Nathalie Stutzmann become second woman to conduct at Bayreuth, 2 years after gender barrier broken

BAYREUTH, Germany — Two years after the debut of the Bayreuth Festival’s first female conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann became the second to lead a Richard Wagner opera in the Festpielhaus’ famous covered pit.

The 58-year-old former contralto, fresh off her first season as Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director, drew a luminous performance of “Tannhäuser” on Friday night in a revival of the Tobias Kratzer 2019 production — the one featuring the title character in a clown suit and a murder in a Burger King parking lot.

“It’s good news to be second,” Stutzmann said. “It proves that things are moving.”

Launched by Richard Wagner in 1876 and currently run by great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner, the festival broke its conductor gender barrier when Oksana Lyniv led a new staging of “Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)” in 2021. The 45-year-old returned this summer to preside over the Dmitri Tcherniakov production for the third straight year.

“They are very highly accepted,” Katharina Wagner said. “I hope that this question would disappear with time, that we are just talking about good conductors and not female and male conductors anymore.”

Stutzmann’s year so far has also included debuts with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, where she provoked the orchestra when she alleged in a New York Times interview that musicians were bored playing while not being able to see onstage activity. The orchestra criticized her in a statement, prompting Stutzmann to apologize.

At Bayreuth, conductors must adjust to a pit Richard Wagner designed to keep the orchestra hidden from the audience, arranged in nine rows that descend toward the stage: violins in the first two, followed by violas, cellos, double basses, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The instrumental sound mixes with voices before traveling out to 30 rows of seats and three tiers of boxes.

“I had done a lot of research, so I knew the experience would be new and unexpected and tricky,” Stutzmann said in a response to an emailed question. “We hear the sound completely different from what the audience hears, that’s why we have to rely on our assistants. … You hardly hear the singers on stage and they sound always late even when we are perfectly together!”

Stutzmann’s performance, using the original Dresden score, featured unusual clarity when the overture slowed and the volume lowered during a pilgrims’ chorus repeat in the overture. She was greeted with boisterous applause and foot-stomping during 14 minutes of curtain calls.

Stutzmann has been invited back to conduct the 2024 revival of the sold-out “Tannhäuser” staging, notorious for the director adding the drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat and dwarf actor Manni Laudenbach, who combine with the title character and the goddess Venus to form a counterculture clique Richard Wagner never could have envisioned for a work that premiered in 1845.

During an interview in New York before heading to Germany, Stutzmann said “Tannhäuser” was the perfect vehicle for her Bayreuth debut, given her quarter-century as a contralto and the opera’s full title, which translates to “Tannhäuser and the Minstrels’ Contest at Wartburg.”

She winked.

“It’s a singer competition, after all,” she said with a laugh.

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