Reviewing that first Bayreuth festival, where Wagner premiered his "Ring Cycle", Tchaikovsky pronounced it "an event of the greatest importance to the world, an epoch-making work of art."
This year's Bayreuth festival, July 24 through Aug. 28, will feature a new production of the four-opera cycle "Der Ring des Nibelungen". It's set immediately after World War II, seeking the gold of oil.
Festivities for the renowned composer of "Tristan and Isolde", "Lohengrin", "Tannhauser", among other beloved operas, will be held also in his birthplace Leipzig; and in Dresden, where he worked and premiered several of his operas until his activities forced him into exile in 1849; and in Wiesbaden, where he had planned originally to create his opera house; in Hamburg, site of Germany's first opera house that opened 335 years ago; and in Berlin.
The Leipzig Wagner Festival May 16-26 includes rarely performed early works like "Die Feen" (The Fairies) and "Rienzi", as well as "Ring for Children". Two years ago, it had "Sweat of the Gods and Heroes' Blood", a puppet version of "Seigfried", and "See you in Valhalla" cabaret.
Wagner is just one major chapter in Leipzig's long, rich musical history.
The Leipzig Opera House is celebrating its 320th anniversary this year.
And Leipzig's famed Gewandhaus Orchestra, the first to perform Wagner's prelude to "Die Meistersinger", was founded 270 years ago -- but its roots date back to 1479. And none other than Felix Mendelssohn was its conductor and music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
A Gewandhaus violinist Robert Sipp briefly taught Wagner in 1830, but pronounced him "'my very worst pupil. He caught on quickly, but was lazy and unwilling to practice," according to the new biography "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, his Work and his World" (Oxford University Press), by Barry Millington.
Ah, but last year was the 800th anniversary of Leipzig's St. Thomas Boys Choir -- whose choirmaster was Leipzig native son Johann Sebastian Bach, from 1723 and 1750.
Back to Wagner.
Dresden events include concerts at the sites where various Wagnerian works had their premieres, and a recital of tenor arias from his operas first performed in Dresden. The soloist on May 21 at the Semper Opera House will be Jonas Kaufmann, who stars as "Parsifal" in the Metropolitan Opera's new production beginning Feb. 15.
"Rienzi" had a very successful premiere at the Hoftheater in 1842, and "The Flying Dutchman" premiere at the Dresden Court Opera in January 1843 was so successful that Wagner was appointed musical director at the king of Saxony's court. Ach, two months into Wagner's royal service, he wrote, "I have placed myself in harness."
"The Flying Dutchman", to be performed in June, July, and August in Dresden, represents what Wagner termed "The longing for peace amid the storms of life."
Storminess included his activities in Dresden's 1848-1849 revolutionary struggle, and narrowly escaping arrest. He fled to Switzerland, later to Paris, and had to remain in exile for more than a decade until amnesty was granted.
In November and December, Dresden presents "Tristan und Isolde". Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "To this day I am still looking for a work of such dangerous fascination, of such shivery and sweet infinity, as 'Tristan'."
Wagner worked with Emperor William II to create the first opera fest at Wiesbaden's newly built Neo-Baroque Hessian State Theatre in 1896.
The composer originally planned for his opera house to be in Wiesbaden, not in Bayreuth. Wiesbaden's Richard Wagner Park represents those plans. (Speaking of plans, the city is still arranging its Wagner events.)
The composer finished "Die Meistersinger" in Wiesbaden, where "visits to the casino and to the theater were a welcome change for him," according to historicgermany.com.
He also visited Wiesbaden's 26 hot springs (baden), as did Johannes Brahms -- and also the Romans 2,000 years ago.
"Wagner Mania" ("Wagner Wahn") sweeps the Hamburg State Opera, performing his ten major works in only three weeks, May 12 until June 2. The program begins with his early work "Rienzi". A special Wagner "WahnCard 200" offers up to 40 percent off the full ticket price.
Germany’s first public opera house opened in Hamburg in 1678.
Staatsoper Berlin presents a Wagner Gala on February 13, with renowned tenor Plácido Domingo singing the title role of "Parsifal" in a concert performance of its Act III, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Domingo was general director of the Washington National Opera.
The Staatsoper Berlin (Berlin State Opera) will host the complete Ring cycle, also conducted by Daniel Barenboim, as part of the FESTTAGE festival March 23 through March 31.
The Ring, "Das Rheingold", "Siegfried", Die Walküre, and "Götterdämmerung", and "Die Meistersinger" were appropriated by the Nazis, as we know. (Also by Coppola in "Apocalypse Now".
"Hovering like a dark cloud, never quite banished, is the baleful legacy of Wagner -- specifically the question of his anti-Semitism and the extent to which it is integral to the works themselves," notes Millington in "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth".
Efforts to "depoliticize Wagner's works" still continue today, Millington emphasizes in his exquisitely researched, written, and illustrated biography.
"There could be no better opportunity than the bicentenary of Wagner's birth (May 22, 1863) to demolish some of these stereotypes once and for all," Millington says. And this year is also the 130th anniversary of Wagner's death (February 13, 1883).
Millington, chief music critic for the "London Evening Standard" and editor of the "Wagner Journal", chose the title "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth" because "Wagner's music has the capacity to cast a spell on the listener, to transport him or her to realms of unimaginable ecstasy..."
So, transport yourself to Germany.
For more info: German National Tourist Board, www.germany.travel/music . Historic Germany, www.historicgermany.com. "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, his Work and his World" (Oxford University Press) by Barry Millington. It's also the bicentennial of another great composer, Giuseppe Verdi. For info about celebrations of both bicentennials across the United States, here's my story.