American director Jay Ship was looking at a bank of screens inside the Bayreuth Festival Theater one afternoon.
he was training on New production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” which opened the Bayreuth Festival on Wednesday, and as performers circled a large metal platform on stage, screens projected 3D flowers floating in empty space – psychedelic animations that will come to life for audience members who see them with augmented reality glasses.
Shuaib said that through these glasses, flowers and other things will appear during the show as if they are floating in the hall. He added that, in keeping with the opera’s themes, these moments are intended to provide the audience with “divine visions” of “a world where wonders still exist”.
Shoaib’s production is one of the most ambitious and well-known attempts to incorporate augmented reality into an opera performance. But it also caps months of unrest in Bayreuth, after plans to outfit nearly 2,000 audience members with spectacles for each performance were curtailed by an apparent financial dispute between the festival’s artistic and financial leadership. The compromise, in which only 330 entrants would be provided with spectacles for the production’s signature experience, left many angry and worried that the internal struggles at one of the opera’s most important events were undermining its significance.
Founded by Wagner in 1876 as a showcase for his works, the Bayreuth Festival attracts opera lovers from around the world for one month each summer to hear a handful of the composer’s works—including a new production at the start of each edition. A major event in the German cultural calendar, the opening is usually attended by prominent political figures including Angela Merkel, the country’s former chancellor.
The festival remains cherished the world over for the pristine acoustics of its theatre, a hilltop opera house that Wagner had a hand in designing, and for its relationship with the composer: a family member has led it since his death in 1883. His granddaughter Katharina Wagner took creative leadership with her half-sister, Eva Wagner-Basker, in 2015, before becoming artistic director in 2008.
In recent years, however, a new leadership structure has added a layer to the festival’s decision-making process. In 2008, the budget came under the control of four members of an independent board representing external shareholders who collectively provide about 40 percent of the budget: the city of Bayreuth, the state of Bavaria, the German federal government and a group of private donors called the Friends of Bayreuth Association, who currently chair the board.
Although financiers aim to refrain from interfering with choices made by Bayreuth’s artistic leadership, some in the media have argued that the decision to withhold funds for the purchase of 2,000 trophies represents an attempt by shareholders to curb Wagner’s approach to the festival and the work of her great-grandfather.
Since World War II, Bayreuth directors – including descendants of Richard Wagner – have brought a modern or experimental sensibility to the composer’s work. In 2013, Katherina Wagner called on Frank Kastorff to reimagine “The Ring” as an anti-capitalist epic about oil. The next “The Ring,” a Valentine Schwartz production that opened last year, recasts the cycle as, in part, an allegory about the anxieties of aging.
Tony Schmid, a former high-ranking Bavarian civil servant who led the festival’s board of shareholders until 2020, said the decision not to fund the spectacles was symbolic of Bayreuth Friends’ more conservative idea of what Wagner operas should look like today, which runs counter to Katharina Wagner’s vision.
The older members of the donor group, Schmid said, “would like to have products that they saw 50 years ago, when they were young—but that’s not art, it’s museum.” He added that he wished the shareholders’ board would be staffed by representatives who “know what they’re talking about” and called the decision not to fund the full number of Spectacles “a joke”.
Manuel Brugge, German journalist and critic of Die Welt, said in a phone interview that the current festival structure gives too much power to the Friends of Bayreuth. “The group is very old, with many people who have joined because it makes it easier to get tickets,” he said, suggesting that donors should be excluded from the board in the future. said Bavarian Arts Minister Markus Blume In an article in Nordbayerischer Kurier On Thursday, the state of Bavaria may acquire some stakes in the donor group in the future.
Georg von Waldenfels, Chairman of the Board of Shareholders and Chairman of the Friends of Bayreuth, objected that it interfered with Wagner’s decision-making and said in a telephone interview that the decision to reduce the number of spectacles was “an explicit decision of the artistic leadership”. He added that the shareholders were just “sticking to the business plan”. However, Wagner said that the original plan failed “because of funding and divergent views on spectacles” and that the result was “unfortunate”.
This disagreement reflects a broader debate about Wagner’s legacy, and adds another chapter to the festival’s history of public arguments and accounts. Winifred Wagner—the English-born wife of Richard’s son, Siegfried—who oversaw the festival from 1930 to 1944, was a fan of Adolf Hitler until her death in 1980. After World War II, the composer’s grandson, Wieland Wolfgang, reopened the festival as something apolitical.
Recently, the festival has been the subject of gossip, including long-standing rumors of a feud between Katharina Wagner and her former musical director, Christian Telemann, who left his post in 2020. Last year, public criticism of her decision to replace the word “führer” (“leader”) with “schutzer” (“protector”) in a production of “Lohengrin” had an impact on Bey’s engagements.
In a telephone interview, Tielemann denied any falling out with Wagner, and said Bayreuth had long been plagued by gossip. He added, “There is something about Wagner that poisons people.” “It’s intoxicating and fragrant at the same time.”
Wagner’s contract will be renewed this fall, pending a vote by the festival’s board of directors. She said that if the offer was submitted, her acceptance would be contingent on changes being made to the organization of the festival. She said, “You need to make this place ready for the future, and if some structural things don’t change, it’s impossible to do the work,” though she declined to give details.
If she were to leave the festival, it would likely mean the end of the Wagner family’s creative leadership: no other relative has publicly expressed interest in seizing power.
Wagner said her pursuit of innovative ways to stage her great-grandfather’s work was necessary, given the festival’s “limited repertoire”—Richard Wagner’s ten mature works—and the global competition among the prominent theaters staging his operas. She added that if Bayreuth continues to produce old-fashioned productions, “people can just watch the DVD”.
The idea of incorporating augmented reality into Parsifal came about in early 2019. One of the challenges was adapting the technology, designed to look at nearby objects in light spaces, for a large, dark theater. In the end, Shoaib’s team solved the problem by laser-scanning the entire hall, down to the millimeter.
Augmented reality will appear during crucial scenes, Shoaib said, and will include a giant floating tree and a flaming horse. When Parsifal naively kills a swan, a huge pair will appear flying near the ceiling of the hall, spouting blood.
However, Parsifal can still be experienced without the glasses, with sets, lighting, and costume design depicting what Shoaib describes as a “post-human landscape where the last group of people clings, trying to make sense of faith, tolerance, and belonging.” But he noted that the uncertainty about the glasses was a “distraction”.
Shipp said the use of technology was consistent with Wagner’s own approach to opera. “He made many innovations in the field of lighting and architecture,” he added. “In the end, the theater wanted to disappear completely.”