Here is a personal account of my fabulous vacation in Germany. I hope this will give you a taste of my experience. My reflections cover both the artistic (the music and singing) and the logistical (getting there/being there/returning) aspects, and as you will see, I switch gears without warning! So sit back and enjoy…
About three years ago, I hatched the idea of celebrating my 60th birthday (currently scheduled for November 25, 2008) by attending Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (most often referred to as “the Ring Cycle” or simply “the Ring”) in Bayreuth, Germany. In case you haven’t heard me say it, it is pronounced “BUY-royt.”
This theatre is in a small town north of Munich. The town, and the festival, are always referred to as Bayreuth. Wagner himself designed this theatre – an all-wood structure – for the performance of this very set of the four Ring operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). I was set on hearing these operas because they are the Wagner works I know the best, having performed the role of Fricka, who appears in two of the four operas, with Arizona Opera’s Ring cycle in the 1990s. So I had a very special relationship to these works. The theatre opened in 1876, just seven years before Wagner’s death in 1883. With the exception of a hiatus during the World War II years, Wagner’s operas, and only Wagner’s operas, have been performed in Bayreuth ever since.
It has become one of the most prestigious music festivals in the world. You see many “beautiful people” there – classy Europeans, especially German speaking ones, dressed to the nines and there to see and be seen. It made me wonder how many of those young, rail thin model types really understood what they were hearing, or if it is just something Germans do to see what the fuss is about. Having researched the “dress code”, and learning that a small percentage of attendees dressed rather casually, it will come as no surprise that Janice decided to dress UP and not down. I managed to put together four fashionable evening outfits from my own wardrobe, and with some help from my good friend Maggi who loaned me a beautiful full length sheer jacket with sequins and beading. Thank you again, Maggi! But I digress – now it’s back to the homework portion of our show.
Wagner’s unique and theatrically revolutionary concept was to place the orchestra UNDER the stage, rather than in a pit in front of, but lower than, the stage and singers, which is how opera is traditionally performed all over the world. Wagner’s reasoning was partly based on providing an acoustical environment that would let the singers perform in their natural way without having to kill themselves to be heard over a huge orchestra. The orchestra and conductor are completely concealed from the audience. I cannot imagine that the most technically advanced recording studio could possibly duplicate the same balance of acoustics that this few feet of wood, separating orchestra from human voice, has created.
Another aspect that I particularly enjoyed was having the music begin precisely when the house lights went down – none of this applause when the conductor enters the pit, makes his way to the podium, shakes the hand of the concertmaster, perhaps indicates for the orchestra to stand, and then he turns to the pit and begins the opera. No, the house lights go down, an almost religious hush descends upon the audience, and the music begins. For those of you who are familiar with this music, my first aural experience at Bayreuth was the E-flat major chords of Das Rheingold – played by the low strings and brass – a sound that still resonates in my head to this day.
So – thinking that I would not be able to afford, nor would I especially enjoy, the trip alone – I asked my dear friend and voice guru, Joy McIntyre, if she would be interested in traveling together. Joy, being the open and supportive person that she is, agreed this would be a grand enterprise to experience together, in celebration of a certain “round” birthday of her own in 2008.
Of course, getting tickets to this pinnacle event is not easy. Joining a Wagner society, of which there are many world-wide, has its benefits, not the least of which is zooming ahead in the ticket queue. The Boston Wagner Society requires that you be a member for at least a year before you are eligible to apply for tickets, so Joy and I joined as soon as we started planning our trip a few years ago. About this time last year, Joy and I consulted each other via phone and e-mail, and decided which seats we would prefer/could afford, and we each sent a $100 deposit to the Boston Wagner Society.
By early December, the Bayreuth coordinator contacted us about the availability of our tickets, and we were politely requested to send in the balance for our tickets. [Big gulping sounds here]. I will only say one more thing about the budget for this project – which was in every way imaginable worth every penny – and that is, the odd performance fee I have earned in my now limited performing life, the tax rebate, the tax refund, and weekly direct deposit into the “vacation fund” – enabled me to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime vacation (News Flash: I am already making plans to return in a few years, health and budget permitting).
There is a distinct risk in planning for and anticipating such a vacation – the risk being, like the “fabulous” movie your friends rave about, that you will be disappointed after such an enthusiastic build-up. I am happy to report that the atmosphere, the music, my lovely traveling companion, the hotel and food, and most of all the singing did not disappoint in any way. Even the weather cooperated, being not too hot and not too cool, but just right. Now, those of you who have never been there must understand one thing – Wagner’s music never changes, but the styles of productions – be they traditional or modern (“Euro-trashy”) – change every few years, which is cause for much consternation in the international musical community. Of course, this is something over which I had no control – all I hoped for was fine singing and playing, even if the cast was less than “celebrity,” and I was in no way disappointed.
