The Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Festival Theater) is a special opera theater which was created just to stage Richard Wagner's legendary operas.
The theater is full of unique features designed by Wagner, which enhance his operas and create a unique and extraordinary experience for the audience.
Wagner's life dream, something which had been in his mind since his mid-twenties, was to have his own special theater. It was to be the scene of a huge festival, where his operas could be performed exactly the way he wanted them to be.
But he had difficulty funding it. He gave concerts, sold shares, and set up Wagner Societies all over the world to promote his music and ideas, but he still didn't have enough capital.
Eventually King Ludwig II, a massive Wagner fan who had helped the composer out of a few tight spots in the past, dipped into the Royal Treasury to lend a hand.
The King wanted the theater in Munich, but Wagner didn't like that idea. In the spring of 1871 the composer visited the town of Bayreuth (where Franz Liszt eventually died) in the north of Bavaria. It immediately enchanted him.
There was actually already an opera house there, a beautiful 18th century building. Wagner at first thought that he might be able to use it, but when he got a good look at it he realized it wasn't good enough. He had to go ahead and build his own venue.
The builders placed the foundation stone on the 22nd of May, 1872 (Wagner's 59th birthday). The celebrations included Wagner conducting a performance of the Beethoven Symphony 9 (the choral Ode to Joy).
The opening was four years later (in the summer of 1876), for the very first full production of the Ring Cycle. The audience there, which featured some of the greatest musicians and intellectuals of the age, experienced something that wasn't possible anywhere else on Earth. What an amazing premiere that must have been!!
The Ring Cycle was performed three times that year. Then the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was shut down for 6 years, due to funding problems.
But in 1882, a year before Wagner died, it reopened. Ever since then the world-famous Bayreuth Festival has been held there. Every summer, a selection of Wagner's (and only Wagner operas are performed. Historically, it's been managed and directed by one of Wagner's descendants.
The Bayreuth Festspielhaus had quite a few innovations, which Wagner specifically designed or asked for.
He was inspired by the theaters of ancient Greece, which had no distinctions between the upper and lower classes. So Wagner had the same at Bayreuth - there are no boxes or galleries like in most theaters, only a wide fan of tiered rows spreading out from the stage.
Wagner also wanted to hide the orchestra, so the audience wouldn't be distracted by the conductor's frantic hands or the shiny brass instruments (like the unique Wagner tuba!).
His solution was to hide the entire orchestra under the stage, in a sort of cave. The big opening where the majestic music floated out was called the mystic chasm.
He put this hidden orchestra on a kind of staircase, with different sections on different vertical levels:
He has the lighter-sounding instruments (strings, flutes) at the top, and the heavy sounding instruments (tubas, drums) at the bottom.
This creates a kind of layered effect for the different registers of the orchestra. Combined with the excellent acoustics of the wood building, this made for a unique and rich orchestral sound. Mmmm...
Wagner also put another, bigger arch around the first proscenium arch (on the sides and above the stage), to make the on-stage action look even further away. This was to make it seem like the opera was a magical dream, which reinforced the legendary settings.
Here you can see the double arches and the fanned-out seating:
Wagner wanted everything to be perfect, so that the audience would be mesmerized by his vivid mythical worlds. In my opinion he managed to do just that!
Apparently the experience at Bayreuth is totally unique, thanks to all of Wagner's clever ideas. The closest I think we can come at home to recreating the experience is with good listening room design.
A great source of information about the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and the Festival is the official site. You can watch a video tour, book tickets, read about the current program, and even take a peek backstage!
It can take years to get tickets for the Bayreuth Festival, sometimes up to a decade!! It's a good idea to join a Wagner Society if you're interested in going. These societies get a certain number of tickets each year.
There are also other ways to get tickets, like joining the "Friends of Bayreuth" society. This is how most people who actually end up with tickets get theirs.
Unfortunately, I've never been to a performance at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. I'd definitely love to go though! Send me a postcard if you go, I'd love to hear about your experience.
A reader of this site sent in his experience of the Festival and Theater. You can read his interesting story here.
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