John Walsh column

Surviving the stifling purgatory of the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Theatre requires more than good bladder control
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The Independent Online
"You're going to Bayreuth?" said the German woman beside me on the plane, "But why?". For the Wagner Festival, I explained. It's, er, quite famous. Abruptly her expression changed. "I know this! Of course I know the festival. But you mean you have a - a ticket?" Yup, I said, in the stalls actually. "Whaat?" she demanded. "Why have you a ticket? I can have no ticket. For six years, I have tried, I have applied, I have begged and no ticket comes. But you, you ..."

Germans take Bayreuth very seriously, very sacramentally. Wagner arrived in his adopted hometown in 1872 and the Festspielhaus began operating four years later. It has played only his stuff ever since, to increasingly rapt and religious audiences. Imagine: 120 years of the Ring cycle and Die Meistersingers and Tristan und Isolde and nothing else. The place is simply marinaded in High Germanic style, trembly with Teutonic respectfulness. Why, the very walls probably stand there humming the Ride of the Valkyries when everyone's gone home.

The first thing you see outside the Festspielhaus - its sweet frontage of primary-colour flowers surmounted by severe brickwork and cruciform embellishments, the very image of a church - is a gang of Wagnerites holding pieces of cardboard displaying the words "Suche carte - 1) Tristan 2) Meistersingers". These are the hardcore fans, desperate for tickets and unwilling to 1) wait six years, or 2) become British journalists, in order to get them. They'd rather you just handed over the tickety gold-dust out of human warmth (just as drugged-up Grateful Dead fans used to congregate outside the auditoria in which their heroes were playing, and pray to crystals for free tickets); but if not, they'll bribe you. One pleasant hausfrau got as far as offering the seat price of 210 deutschmarks (pounds 100) plus commission, when from nowhere a weird, waxen-faced musicological loon swooped like a seagull, eager to double it.

By 3pm, they'd become a small army, including an older would-be auditor whose cardboard sign read, "Suche carte aus beste categorie". (None of your crummy back-of-the-stalls rubbish here, danke.) Oddly enough, there were no touts. Fashion-plates, however, were out in force. As we milled around the haus in the sunshine, the cream of Mitteleuropa showed off its spangly threads. The prevailing mode was shimmery diamante - knee- length jackets encrusted with rhinestones, padded-shoulder objets flickering with sequins, Fortuny tunics glimmering with lame whatsits. All this gleaming Rhinemaiden chic looked extraordinarily solid, like designer granite. And the oddness of the hour made it all seem bizarrely mistimed - the old German countess in fur stole and gold-chain clutch-bag unfurling from a diplomatic limo, the volcanically fat china-doll blonde squeezed into black midnight lace and bombazine, the severe horse-faced Brunhilde in the Mondrian-rectangle skirts, all were night creatures meant to be seen fleetingly by lamplight, not in plain view at four in the afternoon. Vivid European faces went by, faces like Toby jugs, like English faces but more focused, stronger and harder.

It was virtually 10pm when we finally emerged, stunned and gasping, from the pressure cooker of Bayreuth. You don't stay inside all the time - the bratwurst-and-beer intervals are an hour long - but it's as close to imprisonment as I ever want to get. Inside the mile-wide auditorium, there are no aisles - you file towards your seat from either wall. Woe betide anyone who wishes to leave thereafter, whatever your level of boredom, claustrophobia or bursting bladder. And as the lights go down, and the minimal stagecraft performs its mesmeric trickery on you, you realise there's a kind of war on here, an I'm-being-more-attentive-than-thou battle among the devotees.

Fearing that my lunch might lead to embarrassing slumbers, I slipped some Wrigley's spearmint in my mouth to keep awake during the overture, and was forced to desist seconds later by the horrified gasps from my neighbours. Moved by the protracted love duet in Act II, I surreptitiously nibbled a fingernail. Immediately there were sharp intakes of breath from my left. It was like something from an HM von und zum Bateman cartoon. I briefly fantasised about taking a mouth organ from my breast pocket and emitting a blast of "The Blaydon Races". Instead, I waited until his nerve broke in Act III and he finally emitted a tiny throat-clearing grunt, at which I swivelled through 90 degrees and went "Oh!" like a dowager confronted by a streaker. That's the trouble with Wagner at close quarters. The silliest behaviour becomes ... operatic.

The Treff hotel chain, in one of whose hostelries I stayed, is a remarkable operation: a classy hotel company which goes out of its way to avoid any personal contact with guests. You carry your own bags. Their morning wake- up call eschews the human voice in favour of a Euro-pop ding-donging. Instead of packs of guest soap and bottlettes of shampoo in the bathroom, they offer upside-down liquid containers. At the serve-yourself breakfast, the coffee is already sitting on your table in a Thermos. If you fancy a late snack, there's no cheery room service, just the minibar. But the most egregious display of don't-bother-us thinking is a sign on the wall accompanied by an ideogram of a tree. "Dear guest," it reads, "Try to imagine how many tons of bath towels are washed needlessly every day in all the hotels of the world - and the staggering amount of laundry detergent that is released into the environment as a result. Please ... hang the towel on a rack if you wish to use it once more and help us use a little less detergent ..."

Very handy, that German letter that stands for "ss" in words like Schlo and Ringstrae. It looks oddly pleasing, with a fat and lordly dignity like a lethargic pig that has sat abruptly down upon the hissing snakes of the twin S's. It radiates a stolid finality. I think we should adopt it, and use henceforth a capital B where we used to have a double- S. It would solve a lot of problems. The homeless would lose the pathos of their lot in being merely homeleB. How evocatively neighbours could complain, "Damn it, your cat has made a disgusting meB on my lawn". Fastidious adolescents would tell each other, "That is just totally groB, Clive". Imagine the ignominy of working for a loB-making enterprise. And would not the concept of eternity, so dear to German hearts, be amusingly undercut when it became "endleBneB"?