July and August are Wagner months on account of the annual Bayreuth Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. The festival has been running since 1876, and has been impossible to attend for most of that time.
However, if you know someone, then maybe you can check out some dress rehearsals. It just so happens that San Diego Opera’s Director of Education and Outreach, Nicolas Reveles, knows someone. Reveles got to see four different productions at this year’s festival and I got to talk to him about it.
Dr. Reveles is an easy interview. I asked how he ended up at Bayreuth and then sat back to listen.
"Mark Lawson is an old friend of mine from Manhattan school of music. We both studied with the same teacher ... we had known each other before landing in Manhattan because we’d both had a teacher in preparation to getting to the conservatory, George Katz, who lives in San Diego now.
"Mark and I were both avid opera fans and went to a lot of opera together in New York. After graduation we didn’t see each other for a long time. During our crisis [at San Diego Opera] he reached out to me on Facebook.
"He said, ‘You know Nic, I hadn’t thought of this, but I’m the répétiteur for The Ring operas at Bayreuth Festival this year. You wanna come over and see the dress rehearsals?’.
"I said, 'Yeah!' It was not just an opportunity to see him after 20-21 years, it was an opportunity to get into the Bayreuth Festival without having to go through the lottery system, which is how most people get regular tickets. Since these were going to be dress rehearsals I would see the whole show as if it were a regular performance. They’ve got to be, you know, like our dress rehearsals at San Diego Opera, ready to go — completely sung out. There was no marking and everything was staged as it would be for a regular performance and on top of that it was a free ticket.
"The theater was filled, mostly with artists’ guests, managment guests, agents, that kind of crowd. I also saw some former Wagnerian singers in the crowd. Franz Mazura whom I’d seen as Klingsor in Parsifal in New York. Donald McIntyre was also there — an old Wotan. He was the Wotan in the Chereau Ring they did back in 1976 which was a remarkable production. McIntyre singing Wotan’s Farewell.
Bust of Wagner in one of the museum windows wearing a construction helmet.
"It was a once in a lifetime experience to be able to, first of all, get to Bayreuth, see the town and visit the museums attached to Wagner and to Liszt. I got to see the monuments dedicated to Cosima [Wagner’s 2nd wife] and just sorta soaked in Bayreuth culture. Second of all, to see these shows and to experience that theater which, of course, Wagner built specifically for the production of his operas.
"The first thing that hit me was the fact that [the theater is] a building that was meant to be temporary. He is actually on record as having said that after The Ring is produced, this was in 1876, for the first time the theater should be torn down. Well, here it is 140-some years later and it hasn’t been torn down.
"It is indeed something of a temporary structure. It’s made entirely of wood — the interior — the sound is great. You feel like you're on the inside of a cello. It’s just an amazing sound. The orchestra is entirely underneath the stage so that they are unseen and there is a hood over the pit so that the conductor cannot be seen by the audience. Only the people on the stage can see the conductor. The audience is steeply raked, so it's rather like Wagner had in mind the first cineplex movie theater. He wanted the audience to only see what was presented on the stage. Everything else is completely and utterly hidden.
"What that does to the sound is it creates a kind of halo around the orchestra, especially in big ensemble numbers like you find at the end of Tannhauser or in the choruses of The Flying Dutchman. It doesn’t overwhelm you, it just fills the house and fills you. It’s remarkable.
Wagner-Die Walkure-"Leb wohl,du kunhes, herrliches Kind!"
Die Walkure, from Bayreuth 1976, recorded 1980. Donald McIntyre as Wotan, Gwyneth Johnes as Brunhilde. Conducted by Pierre Boulez, directed by Patrice Chéreau.
"No, don’t let anybody ever tell you that the orchestra at Bayreuth can’t cover a singer. They can. The conductor still has to be careful with balances. I know, through Mark, the conductor of The Ring, worked very hard at making sure the balances are right, and it is a difficult house to figure that out during rehearsals. There were moments in the four operas that I saw where the orchestra did overwhelm ... uh no, no, no. Wrong word. The orchestra tended to cover the singer. What’s different at Bayreuth as opposed to our theater, or some other theater where the orchestra is playing big while the singers are singing, is that the orchestra at Bayreuth doesn’t compete with the singer. The signer rides on that orchestral mass much more comfortably than he or she would in a standard theater. Even though I felt there were times that the orchestra was covering the singer, I never felt that I couldn’t experience the singer in a certain way. It was really weird and it’s hard to explain but it all just worked beautifully.
"The seats are wooden. they have a tiny mat and that’s it. They’re extraordinarily uncomfortable — as everyone says. The first night I was there for Tannhauser. It was relatively cool so the interior of the house was tolerable but then it got hotter and hotter and hotter and more humid. By the time I got to Die Walkure I was miserable. There is no air conditioning."
In future installments, we will get Nic’s take on Tannhauser followed by The Flying Dutchman, Das Rheingold, and Die Walkure.