Making the most of your visit to Bayreuth

by Frederic Harwood, Wagner Society of Washington DC

Below are some impressions and some activities that will help enrich your trip to Bayreuth.

Hotels

Although some prefer the small gasthauses in nearby villages, I recommend the hotels in Bayreuth. Bayreuth is a small city, only 60,000 or so, and very walkable. Most of the hotels are downtown, within a few blocks of the bahnhof or the rathaus, about a 20-minute walk up a tree-lined boulevard (Burgerreutherstrasse-Bahnhofstrasse-Luitpoldstrasse) which, even as the names change, stretches from the Festspielhaus to downtown’s Maximillianstr. Excellent choices include the Goldener Hirsch, the Accent Hotel, the Bayerisher Hof near the train station, the Frankisher Hof and the Goldener Anchor on Maximillianstr.

I like the Arvena Kongress, which is a large conference hotel located about a 20-minute walk from downtown and, from another direction, a 20-minute walk from the Festspielhaus. Its location is triangulated from the Festspielhaus, with downtown one endpoint, Arvena Kongress the other, and both 20-minutes to Festspielhaus. I love the Arvena Kongress for networking. Many of the singers and musicians stay there, and it seems especially popular with British visitors. After performances, people crowd into the bar. I had a drink with the conductor Eiji Oue, who was conducting Tristan, struck up a conversation at the bar with a member of the Wagner Society of New York about the baroque elements in the Dresden Tannhauser, and discussed with a German couple the Freudian elements in this production of Hollander. Fun.

The atmosphere is friendly, considering it is a convention hotel. You will see the same people at breakfast, lunch, at the Festspielhaus, some at the seminars, and in the bar after the performance. The Kongress provides bus transportation before and after performances. While the rooms are small, you can request a suite, which is actually only a little larger. The Arvena Kongress provides pants pressers and irons in the rooms, very helpful over repeated evenings.

The Wagner Society of Northern California includes a Bayreuth guide on their website, which lists hotels, restaurants, some attractions, and some day trips from Bayreuth.

Events

The Southern California Wagner Society dinner, on opening night, is not to be missed. It is held immediately after the opening night’s performance, in the Restaurant at the Festspielhaus, ground floor. The cost is about $100, and well worth the price. Take your camera. On a typical night, some of the soloists, the conductor, and some administrators sat, each at a different table. Each made a few remarks to our group, to warm applause. It was a very exciting dinner—take your yearbook for autographs. Order tickets well before you leave the US by logging onto the Society’s website and mailing a check. And take a copy of your payment in case things get lost.

The Wagner Society of New York sponsors a lecture from 10:30 – 12:00 each performance day. The past two years, the lecture was held at the Arvena Kongress. Cost is 10-15 Euros per lecture, and proceeds are contributed to the Friends of Bayreuth. You should not miss these lectures, because they are attended by 100 or so, including members from Wagner Societies in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, and London. At the seminars I met English speakers from the various Wagner societies, plus others from Paris, Rio, Vienna, Sydney, and London. By the end of the week I had a number of new friends. It was a lot of fun.

If you speak German, the Evangelisches Gereindehaus on Richard-Wagnerstr 24 has a well-regarded lecturer/pianist. Seating is limited so arrive early. There is also a French-language series. 2010 and 2011 the lectures were given by Julliard’s John J. H. Muller. Other New York Society presenters include the brilliant pianist Jeffrey Swann, and the engaging Prof. Simon Williams.

After each seminar, some go out for a light lunch, and after each performance, many of the English speaking attendees, and especially the New York society members, walk past the front door of the Festspielhaus, up the hill past the parking lots to an Italian Gasthaus, Burgerreuth, about ½ kilometer past the Festspielhaus. There is a busy downstairs with tables seating from 2 to 20, and a quieter upstairs with balcony seating for groups of 6-20. It is noisy animated fun. Reservations are recommended, but they always seem able to make room at the larger family-style tables.

If you attend the New York seminars, each performance day is pretty tightly scheduled. 10:30,-12:00 the seminar, lunch 12:30-2:00. Dress for the evening performance to arrive at the Festspielhaus by 3:00, an hour or so before a 4:00 curtain time. Linger in the plaza outside the Festspielhaus, under the balcony, and wait for the trumpeters to herald the start of the performance. Between each act, there is a 40-60 minute intermission, and while most people mingle in the plaza outside the opera house, many pre-order a meal at the Festspielhaus restaurant. There are also walk-up food and drink windows open before the performances and between the acts, but the lines are long.