I will not go into the complex story of the Ring, nor mention the names of the cast of characters, with a couple of exceptions. We heard a wonderful young German mezzo making her Bayreuth debut as both Erda and the Götterdämmerung Waltraute – Christa Meyer – a memorable and moving singer about whom we will surely hear great things in the coming years. The other stand-out was the American tenor Stephen Gould as Siegfried – surely one of the most difficult roles in all of opera. Suffice it to say that all the singers, with the exception of one, were perfectly cast and truly memorable. This exception, the tenor singing the role of Siegmund, was not only miscast as the romantic young hero – he had none of the warmth, charisma or vocal gifts required of this part. Could he have some special relationship to the powers that be? It was announced at the beginning of September that Katarina Wagner, the 30-something great-granddaughter of the maestro, was chosen to run the festival along with her half sister Eva, both daughters of the grandson of Richard Wagner, Wolfgang, who has run the festival since 1951, and who is now retired. Again…a long and convoluted aspect of the festival that I will not go into here. This is, after all, about me!
So, on August 18, I set off for Boston and my direct flight to Munich. Joy had gotten to Germany a couple of days early to visit her friends the Kucharskys, Petra and Andrej, outside of Munich. During Joy’s 20+ year professional singing career in Germany, she performed with Andrej, a fine tenor, and became close friends with the Kucharskys. I arrived in Munich around 9:30 Tuesday morning and found a bus to take me from the airport into town, where I had booked a hotel room for Tuesday night. Once I checked in, I phoned Joy who came into town and we went to lunch at a lovely restaurant serving dishes which featured the seasonal specialty, chanterelles.
Joy also introduced me to a wonderful Bavarian beverage, apfel schorle – unsweetened apple juice with a healthy dose of sparkling water…very refreshing! After a bit of shopping, and gazing at the beautiful central area of town, jet-lag hit me like a hammer and I made my way back to the hotel for a nice but fitful snooze before Joy was to pick me up in our rental car to head off to Bayreuth on Wednesday morning. I don’t know if the interruption of my sleep pattern/jet-lag, or the excitement of finally being so close to Bayreuth kept me awake – I just know that I was very excited to set off with Joy (and with joy!) on Wednesday morning headed for the festival.
Petra Kucharsky, a veteran Bayreuth-goer, always stays at a charming hotel outside of town, the Hotel Fantaisie. So Joy contacted the hotel owners many months ago about booking a doppelzimmer for us (a double room). They required no credit card number to hold our reservation – all we had to do was confirm a few weeks ahead of time and be sure to bring enough Euro to pay for the room in cash. You will see some photos of the hotel on the following pages. It lies in a charming suburb of town, about a 15-20 minute drive from the theatre. Staying outside the centrum certainly saved on hotel costs, and this was a charming place – spotlessly clean, quiet, and the breakfast buffet was a veritable feast (see photo of breakfast room).
Another unique aspect of attending this festival is that the operas begin around 4:00 and end around 10:00! Now, lest you think I’ve completely lost my mind…the operas are long, but NOT six full hours! They format it to take a one hour, 15 minute intermission between acts, so that the audience, exhausted from the intense sitting and watching, can refresh itself with a coffee or a full dinner during intermissions. On two of the four nights, Joy and I had reservations at the “lower Festspielhaus restaurant” and had lovely sit-down meals, having stopped at our table upon arriving around 3:45 and marking our menus with what we wanted to eat at the first intermission. When we arrived at our designated table, our beverage and starter course were awaiting us. Highly civilized! During the second intermission, we would have a coffee or tea and cake in the buffet pavilion, enjoying the “people watching.”
On the night of the first opera, following Das Rheingold (which is the shortest of the four and performed without intermission), there was a gala dinner sponsored by the Wagner Society of Southern California, to which just about every Wagner Society member in creation was invited. For $100, we got a four-course meal which included wine – considering the dollar-to-Euro ratio these days, that was a bargain. At first Joy and I were not all that pleased that we had made the decision to attend this dinner – we didn’t know a soul and the people at our table were all “coupled” and more or less ignored us – and we were two tired old ladies, besides! But like “Ring heads” everywhere, a discussion ensued concerning how many Rings they had attended and where. Turned out that two of the four couples had their first Ring experience with Arizona Opera! Some of you may not know that I sang my first (and only) professional Wagner role, Fricka, with Arizona Opera in the 1990s. Let me tell you, those folks were thrilled to be in the company of Fricka! It was funny, though – no one seemed to doubt that I was telling the truth (would anyone really make that up?). But I had brought with me a couple of photos of me as Fricka, and tucked one of them into my evening bag when we headed off to the second night of the festival, to hear Die Walküre. As luck would have it, I ran into one of the couples and showed them the photo of me in full Fricka drag, lest they think I had been weaving a tall tale.
