Katharina Wagner’s Debut at Bayreuth

As imagined by Katharina Wagner (nepotism does pay), the milieu is stuffy,
pedantic Academia, and the “Meisters” are boring and inflexible academicians
who “heff zeez rrrroooooools.” The setting is a large paneled institutional
meeting room surrounded on three sides by balconies, the side tiers of which
display busts of great thinkers, artists, or teachers.

The rear wall boasts a grand piano in one chamber, and a cello propped on
a chair in the other, with the highest tier peopled in part by several
artisans who are restoring the old traditional ceiling frescoes. At opening,
a very attractive Walther (Klaus Florian Vogt) climbs out of the grand piano
(yes, out of it) in modern, hip clothing with (and this is important) white

As he cavorts above, Eva and Magdalene (Amanda Mace and Carola Guber),
dressed in identical grey business suit and skirt combos (which do nothing to
flatter their short stature and ample figures) and with identical henna
pageboy wigs (making them indistinguishable) frolic below.

And I mean, those girls get down! They do jetees, and little leaps and
spins, and jump up and down like excited schoolgirls playing with purple
scarves semaphorically in a way that would make Sophie Tucker proud. But the
whole effect was. . .well. . .remember the Hippo ballerina in “Fantasia”? If
so, ya got the (probably intended) effect. . .

Concurrently, rather trim middle-aged choristers dressed as Buster Brown
school boys and girls (with very unfortunate wigs) march in, carrying what
look to be candles, that they stick in a holder along a railing upstage. They
return with more of these carried on their shoulders as if rifles, and do the
same. Only later do we find out that these are in fact the legs of conference
tables and chairs, that they screw in and assemble to create a biiiiiig
meeting table for the masters who arrive stuffily dressed, save Sachs (and
the afore-mentioned Walther).

Sachs is a barefoot renegade outsider, all dressed in a black, Johnny
Cash-like shirt and trouser get-up. He stands to the side and broods a lot.
And smokes cigarettes. A lot.

The contest and “ze roools” do not seem to be about mere songs, rather
performance art, and to this end Walther seems to be an out-of-control
graffitist par excellence. With a bucket of whitewash, he starts defacing
first the cello, on which he paints breasts and the word “Eva,” and later
jumps onto, and adorns the big, holy conference table itself.

He and Beckmesser have a jumbo jigsaw puzzle challenge, both attempting to
put a puzzle together and create a famous lithograph of “Alt Nuernberg” in
their designated picture frame, each on an easel. Beckmesser (Michael Volle)
succeeds, but dang if Walther’s isn’t upside down. Ach, the Sturm! Ach, the

Poor Walther just cannot — cannot — put the pieces in the right places
and conform. So he defaces Beckmesser’s “correct version” with his initials,
and flings a lot of paint around as he exits.

But. . .I have to say by Act’s end, Katharina’s concept of the definition
of art, the “establishment” versus free-thinking, the negative climate that
defeats challenge and growth, etc., was not only well-established, but I
thought was quite clearly and even compellingly made. And there were some
real laughs. And prolonged applause. Then came Act II.

Same three-tiers, but some cafe tables are now stage left and behind them,
a giant sculpture of a forearm and hand poised in an act of benediction.
Sachs has a work table down right, at which he sits and types on an old
fashioned typewriter through much of the act.

There are four white sneakers strategically placed down- and up-stage, a
symbol of all that is innovative and daring, I think. In any case, during his
great monologue, he stopped typing and tried to fit his bare foot in one of
the sneakers, and he cannot — cannot fit — cannot be hip — cannot be

White-sneaker-shod Walther is now on a tirade, and he slops a bit more
paint, and then flings the sneakers around. When one of them clocks the giant
forearm hard, it wobbles a bit and then bends forward in deference
(oooooooh), allowing him to deface it as well, painting a big ol’ white nail,
perhaps on the fickle finger of fate?

Eva eventually decides to buy into this performance-art-thing, throws off
her wig and suit, and climbs The Hand in an unflattering blue shift. Walther
gets her to pose for him so he can paint her. And. He. Paints. Her.
Literally. Well, her dress, that is. Circles around the breasts, love flowers
on the hips, “Ewa” across her pubic area, etc. Pity the costume mistress.

