Think Wagner, think Bayreuth. The 19th-century predecessors of the German Tourist Board did a fine job of pulling in the visitors to this home of Wagner opera. But now the city of Leipzig, 200km up the road, and city of Wagner’s birth, is making a sterling attempt to compete in the year of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Wagner was born on 22 May 22 1813 in the Roten und Weissen Löwen building, on the Brühl, part of the Jewish quarter, in the heart of the city of Leipzig. Today, the spot is marked by a bronze plaque, while the nearby Richard Wagner Strasse is, predictably, tastefully dotted with Wagner bars and cafés.
It is here that the city’s Wagner commissioner Thomas Krakow, chairman of the Leipzig Richard Wagner Society ‒ fresh from three consecutive nights in three cities and three Wagner operas ‒ is determined to found a permanent Wagner museum: something, surprisingly, the city doesn’t yet have.
Krakow has helped in the scheduling of more than 130 events in Wagner’s honour, held throughout the year. Seventy of them will run during the City of Leipzig Richard Wagner Festival from 16 to 26 May. There are the big set pieces: Das Rheingold on 18 May, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra and musical director Ulf Schirmer; Die Meistersinger follows on 19 May, Parsifal on 20 May, Götterdämmerung on 22 May. There’s a performance of a rare fragment, Die Hochzeit, and the early work Die Feen has already had its first outing.
There are some fascinating exhibitions, including ‘Sounds from the Mystical Abyss’ at the University’s Museum of Musical Instruments, where you can encounter not only a Wagner tuba, but an alto oboe, a bass trumpet and sound effect machines to try out. There is a permanent exhibition on Wagner’s early years at the Old St Nicholas School, and there are quirky and appealing idiosyncrasies too: satire and cabaret spots, the annual street coffee party outside the house of his birth, alongside ‘A Tune a Day’ spot, featuring those favourite moments from Die Meistersinger, Rheingold and Parsifal. There is a children’s version of the Ring: ‘still long’ says one of the city’s Wagner guides; and ‘a culinary composition with a Wagnerian theme’ at a city restaurant. Still not sated? Try themes from the Ring cycle, transcribed for organ or maybe a quiet exhibition of Wagnerian woodcuts.And if your musical tastes lie a little before Wagner, have a look at the following festivals later in the year : the Leipzig Bachfest (14 ‒ 23 June), Mendelssohn Festival (12 – 22 September), and Schumann Festival (7 ‒ 15 September).
Whatever your interests, this is a city which deserves further investigation: compact, beautifully restored, relaxed and charming yet simultaneously fascinating and challenging in countless areas. Watch out Bayreuth!