The theatre of Wagner

Well, what is the difference between James Cameron and Richard Wagner? We should list the similarities of them firstly: both of them committed themselves to make an epoch-making work in their own time.

The theatre of Wagner - Festspielhaus Bayreuth

The theatre of Wagner - inside - Festspielhaus Bayreuth Innen (Source: By Josef Lehmkuhl, CC BY-SA 3.0, License link:; Link:

However, the plan of the 3D cinema was not from James Cameron but he was the first person who tried to make this product of Hollywood known worldwide. He undoubtedly needed the required technology for this at least in the Western world. Wagner also needed an own new theatre, which was able to present his great work, the Ring of the Nibelungs.

By the way, Wagner did not wait for the construction of a building with these attributions, he had to build one by his own. This type of ambition was his main feature during his life, and it also characterized his unique plan well. We have to understand the personality and art of Wagner to understand the need of the construction of this theatre.

For the middle of the 19th century the style of the opera was ruled by the Italian conception, it was formed by recitatives, arias and duets, and all phrases had their own exact place. This was in order to meet the needs of the higher social classes. The music, including the opera, was only for fun. It had to contain at least one ballet, but only from the second act, because in the first part the audience had their dinner and they refused to lag behind the ballet part of the performance. In this time, the opera provided an opportunity for almost everything, but not to enjoy and admire the musical or theatrical experience of the performance.

The life of Richard Wagner was full with confrontations and contradictions. His personality and his role in the history is the subject of much debate for this day. Of course, he was confronted with the usual rules of the theatrical customs of that time. For him, the opera and the theatre had much greater significance. He thought that the job of the theatre was to achieve the Gesamtkunstwerk, which is the perfect symbiosis of the music, dramaturgy, play and spectacle. He took the drama to the focus as an effect that appeals and excites the souls of people. It was stranger to him to think otherwise or to not pay attention. He did not let the judgement of the audience influence his art. He worked against of this as he wanted to control his audience with his art, so the audience can serve him in this way. The egoistic character of Wagner fits this assumption correctly. This is a world, where he and his art are in the spotlight. From this point the solution is clear, that he needed a theatre, which performs exclusively his works with his directing, and he would be the author, the director, the set designer and the choreographer in one person, where in his hands the control of everything is concentrated.

His original idea was a German national folk-theatre, which could play only the Ring of the Nibelungs and was reachable for all social classes. In his plan, which he made in 1848, the theatre would have been built on the Rhine River from wood. According to this plan the theatre would have been ceremoniously set on fire after the 4-day premiere, reflecting to the meaning of the Ring of the Nibelungs based on deep Germanic mythologies.

In the year of 1864, king Louis II. of Bavaria sent for Wagner. The nineteen-year-old king was a huge fan of the composer, due to this he offered his financial support for him. Of course, Wagner, who had huge financial difficulties, did not refuse the help. In addition to paying his large debts in this way, he was able to build his theatre, so he planned to build it in Munich. The blueprint of the building was made by Gottfried Semper, who was a friend of Wagner.

The composer had a bohemian and overspending lifestyle that caused a huge indignation of the Bavarian people. They found it unacceptable that a significant portion of their tax was going to finance the unreasonable needs of Wagner. In the year of 1865, under the hard pressure of the government, Louis II. decided to banish the famous composer and stopped paying the construction of the theatre.

However, Wagner tried to popularize the plans of his theatre in political circles, but he did not get any financial help. Finally, he chose Bayreuth for the perfect location of the theatre to symbolize the unification of Prussia and Bavaria.

In 1872 Wagner moved permanently to Bayreuth to carry out the great plan of his life, which was the construction of the theatre. It is an interesting fact that this time it was a serious idea to perform the Ring of the Nibelungs in the theatre of Markgrãfliches, which was the greatest theatre in Germany that time. However, this was not enough for Wagner. Neither the stage nor the orchestral ditch was big enough for him. And at least he was disgusted by the Rococo-style decorations of the building.