Meanwhile, the Night Watchman, no lamplighter he, has come and gone with a
miner’s helmet, picking up litter with one of those litter-picker-uppers. He
returns to pick up the sneakers and Eva’s discarded wig. Also in the
meantime, Beckmesser has come to pay his visit and to practice his entry to
the contests. Although he has no lute, the twanging from the pit works
“okay,” in a demented-mental-condition sort of way. Anyhow, Sachs sort of
“plays” along with his typewriter. And then it gets a little nuttier.

The interruptions to Beckmesser’s song are not the tapping of the cobbler,
but rather Sachs at his typewriter and. . .white sneakers falling from the
flies. First one by one. Then more. Then, they started rather raining down.
As the street confrontation scene plays out, the busts of the statues come to
life — turns out the bust-actor’s body was concealed by the pedestal. Then
some academics come in the upstage tiers and are stripped of their robes to
their underpants.

The Buster Brown students tear off their wigs and some costume parts,
forming several Bunny-Hop style lines and dancing. Some brandish the oversize
jigsaw puzzle parts from Act One. One of the graffiti’d desk tops makes an

And at the height of it, more choristers come on the tiers with buckets of
colored paint and begin creating a “Jackson Pollock” right on the stage and
over the assembled singers! Sing and fling, sing and fling, sing and fling.
Garbage-picker Watchman comes back once more surveying the “art.” Curtain

Vociferous booing. Love it or hate it, it was quite a statement on
progressive performance art, and the wisdom of unstructured disregard of
artistic traditions. Audience displeasure aside, there were no empty seats
for Act III so I guess everyone either figured “I paid 180 Euros and I am
staying” or “I want to boo even more loudly at the end” or “I can’t wait to
see what wacky thing that darn Katharina will come up with next.” Well. .

We are now in a rather modern apartment with three enormous picture
windows, through which we see the upstage tiers filled with the “busts” of
the Old Masters (including Wagner) in the guise of over-sized mask/headpieces
like those on the Seven Dwarfs at Disneyland. Well, actually these are just a
giant head . . .with legs.

Walther, Eva, and Sachs are apparently re-thinking “you know this
tradition thing may not be so bad after all so let’s compromise,” and begin
changing into traditional evening wear and business attire. Mid-point in the
scene, Sachs closes the curtain on the ever-observant Heads.

Conversely, Beckmesser seems taken in by the performance art agenda and
now appears in jeans, sneaks, and a tee shirt that reads “Beck in Town.” And
he begins formulating his performance art “prize song.” David has twice come
and gone through a secret “door” in the stairs fronting the platform,
dragging a smaller framed picture of “Alt Nuernberg” with him. Ah, tradition
is still an influential presence. . .but ya have to be sneaky about it lest
you appear “old-fashioned.”

For the quintet, apparently to prophesy the future, Sachs provides Walther
and Eva with three children “extras,” and ditto two for David and Magdalene,
and he calls in two large picture frames from the loft to make “family
photos.” Visually simple and blessedly still, this was one of the nicest
moments in the opera until one of the young “sons” had been directed to act
as though he had to pee. Badly. Perhaps Ms. Wagner wanted to keep reminding
us that this is a comedy. Or she wanted to “piss off” the traditionalists.
But I digress. . .

For the transition music after that, all the “Seven Dwarfs” Meister-Busts
appeared in front of the window unit, and danced an amateurish kick line as
if in a bad German Variety Show. (An oxymoron, I know. . .all that was
missing was Anneliese Rothenberger lip-synching “Vilia.”)

They are soon joined by three buxom bare-breasted Bavarian lasses, also in
big mask/heads with long blond pigtails and traditional dirndls, well, save
the missing bodice. They proceed to strip (some more) and whoopsie, one of
them is a guy. This strip-tease greatly excites the Dancing-Head
Meister-Busts, and they expose excited rubber phalluses, one or two of which
fall off. Whoopsie again. This is what Nurernberg Gay Pride Day in Hell must
be like. . .

The sense of hackles rising in the audience was palpable now. You could
cut the tension with a rubber phallus.

Eventually a big metal road case was rolled in, the Busts of all kinds
were shooed away, the residue picked up, and dumped in the box. As if to
purge the place of this nonsense, Sachs lights a Bic and touches it to the
enclosed rubble which bursts into flame. He and the four rubble collectors
all warm their hands in the flames, at which point. . .

