Bayreuth festival opens to German celebrity guests

Bayreuth festival opens to German celebrity guestsBayreuth, Germany - The list of guests arriving in Bayreuth for the opening of the 98th Richard Wagner opera festival on Saturday read like a who's who of German politics, business and showbiz - topped by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel, a regular at the composer's Festspielhaus on Bayreuth's "green hill," stepped out in a flowing silver-grey skirt and matching jacket, clutching a violet handbag as she hushed down the red carpet with her media-shy husband.

Guests of honour included Greek President Karolos Papoulias and EU Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, whose arrival at the venue in northern Bavaria was watched by a crowd of curious onlookers.

German Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Guido Westerwelle, leader of the opposition Federal Democrats, mingled with Austrian diva Margot Werner and actor Robert Atzorn.

Under the new directorship of the composer's great-grandchildren, Katharina Wagner, 31, and her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 64, the tradition-bound festival is edging its way into the 21st century.

For the first time, stage hands have produced "behind the scenes" video podcasts, and one of the festival's 30 performances will be accessible to online viewers, although not free of charge.

Other than that, regulars will spot little change to the festival, managed for many years by Wagner's grandson - and Katharina and Eva's father - Wolfgang, who retired last year aged 89.

The opening production, Tristan and Isolde, dates back to 2005, and the other operas - including The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, The Ring of the Nibelung and Parsifal - will offer little new material to the festival's 54,000 spectators.

Despite that, almost 10 times as many opera buffs requested tickets to the Bayreuth festival, considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

For some young opera fans, that lifetime opportunity came early as a new, child-friendly interpretation of The Flying Dutchman premiered in front of 200 children on Saturday.

Presented on the rehearsal stage, which is less daunting than the main theatre, the performance included a pared-down orchestra of 19, rather than the regular 150.

The stage blends with the audience seating, and the young spectators were encouraged to participate by imitating the storm through stamps and hisses. A boy and girl were picked to operate the wind machine, and even the costumes were designed by kids.

As part of the newly introduced "Wagner for Children" programme, Katharina Wagner said each year the festival managers intended to put on a different piece for children aged six to 10.

"Of course it's a challenge to make every Wagner opera child- friendly," she said of the composer's heavy dramatism.

The half-sisters were exposed to their great-grandfather's work from an early age, as they spent their young years assisting their father to mount the arts event, which performs nothing but Wagner operas.

The elder sister, a dab hand at spotting talent, has worked at Covent Garden in London, the Opera de la Bastille in Paris, the Teatro Real in Madrid and New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Katharina, on the other hand, is behind many of the new developments at Bayreuth, such as branching out online. The 31-year-old is the public face of the event, which has been dogged by Wagner family feuds.

Wolfgang Wagner had picked Katharina as his sole successor, but the festival board preferred a tandem with her half-sister Eva, whose Bayreuth work suddenly ended in 1976 over a family row which was not resolved until 2001.

Richard Wagner, who lived 1813-1883, is a source of controversy himself due to his much-debated anti-Semitism.

Family ties to Nazi Germany are to be the subject of an official investigation, to conclude in time for the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth in 2013.(dpa)

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