At one point, Joy said to me, “You will probably run into someone you know before I do.” I have a close friend, Thurmond, who attends the festival nearly every year, but knew that he would not be there for this year’s festival at that time. So I thought, OK, sure, Joy – I’ll run into someone I know in the middle of Bavaria, while you sang here for 20 years. Well…sure enough, as we were filing into the theater for the second act of Walküre, who would pass us but Carla Rae Cook, a fine mezzo who had sung Waltraute in the Arizona Opera Ring! We were shocked but delighted to see each other. She was spending time in Vienna working with Christa Ludwig, and managed to get tickets to three of the Ring operas…at the next intermission, we met for coffee and had a very nice reunion.
So – operas on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday was a much needed day off! Joy and I went into town for a little shopping (Janice wanted to shop for shoes, alright?), and a nice lunch at a local restaurant. We also visited the Margrave’s Theatre, a little jewel of Baroque architecture right in the middle of town. That evening, we had dinner on the porch of our hotel, and shortly thereafter Petra arrived from Munich, as she had only managed to get tickets for the last two operas.
On Saturday morning, Joy dropped me off at the theatre to hear a lecture in English about Siegfried, sponsored by the Wagner Society of New York. Siegfried and Götterdämmerung are the Ring operas I am the least familiar with, so I decided I needed some education. Frankly, it was a bit boring and I left early to explore the grounds and get some great photos of the outside of the theatre. Joy and Petra headed off to town for a lecture in German by Stefan Mickisch – a German music historian/pianist who makes his living traveling hither and yon lecturing about Wagner and other great composers. You see his photo all over town, and he has a huge following. On our next day off, Sunday, I accompanied Joy and Petra to hear him do a mostly-piano lecture on, well, what ended up being just about every piece of music ever written. It was billed as a “Klavierabend von Bach bis Wagner” (Piano Evening from Bach to Wagner). For my taste, there was too little Wagner and way too much of everybody else; but, as I said, he has a huge following and they ate it up.
Earlier that day, Sunday (Friday and Sunday were our only days off), Joy had connected with an old friend, Ulrich (Ulli), whom she had not been in touch with for many years. Ulli and his girlfriend drove us around the Bavarian countryside and we saw some unusual local sights (including the lovely “Tanzlinde” – a huge linden tree with a wooden dance floor built INTO the tree.)
On Monday, Götterdämmerung day, we drove back to the countryside, to a small village called Peesten, to have lunch with Anna Reynolds and her husband Jean Cox. Anna and Jean are retired singers who both had distinguished careers in Germany, and both having sung often at Bayreuth. Anna is British, Jean from Mississippi! When I was living in Europe, I traveled down to the area to do some coaching with Anna, and it was just lovely to see her again. They are mostly retired, but Anna is still doing a lot of coaching and teaching.
At about 1:30, we dashed back to the hotel for a short nap and to get ready for Götterdämmerung, our last opera of the season, which was beginning at 4:00. Once again, I felt a huge thrill when the lights lowered and an almost religious hush descended and the music began. Once we got back to the hotel, we had a light snack and some wine to discuss the opera…the nice couple who own the hotel kept the kitchen open late for us “Ring heads” who wanted to re-hash things afterwards. Truly, after that kind of stimulation, who can sleep right away?
So…on Tuesday morning, we had our final breakfast at the Hotel Fantaisie, and then headed off for Munich. Petra got a train at the airport for suburban Munich, and Joy and I turned in the rental car and had lunch at the airport before our plane for Boston departed at about 4:30.
Thank you for reading this far! It is difficult to convey the magic of the atmosphere and the music…you just have to be there. And I feel very privileged to have managed to “be there” – a trip like this is a big endeavor, and fortunately, things went very well in all respects. I also feel very fortunate to have been able to travel with such a fun, classy and knowledgeable lady as Joy. As I said, health and budget permitting, I would love to return to hear something else – Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tannhäuser – whatever. So…as they say, stay tuned for a future travelogue!