The much-vaunted view across to Neuschwanstein Castle has also looked nicer. The Caribbean-green Forggensee in front of the Füssen Musical Theater has just been drained down to the muddy bottom and a few puddles because of flood protection. Birgit Karle, the managing director of the Festspielhaus Neuschwanstein, wishes that the water could at least be left knee-deep as a mirror surface as she looked through the panoramic windows of the “Romantic Hall”. But soon she is in a good mood again on this happy day, which the expected guests will soon describe in their speeches as “special”, “beautiful”, even “historic”.
The concentrated political prominence from Munich and the region is invited to officially announce the end of the theatre’s financial dry spell. In the 23 years of its history, the level in the bank’s money store, with its programmatic focus on the fairytale king Ludwig II, was usually as low as that of Lake Forggen in winter, which led to three bankruptcies. The guests are expected like the three kings; it is clear that they will bring gifts, but not yet how many. Above all, Prime Minister Markus Söder should “open the grab bag”, says the artistic director Benjamin Sahler excitedly. In the many discussions over the past few years, the theater had asked for 600,000 euros, while the Free State had promised 300,000.
Now Söder and his Minister of Art Markus Blume bring a large check made out for 450,000 euros. The sum is to flow annually from now on. There is even a total of 750,000 euros, because District President Martin Sailer adds 150,000 euros for Swabia, District Administrator Maria-Rita Zinnecker for the Ostallgäu district 100,000 euros and Mayor Maximilian Eichstätter for Füssen 50,000 euros. 14 guests at the ceremony, from the member of parliament Angelika Schorer to the former Minister of State and President of the Music Council Thomas Goppel, who have been fighting for public aid for the private musical dream castle for years, sit down like knights at a round table. But not like all the “soldiers of fortune” that Benjamin Sahler saw coming and going here in many years of looking for investors, rather true saviors – above all Manfred Rietzler.
When he bought the whole store in 2016 and renovated the building, the finances and the schedule, it was clear to him that a “theater in the country” is a “difficult business model,” says the owner of the magnificent building in a prime location. “You can’t finance it with ticket sales alone, even if it’s going well, and it’s not going badly.” 150,000 visitors came to 200 events in 2022, as many as in 2019 before Corona. And yet Rietzler had to compensate for losses with a high six-figure amount out of his own pocket.
Over the years, the Bangkok-based patron of Marktoberdorf has filled the gaps in the budget with a good two-digit million amount from his fortune earned in computer development. He promises that he will continue to ensure the survival of the Festspielhaus in the future. “But I never saw it as my house, but always as a public theater,” says Rietzler. Sometimes on the verge of tears, he is visibly grateful that from now on the public will bear part of his burden.
It was “not a goodwill promotion”, explained Söder, the money was “well invested” and will pay off as a cultural dividend. He is a fan of the Allgäu, a fan of Ludwig II (the “James Dean among the Wittelsbachers”) and – actually an opera fan – not averse to musicals, but that alone doesn’t give him any money. “The Free State is reluctant to provide institutional support,” explained the Prime Minister, which has to do with cultural centralism, with flexibility and with the concern that someone will rest on their laurels. Only top culture is entitled to regular funding, the Ministry for Science and Art is “bitchy” when it comes to promotion to the “Bavarian Champions League” of theaters. Nevertheless, the Free State supported 17 municipal theaters and 49 private theaters with a total of 44 million euros in 2022.
Minister of the Arts Blume explained the “rules of the game”, namely that a theater must have had successful performances for five years, with at least 100 performance days and two new productions per year. “The Festspielhaus has shown in recent years that it has the potential to become a cultural lighthouse with an appeal far beyond Füssen,” said Blume, explaining the decision. “Make something out of it!”
Benjamin Sahler didn’t need to be told twice. The director sees “the path from an investment project to a non-profit cultural institution” as completed. For him, the sponsorship is recognition, a sign of trust and a mandate. With more planning security, he can now develop new productions. Prime Minister Söder immediately announced a wish, since the Festspielhaus had created the genre “Musicals made in Bavaria” on historical German material with pieces such as “Ludwig²”, “Pope Joan”, “Hundertwasser” or “Der Brandner Kasper”. you now face the challenge of a piece about your Franconian homeland. Irrespective of this, the Prime Minister promised: 450,000 euros will not be “the last sum if things go well”.
The history of the Neuschwanstein Festival Hall
A “place of longing” like Ludwig’s dream castle, that’s how many guests at the ceremony called the Festspielhaus Neuschwanstein. Right from the start it was built on gravel that had been specially used to fill a peninsula in the Forggensee. The whole construction from 1998 to 2000 cost 80 million German marks. This raised an initial group of investors, including banks, “Ludwig fans” and the Barbarino couple.
The architect Josephine Barbarino designed the massive building based on the example of Bayreuth, but more imposing: A theater for 1355 guests with a baroque garden and its own bathing beach, 160 meters long including side wings, the stage 60 wide (the second largest in Europe), with a 28-meter revolving stage and 22 meter wide pool. Stephan Barbarino staged the first musical “Ludwig II – Longing for Paradise” with water fountains and a carriage with real horses, which delighted many of the 1.5 million visitors – and yet went bankrupt in 2003.
A second group of investors took over, a second piece focusing on the death of the fairy tale king and music by Konstantin Wecker should do it from 2005: But even with “Ludwig² – The Myth Lives” one accumulated several million debts until it was discontinued in 2007. The house was then rented out for external events until 2015. The Stuttgart director Benjamin Sahler brought about a decisive turning point: He started the largest crowdfunding in European theater history and brought “Ludwig²” back in 2016 for 30 sold-out performances; nevertheless, the owners at the time had to file for bankruptcy.
In 2016, the Marktoberdorf entrepreneur Manfred Rietzler bought the theater “out of love for his homeland”, renovated it and made Sahler artistic director: he continues to focus on “Ludwig²” and repeatedly brings his own productions to the stage, including world premieres such as Ralph Siegel’s “Zeppelin” and “Hundertwasser”. So that not only musical fans come to Füssen, there will again be ballet, classical concerts, a yoga festival and star-studded open air events in 2023, for example with Eros Ramazotti, Andreas Gabalier, Simply Red and Cro.