This was a huge mission and its biggest obstacle was the lack of money, which was also the most important problem of Wagner in his whole life. Making money was a hard task for Wagner, who had to give concerts all over Europe, which he hated to do. He sold patronage tickets, took loans and a lot of Wagner companies were formed to start fundraising. The patron of the composer, Louis II. paid 216,152 marks for the construction, but there was still not enough money. In this way the construction could only take place with more or less interruptions.

The foundation stone, in which an urn containing the message of the King of Bavaria was placed, was laid on 2 May 1872.In addition to covering the costs of the construction, Wagnertoured all over Europe with his wife, Cosima Liszt, to get singers to perform the monumental production that required exceptional knowledge and talent. The clarification and orchestral excerpts of the voluminous score of the Ring of the Nibelungs were copied by his young fans, whom Wagner gathered around himself for this purpose.

The premier of the Ring of the Nibelungs was presented on 13 August 1876 with the Treasures of the Rhine (Das Rheingold), and followed by the Walküre, the Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods (Götterdãmmerung). Among the guests of the premier were Friedrich Nietzsche, Frantz Liszt, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Brazilian emperor Peter II. and the German emperor William I.. King Louis II. only looked at the rehearsals to avoid meeting the emperor.The premiere was conducted by János Richter.

Despite the fact that the series of performance produced a deficit and Wagner paid for the financial consequences of these for the rest of his life, the festival and the festive games are still holding year after year with minor interruptions.Firstly the Ring of the Nibelungs was performed on summers. The last work of Wagner, which was the Parsifal, was written specifically for the unique acoustics of the theatre. The latter was on repertoire 12 times a year after Wagner's death.After a while, his wife Cosima staged most of Wagner's operas and musical dramas.

The theatre is controlled by the Wagner family ever since. After the death of Cosima the son of Wagner, Siegfried Wagner, took over the management of the theatre. Due to his early death, his wife Winifred Wagner got the position. Because of her ideological sympathy and her confidential relationship with Hitler, she was prosecuted and banned from leading the theatre after the Second World War. In this way she was followed by her sons, Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner. Today, Eva and Katharina Wagner are the leaders of the festival.

The festive games include the multiple performances of the Nibelung trilogy and other operas and musical dramas. The tetralogy, according to the original idea of Wagner, was held in four consecutive days because of the continuous, uninterrupted experience. It opens on the eve with the Treasures of the Rhine, and closes on the third evening with the Twilight of the Gods. This was the scenario while Wagner was alive, but due to the rest of the singers and the change of the sceneries there is an empty day between the performances. According to the instructions of Wagner, before each act the brass players played a characteristic motif from the next act on the balcony. This was the signal to the audience to enter the auditorium so that the performance could begin. This process is not only practiced by Bayreuth but for today this is a common practice in the whole world.

The theatre lies on the top of a 380 meters high green hill (GrünerHügel), which was donated by the mayor of Bayreuth of that time, for the construction place of the building. The building has a lattice structure, which was built on a wooden frame.The support structure was only replaced with reinforced concrete in the 1960s. On the outside, the theatre is covered with pure red brick walls without any decoration, which is the opposite of Wagner's idea. The original building of the theatre was also puritanical in the sense of that it had no other covered space besides the auditorium and the stage, except the foyer and the stairwells.

One of the most defining features of the theatre is that the 1974-seat auditorium has a radial design along with the lodges, similar to the Greek amphitheatres. So the viewers, wherever they sit, are always facing the stage, thus urging them to pay attention to the performance. The good acoustics are ensured by the walls, which are also made from wood and covered and plastered with gesso, which make it feel as if the walls were built of stone. These walls reach the stage, so the singers can be placed before of the invisible orchestral ditch.

It is also a contrivance of Wagner to make complete darkness in the auditorium during the performance. He was helped by the gas lamps, which were spreading at the time, and thanks to them the brightness of the auditorium was adjustable.Although there was lighting in the orchestral ditch during the performances, it was invisible from the auditorium and therefore just a minimal amount of light came out from there. It is an interesting fact that according to the instructions of Wagner the overture of the Ring of the Nibelungs, or the Treasures of the Rhine, is played with dark orchestral ditch, despite the complaints of the musicians. In this way the overture of the great tetralogy takes place firstly calm then in an increasing roar and darkness. This method is practiced everywhere in the world, if it is possible.

