Female conductor takes the baton at Bayreuth festival

Oksana Lyniv says her selection, following 92 male conductors, is ‘a symbol for our time’

Oksana Lyniv at the gate to the stage entrance of the Bayreuth Festival in  Germany. On Sunday, Ms Lyniv will become the first woman to conduct a production at the festival in its 145-year history.  Photograph: Roderick Aichinger/The New York Times

Oksana Lyniv at the gate to the stage entrance of the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. On Sunday, Ms Lyniv will become the first woman to conduct a production at the festival in its 145-year history. Photograph: Roderick Aichinger/The New York Times

 

Opera-loving chancellor Angela Merkel will attend Sunday’s opening of this year’s Wagner festival in Bayreuth where, for the first time, a woman will conduct from the pit.

After 145 years and 92 male conductors, Ukrainian-born Oksana Lyniv will wave her baton for The Flying Dutchman when the curtain rises on Bayreuth’s green hill. The 43-year-old described her engagement as “a symbol for our time”. 

“This would have been unthinkable 100 years ago, even though there were successful women conductors then,” she said. “Naturally I hope to be a good example. That would be important not just for me but – even it sounds lofty – for the world and for the future.”

Before Bayreuth came calling in 2018, she was working in Munich at the Bavarian state opera as assistant to Kyrill Petrenko, now chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Behind her hire was festival director Katharina Wagner, great granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner, whose operas have been the focus of the summer festival in Bavaria’s northern Franconia region since 1876.

Interruptions

Since then the festival has taken place annually, with interruptions for the second World War, and last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ms Wagner said the delay in hiring a woman conductor was partly due to the dearth of women in the profession. “There are clearly not enough,” she said.

A 2020 survey for US public radio NPR found that fewer than 10 per cent of major US orchestras are led by women, while in Europe it’s fewer than 6 per cent.

Sunday will be Ms Wagner’s first major appearance after a serious lung condition last year saw her hospitalised and placed in an artificial coma for several weeks. She has extended her contract in Bayreuth until 2025 and will oversee a major reform of the festival. Since the 1970s it has been owned and operated not by the Wagner family but a publicly-founded foundation.

Pandemic restrictions

This year the famously stuffy Bayreuth festival theatre is likely to be a little airier, with pandemic restrictions requiring capacity to be cut to 911 from 1,937. All audience members must present a negative Covid-19 test result, proof of recovery or a vaccination certificate.

As well as missing half of the audience, the festival will have no red carpet arrivals and a smaller chorus onstage. Disappointed Bayreuth spies report that, with two women in charge this year, the festival is missing two other traditional ingredients: tantrums and walkouts.