Photos Before the Performance

When you arrive at the Festspielhaus plaza, stand at the foot of the balcony that faces down the hill. 20 and 10 minutes before the performance, trumpeters enter the balcony, and play a theme from the opera. You will notice a photographer shooting from behind the trumpeters, and indeed he spends most of the 30 minutes before the performance on that balcony taking photos of the crowd. Once you figure out who the official photographer is (various dignitaries come and go from the balcony as well), you will be able to get his attention by staring up at him, waving and smiling. Your gaze is a money shot for him, and he will shoot you as long as you hold his gaze, and come back to you if you do not move.

The photographs will be developed overnight, and posted the next morning in the window of a stationary store on Bahnhofstr near Hohenzollernstr, about 2 blocks down from the train station (on one side) and two blocks up from the rathaus on the other side, across the street and down a bit from the Golden Lion hotel. You will see 20 or so folks on the sidewalk, looking for pictures featuring them. The photos cost about $5 each, so the photographer is quite willing to take your picture. You can order as many copies of as many pictures as you want, and the shop will mail them to you or you can pick them up the next day. In general, 3-4 nights’ photos will remain up, so if you miss a day, you can check the photos the next day. They are well worth having—we got a great shot of a number of Washingtonians along with our new friends from Rio, Vienna and Paris.

The Grounds, Souvenirs

Across the road from the Festspielhaus is a bookstore which sells CDs, postcards, posters, and books about Wagner and his work, mostly in English, French, and German. This bookstore is owned by the Festspielhaus, and has books on the history of Bayreuth, the Festspielhaus, and Wagner. Bookstore hours from 10am every day until 5:00pm but later on performance evenings.

Tucked into the to the corners of the Festspielhaus on the edge of the plaza are two small kiosks that are open only on performance days, from a few hours before the performance until after the performance. Buy the Yearbook that is sold in these kiosks. These kiosks also sell postcards and photos from the current productions. Get your yearbook before you go to the Southern California banquet, and fill it with autographs. The yearbook is coffee-table sized to be left in your room after the banquet. At each performance, you will be able to purchase a small program for 50 cents.

Around the city, I was struck by the absence of t-shirts, baseball caps, and other such souvenirs of the festival. You will find caps and shirts and statuettes at a little souvenir shop near the train station with items commemorating the city of Bayreuth, its football club, and Wagner himself. But you will find nothing promoting the festival anywhere in the city.

Off Days

The Markgraflichen Opernhaus is a jewelbox of an opera house in town, just a half block from the creek that runs through the center of downtown, near the Rathaus. It was built by Wilhelmina and Maximillian in the mid-1700’s, and is a perfect Baroque opera house, wonderfully preserved and undamaged. It holds perhaps 400 concertgoers in four rings, with a fifth ring faux painted near the ceiling. The opera house is open for tours during the day, but on evenings when no opera is scheduled at the Festspielhaus, there is generally a concert at the Opernhaus. We saw two very exciting pianists, Edward and John Kutruwatz, play Bach, Liszt’s Mazeppa, Brahms, and, for the encore, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. Take your camera. Since these performances often sell out, buy your tickets before the performance at the travel buro near the rathaus.

The Schloss: Wilhelmina and Maximillian also built a very large and ornate Schloss just on the edge of town, about a half mile from the Opernhaus. It is very much worth the tour. Beautiful parquet floors, tapestries, mirrored rooms, furniture, and ornate ceilings and walls.

Wahnfried is the Wagner home, in town and just a block from the home of Franz Liszt. You will see the piano Wagner performed and composed on, and lots of exhibits that require close reading. His tomb is in the back of the grounds. The Liszt home is also charming and worth a visit.

Eremitage was the summer home of Maximillian, who was the brother of Frederick the Great, and Maximillian’s wife Wilhelmina. Take the #2 bus from the main bus stop downtown on Maximillian str, for a 20-minute ride. You walk up the long road, between the hedges, to the main reception house. The main house is covered in four colors of pebbles—purple, red, blue, green. Walk up another path to a large pond where there is an hourly water show. A smaller house in back of the main visitors entry gate is ornately decorated, including a music room, room for card playing and chess, a chambermaid’s bedroom, a kitchen, a beautifully painted oriental room, and the famous and very amusing shower room. There is also a charming restaurant on the grounds.

