Wagnerian Ticket Schwindle: Government Gives Bigshots All the Good Seats


This Fourth of July, here's a reason to be glad that you live in a country without a culture ministry. Germany's Bayreuth Festival, the annual marathon performance of Richard Wagner's operas, is embroiled in scandal over how tickets get sold. Bloomberg's Catherine Hickley reports

The Federal Audit Office, or Bundesrechnungshof, said that 60 percent of tickets to the opera festival are pre-allotted to privileged groups, such as festival patrons, sponsors, local and regional government officials and musicians, according to Die Welt, which said it obtained a copy of the internal report.

The Bundesrechnungshof acknowledged the existence of the report though it declined to confirm details. Die Welt said the auditors recommended abolishing the special contingents, saying they "do not conform with the government's subsidy goals."

"Minister Bernd Neumann will ensure that the auditors' report is discussed in the responsible festival supervisory bodies," said a statement from his office sent by e-mail today. "Where appropriate, the practices will be corrected."

The Bayreuth Festival takes place every summer in the theater founded by the composer Richard Wagner in 1876. It is more than 60 percent privately funded, with the rest of the financing coming from the federal government, the Bavarian government and local authorities.

Members of the public can wait as long as 10 years for tickets and must reapply each year to remain in line. 

The Bayreuth Festival is always embroiled in some scandal or another, and the easiest answer to the ticket issue would seem to be that it wouldn't be a problem if the festival were a private enterprise. The shortage of tickets for the Bayreuth festival is the stuff of legend. (The ratio is generally described as 500,000 people waiting for about 60,000 tickets every year). 

Is that demand as great as advertised? A while back I read Brigitte Hamann's excellent biography of Winifred Wagner, the composer's granddaughter-in-law. (You have your bliss, I have mine.) Hamann very effectively described the economics of the festival, which has never really been a self-supporting event despite the apparently massive demand for tickets. The festival was established in 1876, largely through funding and assistance from Bavaria's King Ludwig.

During the 1930s, Hitler established himself as the world's greatest Wagner patron by having the Nazi party buy up huge blocks of unsold tickets (more than half in some years, as I recall) most of which ended up going unused in turn. (Even the Führer was known to hang out at the festival but skip most of the performances.) That patronage continued during the war, when wounded soldiers were given Bayreuth tickets and accommodations during recuperation (because what 18-year-old doesn't want to spend five hours watching fat people in breastplates sing?). 

Supposedly the festival bounced back in the postwar period, as Winifred's descendents added all manner of arty innovations. One of the sons, whose name escapes me, very shrewdly cast himself (despite abundant evidence to the contrary) as having been a left-leaning anti-Nazi all along, and got credit for modernizing the show. Has that translated into a series of hit productions? In its entry on Bayreuth tickets, Wikipedia recommends showing up ticketless on the day of a performance – "miracle-ing" as Deadheads used to call it – which suggests there may be more seats available than generally believed. 

In any event, it seems absurd that you'd need a government official to sort out ticket sales for enduring works of popular art that don't seem to have trouble satisfying an audience when they play anywhere else in the world. If the German government cut the subsidy and let Wagner fans pay full freight, the issue of all this pent-up demand would sort itself out in a hurry, which has got to be better than waiting ten years for a ticket to Siegfried. (And unless it's got Sybil Danning, I ain't interested.)