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Set In West Texas, A Wagner Opera Makes Waves At Bayreuth 33

Das Rheingold directed by Frank Castorf. Photos: Bayreuth 2015 Festival.

A West Texas motel and a rundown gas station are not your usual settings for a classic opera by Richard Wagner. Director Frank Castorf’s production has provoked strong opinions from opera goers. KERA contributor Quin Mathews takes us to the controversy at the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany.

An outdoor fanfare summons operagoers, most in evening wear, to a unique theater on a hill in the town of Bayreuth, Germany.

Each year the faithful make a pilgrimage here to see operas by composer Richard Wagner in the festspielhaus he designed 140 years ago. That is, if they can get tickets. The wait is as much as ten years. And there are other inconveniences: tight, uncomfortable seating and no air conditioning.

But as the curtain goes up on Das Rheingold — the first of four operas together called the Ring of the Nibelung — instead of mountains and Rhine maidens, the scene is a seedy West Texas motel with call girls, a rundown gas station, a Confederate flag. The setting and many of the characters are grimy. Oil has taken the place of gold as the means to power and destruction.

Directed by Frank Castorf — the avant-garde Berliner who heads the festival — this production debuted two summers ago during the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. The first of Castorf’s entire Ring cycle, this Rheingold caused an uproar then, but it was a fresh shock for those who finally got tickets to see it.

“The set, to me, is confused, extremely confused, and confusing,” says David Goldberg, who made the pilgrimage from Dublin. “Ah, it interferes completely with the music. It tells a completely different story, well different in that it is the director’s story, the director has this political philosophy which he wants to tell you.”

Lindsay Armstrong, a retired musician. agrees. “After Rheingold was over I turned to David, and I said, ‘David, you know, if you could get somebody to buy the rest of the tickets to the Ring, I’m going home.’

He laughs as he threatens to leave, but Armstrong complains that the production fails to follow Wagner’s own detailed stage instructions.

Festival director Castorf is known for his defiantly unconventional productions.

“It has to be faithful, just like you have to be faithful to the notes and you have to be faithful to the style of the playing.”

Sybille Brewer, who looks the part of an elegant, traditional German, liked the staging.

“It, it really made a lot of sense to me. It, it just, it fit. I had heard horrible things about it. My brother, who is a great Wagner fan and supporter of Bayreuth, and so always goes, and he said, ‘Don’t tell me that I didn’t warn you. You’ll hate it.’ (laughs) And I did not. I did not hate it at all.”

Swedish radio reporter Ella Petersson had to wait two years to get tickets. She interviewed me for my opinion as an American—and Texan—at Bayreuth. So I asked her what she thought about the Texas staging.

“I’m kind of against these concepts, normally, but I think it was like an adventure,” says Petersson. “It was like an action movie. I loved it, actually.”

Donald Schmidt followed Wagner’s music for over 40 years before he made his first trip hear it live in Bayreuth.

“I’m enjoying the stage production, because, again it’s leading to this whole thing of greed versus, uh, love, meaning care for other people and caring about other people, so it’s still there at some level.”

Richard Wagner’s legend is complicated. He was a political revolutionary, a philanderer, a serial debtor, and an anti Semite. His operas continue to provoke strong opinions, whether set on the Rhine or in the Texas Panhandle—produced on a hilltop in Bayreuth, Germany.