The Jean-Paul Museum is the home of a 19th century German writer and poet. It is a research library, with no exhibits of note.

Wagner memorabilia can be found at a couple antique shops that feature drawings, busts, plates, plaques, scores, and other collectibles. I have had good luck at Wagner Antiquariat Hanny Kopetz (Brandenburgerstr 28). The other is Antiquariat Walter Bosch on Carl Schullerstr 9, just behind the Goldener Hirsch hotel.

Nuremberg and Wurzburg are medieval walled cities near Bayreuth. They are a short ride (different directions) by train or car, and well worth the visit.

Money, Beer, Maps and Websites

The local banks will not take or cash $100 bills. They will only cash $20’s into euros. So take your own euros, or get them with your visa or MasterCard. You will have a fairly easy time getting euros from a cash machine.

Visit the wonderful bierstubes and restaurants along Maximillianstr. Oskar is an old-fashioned beer hall with high vaulted ceilings and heavy carved wooden tables and chairs, with rooms for private groups, traditional dishes, a good selection of beers, and a collection of surprisingly interesting red and white Franken wines.

You can get maps at the Bayreuth visitors center, which is actually located in a travel agency next door to the Rathaus, on Luitpoldstr. They sell maps, and tickets to cultural events. The Rathaus had a photographic display of past Festspielhaus performances.

For the Washington Society group photo, agree to meet at 3:30, 30 minutes before the Siegfried performance, under the trumpeters’ balcony at the Festspielhaus.

Useful websites include the official website of the festival at www.Bayreuther-festspiel.de. The city’s website is www.Bayreuth.de. For opening night banquet tickets, the Wagner Society of Southern California’s address and phone is at www.wagnersc.org. The Wagner Society of Northern California includes a Bayreuth Guide that is excellent for hotels, restaurants, sightseeing, and daytrips.

At the Performance

The Festspielhaus is not air-conditioned. People do, however, dress formally. For the Ring, men wear tuxedos, and many women wear evening gowns each night. However, for the non-Ring productions, only about half the audience was in formal wear.

Festspielhaus seats and seatbacks are unpadded wood, and many concertgoers take their own seating pads. One of my seatmates surrendered his pad to the young woman in front of us whose gown buttoned up the back. In a chair with a wooden back, it was very uncomfortable for her to lean back.

Another caveat, one which you cannot do much about though, is the seating arrangement. Unlike modern concert houses, the seating is not staggered, meaning you may have to peek around the head of the person sitting directly in front of you. This was a problem for me only one evening, with a British gentleman whose very large head successfully blocked almost every view I had of the stage. Fortunately, he was in front of me only one performance. A raised seating pad might have helped me, no doubt to the regret of the person in back of me.

There is plenty of snack food on the Festspielhaus grounds, and plenty of time to snack. After a light lunch, save your appetite for the Italian gasthaus after the performance.

Salzburg, Prague

If you are staying on, a number of folks went to Salzburg, or had just come from Salzburg. I went to Prague for the Verdi festival, held the last week of August and first week of September. In a week, which in contrast to Bayreuth seemed like a month, I saw enough robes and beards and spears and Ethiopians and Romans and Hebrews to last me the next ten years. The productions were a little worn and many of the singers somewhat past their prime. But Prague is not to be missed. It is awash in good music. Concerts at noon, 5:00pm, and in the evening in churches and the castles/manors, and some of the best blues and Dixieland jazz ever heard, on Charles Bridge, on the streets and in the clubs and hotels, Prague glassware and garnet jewelry are legendary, and eventually you will decide to buy them from the big jewelry shops in the tourist areas, even though they are very commercial. But we looked and looked and there were no bargain shops away from the tourist areas.

In an easy two-day diversion with one overnight from Prague you can see the fascinating UNESCO Heritage villages of Telc and Český Krumlov. Telc is a 3-hour tour, but plan to stay overnight in Český Krumlov.

Heading west you can tour the Rhine Valley, miraculously well preserved and picturesque. The little towns along the Main river between Nuremberg and Frankfurt are also very interesting, and you can take a barge cruise on the Main.