A preposterous production: Hans Neuenfels's version of "Lohengrin" at Bayreuth
Writers down the ages have left trenchant impressions of their first visit to Bayreuth. George Bernard Shaw was adulatory, Mark Twain quizzical, Thomas Mann sceptical, Tchaikovsky physically uncomfortable. The dream world of Richard Wagner leaves no sensitive mind unaffected, such is its madness, its black history and its cherished aura of exclusivity. The woman beside me on the Nuremburg train, head of a German company in Shanghai, had sought tickets for eight years before she got lucky in the ballot and jumped on a plane.
My own entry was more circumspect. I had pledged never to attend the festival while it remained in the soiled hands of the Wagner family. Always racist, the Wagners turned the festival into a Nazi showcase and ran a small concentration camp on the side of the estate. After the war, they continued to hold court for wealthy Hitlerites well into the 1960s. Although the Festspielhaus is now publicly owned, two of Wagner's great-granddaughters remain unassailably in charge, stonewalling on their family's past.
Foul echoes resound every year. This summer, a Russian bass-baritone withdrew from The Flying Dutchman after the German media showed what appeared to be a swastika tattoo on his shoulder. Yevgeny Nikitin insisted he had done his body art as a teenager and had no political views, but Bayreuth panics at the first hint of Nazism and the unfortunate singer was shoved onto the next train out.
I wanted no part of this circus and was prepared to wait until the Wagners fell before I set foot in the place. What finally took me there was an appointment with a conductor so busy that there was nowhere else we could meet all summer. The maestro gave me his tickets and I was able to enter Bayreuth unsullied by the dirty dynasty.
The first shock struck as I stepped off the train. "Look right," said my BBC colleague. At the end of the platform rose a green hill and, in the thick of it, the carrot-coloured brick of the theatre that Wagner built in 1876. He set it there to ensure that no one entered the town without acknowledging his dominance. His was a megalomania unparallelled in the history of Western art.