elsewhere about the festival’s heritage and importance: suffice to say that the looks and sound of the opera house are every bit as magical as you might expect.

But it’s worth mentioning the current exhibition in the festival’s gardens: set about the terraces is a series of large plaques commemorating the Jewish musicians who have contributed to the festival over the years, together with a direct attempt at facing up to the Wagner family’s racist past which pulls no punches. It’s a brave piece, I found, and being Jewish myself, I appreciated the delicate irony of the bust of Wagner set in his beautiful garden surrounded by memorials to the race he most hated. In this day and age, his hatred would perhaps have been transferred: there’s a large Turkish population in Germany and it’s notable that the most prevalent street food item around Bayreuth is not the bratwurst but the doner kebab.

Here also are a few practical notes about the festival: you’ll find many of these elsewhere, but I hope these are still useful:

  • Although the waiting list is legendary, it is occasionally possible to get tickets in the return queue, either through the ticket office or because someone with a spare ticket walks up. It’s rumoured that the ticketing people have had their knuckles rapped and that higher priority is now being given to people on the waiting list ahead of various other outlets that have had access in the past.
  • If you’re travelling from Nuremberg (the nearest airport), the trains are relatively fast but not all that frequent, often only on the hour. Check the timetables while you’re planning your travel. You can’t book tickets on the web (according to the bloke from DB, this is because the trains are operated by a local company) but the ticket machines in the station work fine.
  • The theatre is an easy and pleasant walk from the hotels around the railway station and in the city centre - about 20 minutes (or 15 if you walk quickly). If you feel pathologically opposed to walking, you can get a cab, but you’ll probably still have to walk up the last bit of hill. A few hardy souls could be seen in their dinner jackets on bicycles.
  • If you are walking, don’t miss a gawp at one of Bayreuth’s weirder sights: the Wagnerle Theatre, a miniature theatre in which Wagner operas are performed entirely mechanically by a set of cardboard (I think) puppets.
  • If there are intervals (i.e. you’re at any opera other than Der Fliegende Holländer), they are an hour each. A typical performance starts at 4pm and ends well after 10, so expect to eat in the interval, either in one of the restaurants or because you’ve brought a picnic to eat in the park. And keep your ticket on hand: its bar code will be scanned as you enter before each act.
  • It being summer in a continental climate, the temperature inside the house varies between very hot (on relatively mild days such as I experienced) and stifling (so I’m told). Fortunately, they’re not at all anally retentive about making one keep jackets on. Dress for men seemed to be about 50-50 nice suit and penguin; as ever, women have a greater choice of non-overheating clothing.
  • The seats are of the armless stadium-seat variety, with a thin cushion on the bit you sit on and no cushion on the back support. They will rent you some fairly inadequate cushions at €2 a throw; I found that using one to sit on was faintly helpful, and putting it in the back support only served to overheat me further.
  • It’s worth turning up to the central terrace area in front of the house around 15 minutes before each act starts: the fanfares to remind you to take your seats are leitmotifs from the opera played live by the orchestra’s brass section - a truly spendid sight.

That’s it from Bayreuth. I’m off to see the sights of Nuremberg for a few hours before heading home to the Olympics and the Proms!


David Karlin 2nd August 2012