Painting Bayreuth Red!

Aren't overnight long distance flights eastward wonderful? Our flight was perfectly timed to leave Washington, DC at dinner time on Wednesday, August 16 and arrive in Frankfurt, Germany in time for breakfast (their time) the next day.  My opera mate and I slept the whole flight across the Atlantic (when we were not eating dinner or breakfast, of course!).  We did not have to wait long for the connecting flight from Frankfurt to Bayreuth.  On the flight from Frankfurt, we met two others from Washington, DC, whom we had no idea were also members of the same Wagner Society we were and had gotten tickets from.  We had never seen them at Wagner Society programs, as their schedules did not permit attendance.  Both are writers and fervent opera fanatics.  Turned out we were all staying at the same hotel in Bayreuth.  Small world!  We all shared a cab to the hotel and new friendships began!

Arriving at our hotel, the Best Western Arvena Kongress on Eduard Bayerlein Strasse, I was struck by how much the Wagner Festival resembles a Wagner Convention, not unlike the yearly American Library Association Conferences I attend.  Walking into the hotel, one cannot help noticing the performance notices, fliers, meeting announcements, lecture schedules, etc. everywhere one looks.  Was anyone at the Arvena Kongress NOT going to the Wagner Festival? My opera mate and I wasted no time putting our things away in our room.  As soon as I hung up the last dress to come out of my suitcase, I exclaimed:  "Now it's time to PAINT THE TOWN RED!"

Paint the town red, we did, indeed.

Bayreuth is a difficult town to get lost in.  It is such a tiny town, one can easily memorize the street layout by studying the street map before arriving in town.  Leaving map and guidebooks in the hotel room, my opera mate and I set out on foot to explore.

We fell in love with Bayreuth at once.  Bayreuth is a charming little town in the heart of Franconia, with lovely houses and gardens and breathtakingly picturesque views of the surrounding countryside.  Although much of the town is modern (having been rebuilt since it was smashed to bits by Allied forces in 1945), there are some vestiges of narrow alley-type streets and structures dating back to the Middle Ages.  Among my favorite hangouts in this town were those ancient Medieval streets, so narrow that a taxi could hardly make its way down the street without brushing the buildings on either side.  Except for the weekday rush hour traffic on Bahnhofstrasse, the town is very quiet and tranquil.  Out in the Fraconian hills, at the foot of the Black Forest, it is a haven from big city life (strange to hear this from city slicker Jan).   Because the town is so small, out of the way, and hard to get to, it has appeal to those who want to gather for their own conference or Festival and keep it all to themselves.  It seemed like everyone we saw in the town was there for the Wagner Festival.

It was on Bahnhofstrasse that I became aware of how big a business "Wagner" is in that town, especially during August.  Along that street (as well as almost every other street), commercial establishments that have nothing to do with Wagner, music, opera, and the like, will have Wagneriana in the store windows to attract the attention of Wagner lovers, who will probably buy something rather than leave the store disappointed and empty-handed.  (NOTE to Washington, DC businesses - one way to get Jan Rosen's attention is to put Wagneriana in your store window!) It was hard to resist stopping to look at all those store windows with antique books, scores, busts of Wagner, etc.  The town had, like the mythical Brigadoon, come to life for a month, and decorated itself with the trappings of Wagner, to disappear at the end of the Festival on August 28 and lay dormant for another 11 months.

Our first stop was Haus Wahnfried, Richard Wagner's home in Bayreuth.  It is now a museum honoring the composer's life and works and is open in the evening for concerts during the Festival month.   If I had one word to describe this house, it was "awe-inspiring!" I could not believe that I was finally visiting the home where Richard Wagner had once lived.  It looked just like the pictures I had seen in books.  We could tour the house on our own, and because I had read so much of it before going to Bayreuth, I was able to explain to my opera mate all the different features of the house, and gave him a run-down of historical events associated with it.  Several people who had been to Bayreuth before asked me if I had been there several times already! The first floor contains that beauiful parlor that is often shown in paintings of Wagner and his friends and family.  It was restored by Wolfgang Wagner with the help of his mother during the 1970's and now looks pretty much the way it did when Wagner had lived there.  In the parlor, music was playing from a stereo and visitors were sitting around the piano in rapt ecstasy as if someone was performing live on that piano.  On the second floor, there were rooms and rooms filled with scores, books, photographs, articles, and quite a few of these I have copies at home in my many Wagner books. There is also the grave of Richard and Cosima Wagner and their dog in the back yard, away from the house among a quiet grove.  It is hard to find and one must walk a bit into the woodsy area.  But once you find it, you know you are there.  Flowers are heaped high on the grave, and many Wagnerians go to pay their respects.

I had not realized until I had seen the collection of Wagneriana at Wahnfried how much (in duplication) I have managed to collect at home.   But nothing equals a personal visit to Wahnfried.  There is a spiritual bonding, of standing where the composer had once stood, seeing where he had worked, sitting at his piano, standing at his grave, that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. If you have not been there…. GO!!! You do not need an opera ticket at the Festspielhaus to enjoy Wahnfried. Open all year round, it is worth going to again and again and again.  And Bayreuth is certainly worth visiting even when there is no Wagner Festival in town.

The bookstores in town were certainly glad to see me and my credit card! We visited at least 3 of them on the walk back to the Arvena Kongress from Wahnfried.  My favorite was the Margravina Buchhandlung (Margrave Bookstore) on Opernstrasse (Opera Street).  Right across from the Margrave Opera House, this bookstore has a stall just outside the Festspielhaus where it sells just Wagneriana.  The main shop on Opernstrasse was a book lover's heaven.  The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the piles and piles and shelves and shelves of Wagner related books (of course!).  The store also had lots of other books not related to Wagner.  Before I camped out in the Wagner section, I decided to browse the store in its entirety.  They had all of the current American bestsellers - even the controversial Harry Potter books - all in German.  I must have spent 2 hours browsing the NON-Wagner collection. My opera mate asked me if I was going to buy out this bookstore. I said "no, just the Wagner stuff." Eventually I got to the Wagner area and looked over the titles.  Many of those titles I have at home in English.  Some of the new titles that I want to read are in German and have not yet been translated.  A clerk at the Margravina Buchhandlung gave me a copy of the complete holdings on Wagner and told me I could order by mail any time I like.  The catalogue makes a nifty souvenir as it has pictures of the Festival and information on the various performances.  I know I will be in touch with them again soon.

After this food for the soul, it was time for food for the body.  We lugged our souvenirs from Wahnfried and the Buchhandlung back to our hotel room and went to eat at the hotel.  Because it was so hot that day, and we were to have a long day of lectures and opera the next day, we didn't feel like going out again to Bahnhofstrasse for dinner.   We ate at the restaurant in the Arvena Kongress and it was heaven for the tastebuds.  I forgot what I had for dinner, but the desserts were sinfully delicious…… mounds of vanilla ice cream with bits real vanilla bean and fresh fruit and real white chocolate…A gourmet feast.. Wow!!!  The pounds I must have gained at the dinner table at the Arvena, luckily I was able to work off running up and down the Green Hill back and forth to the Festspielhaus.

Stay tuned!

by Jan Rosen

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