FRANKFURT (AFP) ― The Bayreuth Festival, an annual month-long celebration of Richard Wagner, opens Wednesday, with its new production of “The Flying Dutchman” engulfed in scandal even before the curtain rises.
Just four days before opening night, Yevgeny Nikitin, the Russian opera singer cast in the title role announced he was pulling out following a row over a Nazi tattoo he sports on his chest.
The Bayreuth Festival runs from July 25 to Aug. 28 every year and the opening night is traditionally attended by Germany’s political and social elite.
So the appearance of a singer decorated with Nazi tattoos would have been a huge embarrassment for all concerned.
The scandal is also a huge headache for the festival’s organizers who have just four days to find a new “Dutchman.”
The production’s director, Jan Philipp Gloger, warned of the “immense artistic damage” even if a replacement can be found and is able to familiarize himself with the production in time for the premiere on Wednesday.
The Bayreuth Festival, the world’s oldest summer music festival, was founded by Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite, as a showcase for his operas and he had the famous Festspielhaus theatre built to his own designs.
Wagner was Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer and after the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Hitler became a regular guest at the Festspielhaus built on Bayreuth’s fabled “Green Hill.”
The Nazi dictator also became a close friend of Winifred Wagner, the widow of the composer’s son Siegfried.
Hitler was affectionately called “Uncle Wolf” by her sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, who went on to reinvent and relaunch the festival after the end of World War II.
Bayreuth’s current heads, Katharina Wagner, 34, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 67, have pledged to open up the festival archives to independent historians to fully explore the festival’s Nazi past. But the topic remains an extremely sensitive issue.
Katharina and Eva are already under fire for what some critic say has been a decline in artistic standards at the festival. The event has always been one of the hottest tickets in the world of opera and classical music, with the waiting list running up to 10 years.
This year too, the black market for tickets ― officially priced between 35-280 euros ($43-344) ― is flourishing more than ever.
Nevertheless, even the most dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerites have started to complain that Bayreuth may be losing some of its shine due to a string of critically panned and deeply unpopular productions.
There has also been, according to some observres, a decline in vocal standards.
With better productions of Wagner’s works regularly on show all over the world, there were even empty seats in the Festspielhaus last year: an unprecedented development since the festival’s relaunch following the end of World War II.
Last year’s new production of “Tannhaeuser” by Sebastian Baumgarten, was vilified by critics and audiences alike for setting Wagner’s tale of a minstrel-knight in a biogas plant. It is being revived again this year.
The director of the new production of the “Dutchman,” 31-year-old Jan Philipp Gloger said he was not trying to provoke for provocation’s sake.
“If people don’t think that this music alone and this wonderful and wondrous place are enough to create an event, then that’s very sad,” he said in a recent interview.
Gloger has largely worked in spoken theatre in the past and only directed two operas so far in his career.
“I’ve never been interested in provocation as an end in itself. It’s more exciting to ask questions, to unsettle and to surprise and dodge expectations,” he said.
Festival chiefs Katharina and Eva took over the running of Bayreuth in 2008 from their father Wolfgang, who had ruled the festival with an iron fist for 58 years.
The two could not be more different.
While Eva is notoriously media-shy, Katharina is seen as hip and tech-savvy and has brought Bayreuth into the 21st century with a new, trendy multimedia presence.
While Eva is responsible for hiring the singers, conductors and directors, Katharina is in charge of marketing and is seen as the festival’s public face.
It was she who masterminded a series of innovations, such as the “Wagner for Kids” series; she also spruced up the festival’s Internet presence with a series of podcasts and video insights into the workings of the Festspielhaus.
Another initiative was the staging of free public screenings of performances from previous years, which she is taking a step further this year with high-definition live broadcasts beamed into cinemas around the country.