The stage looks small due its 13 meters width and meters of height, but it has literally not visible depths. This is because the 22 meters deep stage, along with the back stage and home stage, can be extended to a depth of 100 meters, and beyond the enter of the stage, it is 27 meters wide and 38 meters high. With this solution Semper achieved exactly what he wanted, so through a relatively small window we can see a space that is able to be a place for to the most diverse and modern sceneries. With this method Wagner's theatre breaks with the traditional stage spectacle, since in the absence of lighting that fills the interior, we cannot even see it completely, nor do we perceive its limits.

The 'Unterbühne' is placed in the depth of 12 meters, under the stage, which is the storage of the multi-ton scenery that was moved by steam-engine in the past. The 'Hochbüne' is above the stage in the height of 24 meters, from where they can also ground and pull up sceneries during the performance. Today, the system powered by steam engines has been replaced with modern electrical technology. Thus the stage rises to a total height of 50 meters, which is three times as big as the size of the auditorium.

The orchestral ditch has a unique formation. According to Wagner's needs it is completely invisible for the audience. The ditch has a horseshoe-like shape, which is bordered by two sounding boards from the front and the back. These have two functions: the light in the ditch does not get into the auditorium and on the other hand they also have an acoustic role. They do their acoustic function so well that playing on the instruments requires a completely different dynamics than it is accustomed in other opera houses. This is the cause why the third act of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods must be conducted more restrainedly than the first two acts of Siegfried, because Wagner wrote them before he knew the acoustic qualities of his theater.

Another special feature of the orchestral ditch is its terrace layout. It has 6 terraces with the depth of 3 meters, and it is lying under the stage 10 meters long, and it has place for an orchestra of 180-200 people. The conductor has the highest position in the ditch. This is the only position, which appears visible from the orchestral ditch and the stage in the same time, however, the conductor is still not visible for the audience. Due to the huge size of the orchestral ditch it cannot be heard from the stage, or just poorly, thus the singers are entirely dependent on the conductor. This is the same situation in the ditch, from where they can hear the singers faintly. In this way, in Bayeruth, the privilege of conducting is also a big challenge.

Wagner also imaginatively created the spectacle of the stage. The theatre needed some special machine, which can move the actors, and also lowering, floating and flying them. All of these were done so that the audience would not notice the machines. This is the first theatre in the world where live image projections were used, and this task was solved with veiled textiles, mirrors and gas lamp light. For example this method was used in the act of the Rhine mermaids, which was acting in water, where they had to create the illusion that the stage was filled with water.

Wagner's theatre also did the first worldwide radio broadcast. On 18 August 1931, the Tristan and Isolda was broadcasted on more than 200 European, American and African radio stations, under the conduction of Wilhelm Fürtwãngler.

Although Bayreuth was largely destroyed by Allied bombings during the World War II, the festival theatre luckily survived the attacks. After a short break, in 1951, the festivals contiuned to be held year after year. The theatre, which became a cult pilgrimage site for the Wagnerians, was expanded with several buildings over a time. Near the theatre there were built some practice rooms, offices, workshops where the sceneries and costumes are designed and made. In addition, guests and those who are working there are welcomed in cafes, pubs, bookstores, souvenir stands and guesthouses. In this way an entire city is built around the theatre. At least the city of Bayreuth itself has completely switched to serving the Wagner tourism.

So many people want to visit the theatre and the city year after year - approximately 500,000 people- that to get some tickets is such a hard task that it can take many years. The festival can accommodate about 50,000 people a year, so it takes 10-20 years from ordering a ticket to enter the auditorium, and it is also only possible if the persistent fans renew their ticket purchase year after year. Because of this, many of them never get to visit the town of Wagner, because they die while applying for a ticket.

We can rightly ask the question, what has Wagner done to be surrounded by such a great deal of admiration and fanaticism worldwide? It could be hard to answer with simple words. The only fact which is certain, that his personality is controversial and divisive to this day. On the other hand, the recognition for enduring a goal for a lifetime and eventually achieving it is undeniable.

Donát Novák

May 2020