The American director Jay Scheib was looking at a bank of monitors inside the Bayreuth Festival Theater on a recent afternoon.
He was rehearsing his new production of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” which opens the storied Bayreuth Festival on Wednesday, and as performers circled a large metallic monolith onstage, the screens showed three-dimensional flowers floating through blank space — psychedelic animations that will come to life for audience members who see them with augmented-reality glasses.
Through those glasses, Scheib said, the flowers, and other items during the performance, will appear to float through the auditorium. In keeping with the opera’s themes, he added, these moments are meant to provide the audience with “sacred visions” of “a world where wonder still exists.”
Scheib’s production is one of the most ambitious, and high-profile, attempts to incorporate augmented reality into opera performance. But it also caps months of tumult at Bayreuth, after plans to outfit nearly 2,000 audience members with the glasses for each performance were downscaled because of an apparent money dispute between the festival’s artistic and financial leadership. The compromise, in which only 330 attendees will be provided with the glasses to experience the production’s signature flourishes, has left many fuming, and concerned that internal conflicts at one of the most important events in opera were undermining its relevance.
Founded by Wagner in 1876 as a showcase for his work, the Bayreuth Festival draws opera fans from around the world for one month every summer to hear a handful of the composer’s works in repertory — including a new production at the start of each edition. A major event on the German cultural calendar, the opening is usually attended by prominent political figures including Angela Merkel, the country’s former chancellor.
The festival remains treasured worldwide for the pristine acoustics of its theater, a hilltop opera house that Wagner had a hand in designing, and for its connection to the composer: It has been led by a family member since his death in 1883. His great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner took over creative leadership with her half sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, in 2008, before becoming the sole artistic director in 2015.
In recent years, though, a new leadership structure has added a layer to the festival’s decision-making. In 2008, the budget came under the control of four members of an independent board representing outside shareholders that collectively provide about 40 percent of the budget: the city of Bayreuth, the state of Bavaria, the German federal government and a group of private donors called the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, who currently chair the board.
Although the funders are meant to refrain from interfering with choices made by Bayreuth’s artistic leadership, some in the media have argued that the decision to withhold the money for the purchase of 2,000 glasses represented an attempt by the shareholders to rein in Wagner’s approach to the festival and her great-grandfather’s work.
Since World War II, Bayreuth directors — including Richard Wagner’s descendants — have brought a modern or experimental sensibility to the composer’s works. In 2013, Katharina Wagner invited Frank Castorf to reimagine the “Ring” as an anticapitalist epic about oil; the next “Ring,” Valentin Schwarz’s production, which opened last year, recast the cycle as, in part, an allegory about the anxieties of aging.
Toni Schmid, a former high-ranking Bavarian civil servant who led the festival’s board of shareholders until 2020, said the decision not to fund the glasses was emblematic of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth’s “more conservative idea of how a Wagner opera should look today,” which is at odds with Katharina Wagner’s vision.
The largely older members of the donor group, Schmid said, “would like to have the productions they saw 50 years ago back, when they were young — but that’s not art, it’s a museum.” He added that he wished the shareholder’s board was occupied by representatives “who know what they’re talking about” and described the decision to not finance the full number of glasses as “a joke.”
Manuel Brug, a German journalist and critic for Die Welt, said in a phone interview that the current festival structure allowed too much power to Friends of Bayreuth. “The group is too old, with many people who joined because it makes it easier to get tickets,” he said, arguing that the donors should be excluded from the governing body in the future. The Bavarian arts minister Markus Blume said in article in the Nordbayerischer Kurier on Thursday that the state of Bavaria might take over some of the donor group’s shares in the future.
Georg von Waldenfels, the chairman of the shareholders board and head of Friends of Bayreuth, disputed that he had interfered in Wagner’s decision-making and said in a phone interview that the decision to downscale the number of glasses was “purely a decision of the artistic leadership.” He added that the shareholders had merely “stuck to the business plan.” Wagner, however, said that the original plan failed “because of the financing and divergent views about the glasses” and that the outcome was “unfortunate.”
This disagreement reflects a broader debate about Wagner’s legacy, and adds another chapter to the festival’s history of public arguments and reckonings. Winifred Wagner — the English-born wife of Richard’s son, Siegfried — who oversaw the festival from 1930 to 1944, was an avowed fan of Adolf Hitler until her death in 1980. Following World War II, the composer’s grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang, opened the festival anew as something more apolitical.
More recently, the festival has been a subject of chatter, including longstanding rumors of a feud between Katharina Wagner and her former musical director, Christian Thielemann, who left his post in 2020. Last year, he publicly criticized her decision to replace the word “Führer” (“leader”) with the word “Schützer” (“protector”) in a production of “Lohengrin,” a change that had been made out of sensitivity to Bayreuth’s past associations with Nazism.
In a phone interview, Thielemann denied any feud with Wagner, and said that Bayreuth has long been plagued by gossip. “There is something about Wagner that poisons people,” he added. “He is both an intoxicant and a perfume.”
Wagner’s contract will be up for renewal this fall, pending a vote by the festival’s board of directors. She said that if the offer were made, her acceptance would be contingent on changes to the festival’s organization. “You need to make this place ready for the future, and if some structural things don’t change, then it’s impossible to do the work,” she said, though declined to provide specifics.
If she were to depart the festival, it would likely mean the end of the Wagner family’s creative leadership: No other relative has publicly expressed an interest in taking over.
Wagner said that her push to find innovative ways of staging her great-grandfather’s work was necessary, given the “limited repertoire” of the festival — Richard Wagner’s 10 mature works — and global competition among high-profile theaters staging his operas. If Bayreuth just continued to mount old-fashioned productions, she added, “people can just watch a DVD.”
The idea of incorporating augmented reality into “Parsifal” emerged in early 2019. Among the challenges was adapting the technology, which is conceived for looking at nearby objects in brightly lit spaces, for a large, darkened theater. Ultimately, Scheib’s team solved the problem by creating a laser scan of the entire auditorium, down to the millimeter.
Scheib said that augmented reality would emerge during crucial scenes, and would include a gigantic floating tree and a flaming horse. When Parsifal naïvely kills a swan, a pair of enormous ones will appear to fly near the auditorium’s ceiling, spouting blood.
This “Parsifal,” however, can still be experienced without the glasses, with sets, lighting and costume design depicting what Scheib described as a “post-human landscape in which the last group of people are hanging on, trying to make sense of faith, forgiveness and belonging.” But, he noted, the uncertainty about the glasses has been a “distraction.”
The use of the technology, Scheib said, was in keeping with Wagner’s own way of approaching opera. “He carried out so many innovations, with lighting and architecture,” he added. “Ultimately, he wanted the theater to completely disappear.”