Bombing in Bayreuth

Der Ring des Nibelungen

by Richard Wagner, directed by Harry Kupfer, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, designed by Hans Schavernoch. Bayreuth Festival, 1988


The opera festival in Bayreuth, which performs only Wagner’s works—usually Der Ring des Nibelungen, and two or three others—continues to induce in some spectators the feeling expressed by Mark Twain when he attended it in the Nineties, that he was “a sane person in a community of the mad.” Because of the length of Wagner’s operas—the prologue and first act of Götterdämmerung, for example, is longer than all of Rigoletto—the performances begin in the mid-afternoon, and hour-long breaks are planned between acts. But this does not greatly relieve the discomforts of the experience. Formal dress is expected even in great heat and even though the theater is not air-conditioned: some men wear the stiff, high-collared, white tie one would associate with figures like Max of Baden or Count Keyserling, and one sees women who have woven sprigs of flowers into their hair in imitation of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal.

The doors are guarded by alarming young women attendants, who shut them precisely at the required hour and make no exceptions for late-comers. The seats are too close to one another, and ideal for thick-bottomed army generals and young devotees but few others. One cannot cross one’s legs easily, and if one coughs more than once in an act one is liable to be told by a neighbor that such behavior is “forbidden” and to consult the house doctor without delay. One night a woman sitting directly behind me suddenly slumped to the floor, her upended handbag leaving a trail of face powder, lipstick, and shattered eyeglasses as she was carried out by four men in shirt sleeves; her surviving neighbors snorted their displeasure at being interrupted by such bad manners.

Wagner was, if not moral in this dealings with others, an ardent moralist who saw his work as an instrument of moral instruction, not as “entertainment,” indeed not as “opera” at all. Even the design of his theater, which he modeled on an auditorium he had visited in Riga, had something like a moral aim. It is almost all wood, with plaster pillars and uncarpeted floors; everything in this design is intended to ensure that the music of the orchestra is reflected, not absorbed; comfort and luxury are sacrificed. The theater is not a horseshoe-shaped auditorium with tiers of boxes and social clubs and saloons, but more like a stadium and there are no separate sections for different social classes; the rows of seats are built on a rise, so that each spectator has an unobstructed view of the stage. The orchestra is hidden under the stage, beneath a black wooden covering, so that no one will be distracted by the conductor or by what Wagner called “the wind players’ horribly swollen cheeks and distorted physiognomy,” or by “the boring up and down movements of the violinists’ bows.” Such innovations have not been imitated by our conductors, who demand to be seen, although others of Wagner’s innovations, such as his invention of stage sets that move sideways,…

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