BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Wild ovations resonated as 200 spectators paid tribute to the musicians who had brought Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhaeuser and the Singer’s Contest at Wartburg to this southern German stage.
The scene from this year’s 99th Bayreuth Festival — an annual month-long operatic marathon for aficionados of the 19th-century German composer — would not have been unusual, had the ecstatic reception not come from an audience of six to 12 year-olds.
The children’s version of Tannhaeuser is part of an attempt by this year’s Bayreuth Festival, which began in July and runs until August 28, to attract a broader audience than the Wagner enthusiasts who flock to the Bavarian town every year.
“This is about attracting tomorrow’s opera audience to Wagner,” said Reyna Bruns, who adapted and directed the children’s version of Tannhaeuser as part of the festival’s project “Wagner for Children.”
Wagner’s operas are not only long, they are also characterized by complex tonal structures and bombastic epic passages, which makes them difficult to appreciate for a mainstream audience, not to mention one under the age of 10.
“When I was first told about making Wagner palatable for children, I thought: ‘Oh god!’,” Bruns recalled.
She began by replacing the central themes of Tannhaueser — which tells the story of a 14th century minnesinger (troubadour) and his struggles with sensuality, love and eroticism — with more age-appropriate focus on friendship and the adolescent search for identity.
Bruns also pared down the three-and-a-half hour opus to 60 minutes, streamlining the complex plot and translating the 19th-century German into a more contemporary idiom.
But despite Wagner’s musical complexity, Bruns’ production still uses Wagner’s musical score, which was shortened, but not changed. All seven performances of Tannhaeuser have sold out within 30 minutes.
“We’re all really surprised by how well it has been received,” she said. “The four- to five-year-olds had trouble staying focused until the end, but I had the feeling that the others really took to Wagner’s music.”
This year’s Bayreuth Festival is also using technology to broaden Wagner’s appeal.
On August 21, a film version of the children’s Tannhaeuser and a staging of the Nibelung-epic The Valkyrie will be aired for free on an open-air screen in Bayreuth — a viewing experience Germans usually associate more with football than with operatic performances.
The Valkyrie will also be available to Wagner fans worldwide, who will be able to pay for a live online stream of the production (www.siemens.com/festivalnight).
The technological innovations lend a contemporary touch to an operatic institution which is characterized by the long-standing tradition of the Wagner family dynasty.
The festival, which was conceived by Wagner himself, dates back to 1876, showing such classics as Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal and the four operas of Wagner’s monumental cycle The Ring of the Nibelung.
Wagner’s work has been played to sold out crowds at the festival since the mid-1950s, with eager opera enthusiasts often waiting as long as 10 years for tickets to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus theater.
But in the past years, the festival has tried modernize its august but timeworn image. Younger, more experimental directors have been brought in to offer contemporary interpretations of Wagner’s work — a move which has enraged many Wagner purists.
The modern stagings were pioneered by Richard Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner, who took over the festival in 1951 with his brother Wieland and remained director for 57 years.
Wolfgang, who passed away earlier this year, first introduced minimalist sets to the operatic productions. When his daughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier took over the festival’s directorship in 2008, they continued to stage modern interpretations of their great-grandfather’s work.
It was Katharina Wagner who inaugurated the project Wagner for Children, staging an adapted version of The Flying Dutchman at last year’s festival.
On the heels of Tannhaeuser’s success, Katharina Wagner has announced that she will continue Wagner for Children next year, without specifying the opera which will be adapted.
Reyna Bruns says that despite Wagner’s reputation for inaccessible music, his operas have qualities that appeal to younger audiences.
“Children take to Wagner because he deals with the key questions of life,” she says. “Plus, kids like music that makes a real bang!”