Were Richard Wagner alive today, he probably wouldn’t recognize much of his adopted hometown of Bayreuth. The university city in northern Bavaria, better known as one of Germany’s cultural capitals based on its close ties to one of the world’s most famous 19th century composers, has been getting a makeover.
Currently, Wagner’s late home, the villa he named Wahnfried – a compound of the words Wahn (delusion, madness) and Fried(e) (peace, freedom) – is being fully refurbished and expanded, complete with a new permanent exhibition. Next in line for renovation is the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, the opera house built in 1876 under Wagner’s own supervision to showcase his four-piece opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung.”
It remains the home of the Bayreuth Festival, an annual homage to Wagner’s body of work.
Non-Wagner related buildings in the town are also being renovated, including another opera house, Markgräfliche Hofoper, which in 2012 became a World Heritage site. When you add in the transformation of Bayreuth’s town hall into a cultural and conference center, you get a total investment of about €100 million ($133 million), according to the town’s mayor, Brigitte Merk-Erbe.
That’s a lot of change for a town of just over 70,000 inhabitants, located in the poorer northern Oberfranken region of wealthy Bavaria. Luckily there are many Wagner fans out there – only €7.2 million ($9.6 million) of the renovation financing has come from the city itself. Most of the money is from the state of Bavaria, the federal government, local foundations and the “Friends of Bayreuth” society.
“We are doing everything we can to make it by July 2015.”
It has been a tough and scandal-plagued process. The city of Bayreuth was heavily criticized in 2013, the year of Wagner’s 200th birthday, when visitors arrived to find nearly everything closed or in disrepair. Since then, the town seems to have learned its lesson. Building sites have been turned into tourist attractions. Today, construction site tours are a big hit in Bayreuth, giving visitors the opportunity to watch restorers at work in the opera house and offering additional information on touchscreens.
The hope is that Wahnfried and its museum will be open for business in time for the next Bayreuth Festival summer season. Sven Friedrich, director of the museum and archive, cautioned against setting a firm date, but said: “We are doing everything we can to make it by July 2015.”
The overhaul will include a new exhibition documenting the life and work of the composer, including a room of treasures with some of Wagner’s original scores. A new glass building will document the history of the Bayreuth Festival and house exhibitions. House Siegfried, where Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner, lived, will deal with the Nazis, who embraced his music in their supremacist ideology.
Ms. Wagner was notorious for having a close relationship with Adolf Hitler. She lived in House Sigfried until her death in 1980.
No doubt the latter is the most delicate aspect of the town’s overhaul. For some on the far right, Wagner remains a hero of the Nazi movement. Hitler regularly visited Bayreuth in the 1920s to see Wagner operas. Wagner’s work was later appropriated for the Nazi cause. To this day it remains a central question for historians just how much of Hitler’s own ideology may have been influenced by the composer’s anti-Semitic writings and what Hitler considered Wagner’s glorification of a united Germany in the late 19th century.
For Mr. Friedrich, it was important that the town not shy away from its role as a hotbed of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. It is always going to be necessary to document the town’s history as a “mixing pot for certain ingredients of the Hitler ideology,” he said.
At the same time, Mr. Friedrich himself came under come criticism for comments suggesting House Siegfried could be “humanized by offering Bayreuth bratwurst” in its café. He bristled at the criticism and sticks by his overall point: The town needs ways to avoid House Siegfried becoming a kind of “Hitler corner,” a homage to the 20th century’s biggest mass murderer. Why not open a restaurant in this historically-charged location to ease the tension? After all, in 2005 a luxury hotel opened on Obersalzberg in the Bavarian mountain resort Berchtesgarden, where Hitler once had his summer residence.
In the end, Mr. Friedrich got his way. A café is being built in the garden, while House Siegfried itself will also document Wagner’s broad influence on Germany history, “all the way to the Wagner-interpretations by Adorno, Block and Hans Mayer, as well as the Wagner reception in Israel,” he said.
Mr. Friedrich acknowledged the museum will not be big enough to deal with this delicate topic comprehensively, but stressed “we are not a museum for anti-Semitism.”
His views were formed in large part by a conversation with the Israeli historian Saul Friedländer 15 years ago, who advised telling Wagner’s story in clear words while still leaving room for interpretation.
“Wahnfried is not the Vatican of Wagnerism,” Mr. Friedrich said.
Renovation of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre is due to start n the fall of 2015 and will take at least seven years.
But why are the renovations taking so long? It is partly due to the structure of ownerships, which is as complicated as Wagner’s relationship with Bayreuth itself.
For instance, Wagner’s villa Wahnfried belongs to the town, but the museum within belongs to the Wagner Foundation, which is run by the mayor together with a 24-person supervisory board that includes representatives from the federal, state and local levels, as well as the “Friends of Bayreuth” society and four members of the Wagner family.
Heinz-Dieter Sense, director of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, said there has been a “quiet revolution” over the last 138 years that has seen control over the town’s key venues migrating from Wagner’s family to the state.
Renovation of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre is due to start in the fall of 2015 and will take at least seven years, complicated by the fact that construction work will only take place outside of the summer festival months. The building needs work on its facade, balconies, roof, cornices, as well as new wiring, fire safety and sanitary systems.
Mr. Friedrich fears another problem. The annual upkeep for the expanded villa Wahnfried will nearly double to €1.3 million ($1.7 million) per year. Mayor Brigitte Merk-Erbe has already written countless letters to state politicians, including the governor of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer.
“All those concerned are aware of their responsibility,” she said, and yet a concrete solution has yet to be found.
Should the financing question not be resolved, Bayreuth could soon have another scandal on its hands.
Translated by Christopher Cermak. This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel on August 2.