The window unit flies out and chorister-packed banks of bleachers rise
from the ground until they filled the background with a seemingly vertical
mass of bodies clad in various casual clothing which made quite a lively
patchwork. Very impressive effect.

And now, the “song” contest. Remember the song contest?

Well, “Beck” (the Beck-a-Rama, the Beck-a-Rootie, the Beck-a-’Rocious, the
Man) is back with a small carnival wagon festooned with balloons which turn
out to be attached to an inflatable sex doll (Eva). We also get treated to a
rather yummy naked chorus boy (Adam). When the doll explodes and deflates
Adam’s, um, chances, The Beck opens his zipper and pulls out his
loooooooooong flesh-colored rubber “snake” with which he does many rude
things, not the least is swinging it in a circle.

They are soon driven from Paradise as the wall of choristers rips off
their casual duds and throw them to the ground revealing them to suddenly be
in tuxes and jewel-colored satiny evening gowns in boy-girl alternating
vertical rows. Truly beautiful effect!

How will it all end? Well, Walther presents his “performance art” prize
song as a traditional Garden Scene with old-fashioned painted archway flown
in (there have been references to this with a stage model replete with set
designs earlier on), and enacted in dumb show by a beautiful traditional
prince and princess. Awwwwwww. . . .(He wins, you know?)

Sachs’ last famous monologue about preserving and revering (the superior)
German culture was quite unadorned, with large statues of (I think) Schiller
and Goethe forming columns to witness (challenge? monitor?) his sentiments.
Sadly, by now Franz Hawlata had spent the best part of his voice elsewhere in
the evening, and had neither the sustaining power, the beauty of tone, nor
the vocal presence to score in this signature moment.

The lights went out to instantaneous booing from some very loud and
determined folks who seemed to need an exorcism very very badly. Not all of
the audience was Clinically Displeased, but those that were were strident.

The excellent chorus was then cheered. Most singers got decent applause.
Poor Eva was roundly booed, but while she did not have quite the vocal
presence wanted on this occasion, she didn’t deserve that. Sachs also got the
razz. But The Beck and The Walt (those cool dudes) got the most rousing and
vociferous ovations of the night. Neither erased memories of say, Hermann
Prey and Ben Heppner for me, but they were very good, and in any event, the
best in the cast.

And therein lies my problem. For all of the eccentricities of the
production, and my cheeky comments aside, it mostly “worked” okay. Save a
couple of bad choices, the focus was where it needed to be. The concept was
consistent, clear, and controlled. And I thought The Beck’s Adam and Eve
performance art debacle to actually be a comment on the sort of “Konzept”
that can derail a production just like this very one we were seeing. In
short, I think the woman not only has some creative ability and directorial
skill, but also perhaps, considerable wit.

Musically, however, the cast was very uneven, something that certainly
should be avoidable at a festival of this prestige and importance. The
small-voiced Arthur Korn (“Veit Pogner”), rather squally “Magdalena,” and a
couple others were decidedly not of the highest international standard

The orchestra was very good, if not quite “world class,” the soloists
(especially the cellist) were excellent, and I liked the conducting, but I
think that the covered pit must be an acquired taste. I personally thought
the brass and winds sounded too muffled. Give me the brilliant sound of the
first class band at the Met or Staatsoper or Covent Garden any day.

I recall an old anecdote about one Met horn player who, as the
“Meistersinger” performance evening was entering it’s 6th hour, ironically
asked his pit colleague: “Soooo, what other comic operas did Wagner

Katharina Wagner was upfront that she was attempting a non-traditional,
irreverent approach that emphasized quirky comedy. I have to say that that
loooooong two-hour Act III went by more quickly than any other I have
experienced. And I had fun, darn it! (But I didn’t always like myself for

But to now paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, I don’t think one can
appreciate this production on one viewing. . .and I certainly have no
intention of seeing it again.

Still, it was my first Bayreuth experience and it was great fun in toto.
Everything is well-organized to include hotel shuttles, catering options, and
really, all the hosting elements were superior. And while it was wicked fun
to partake of a genuine Bayreuth Skandal, I would hope that future visits
might reveal the reputed high musical qualities that meet the
revered Festival’s normal standard.

James Sohre

image_description=Katharina Wagner (Photo: Nawrath)
product_title=Above: Katharina Wagner (Photo: Nawrath)