(AFP) – Germany’s legendary Bayreuth opera festival dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner opens Monday, but security fears and off-stage drama threaten to cast a long shadow over the 140-year-old event.
The curtain goes up just days after an 18-year-old German-Iranian went on a shooting rampage in Munich killing nine people before shooting himself.
Only a week earlier, five people were after injured in an axe attack on a Bavarian train in Wuerzburg that was claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
Bayreuth is just a two-hour ride from both incidents.
Tighter security on Bayreuth’s mythic Green Hill — on which stands the Festspielhaus festival theatre — has been in place since the start of rehearsals in June.
Town authorities called for stepped measures following rumours that this year’s new production, which no one has seen yet, of Richard Wagner’s last opera, “Parsifal”, could be seen as being critical of Islam.
According to media reports, subsequently dismissed by the production’s director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, the “Flowermaidens” in the opera were to have worn burqas.
Festival insiders say the heightened security could sour the hitherto idyllic summer atmosphere in Bayreuth’s world-famous Festspielhaus, the theatre built to Wagner’s own designs.
– Star conductor quits –
Some observers have even suggested that the extra security was one of the reasons why rising star Latvian conductor, Andris Nelsons — who had been scheduled to direct the glitzy opening gala — quit with just four weeks to go.
The opening night of the festival, one of the highlights of Germany’s social and cultural calendar, is traditionally attended by the country’s political and social elite.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, a keen opera fan, has trodden the red carpet almost every year, but she will not be attending this year owing to a diary clash.
In contrast to past years, all bags and cushions will be banned from the auditorium as well as the cloakrooms and patrons have to carry photo ID with them at all times.
Meanwhile, the approach road up the storied Green Hill to the Festspielhaus will be blocked to cars.
It is not only visitors who are affected.
In one incident, star tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, who is singing the title role in “Parsifal”, was stopped and questioned by security personnel during a rehearsal break, because he was wearing army fatigues as part of his costume.
Conductor Nelsons, a notoriously shy and sensitive artist, may also have been put off.
The 37-year-old’s management complained in a statement that the atmosphere “did not develop in a mutually comfortable way for all parties.”
– Bitter feuds –
Given the bitter feuds between Wagner’s descendants over control of the festival, founded in 1876, the behind-the-scenes machinations in Bayreuth are often more entertaining than the productions themselves, with every artistic tantrum and diva clash gleefully pounced on by the media.
This year, reports have suggested that Nelsons’ departure was also due to constant meddling by the festival’s general music director, Christian Thielemann.
Last year, Thielemann was rumoured to have sacked one singer because she was close to rival Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko who pipped him to the post of chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Petrenko, who has conducted in Bayreuth for the past three years, will also be absent this year and is being replaced by veteran conductor Marek Janowski.
The genesis of the new production of “Parsifal” was also dogged by controversy.
Originally, the German performance artist Jonathan Meese had been invited to stage the work. But the self-styled enfant terrible of the German art scene has never directed an opera before and was dismissed from the project because of cost overruns.
Laufenberg, who runs an opera house in Wiesbaden, was parachuted in to replace him.
The Bayreuth Festival runs from July 25 until August 28 with 30 performances of seven different operas — “Parsifal”, “Tristan and Isolde”, “The Flying Dutchman” and the “Ring” comprising “Rhinegold”, “The Valkyrie”, “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods”.