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A view of the Festspielhaus today

Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth

In the second Off the Cuff, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny writes about his first trip to Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus, just in time for Tristan and Isolde.



published Sunday, February 12, 2012

 

The online world is "buzzing" with talk about the Dallas Opera's first-ever free public simulcast in Cowboys Stadium, which will take place on Saturday, April 28. You can learn more about the performance and request free tickets at www.dallasopera.org/cowboys. However, we have a choice selection of great operas between now and then, so this version of "Off the Cuff" will focus on Wagner's Bayreuth and TDO's upcoming new production of Tristan & Isolde.

I had the great privilege last summer to go to Bayreuth for the first time. Bayreuth still typically has a 10-year waiting list for tickets—unprecedented in the American opera world! Nevertheless, it was important to go in order to experience the acoustics, see the theater and get a sense of how all of it comes together to create one of the world's most sought-after opera festivals. The Wagner Society of Dallas very graciously moved me to the top of their waiting list in order to make that happen.

So, why Bayreuth? Wagner, as early as 1850, knew that he wanted to construct his own theater. Wagner was a man of enormous talent, certainly one of the greatest composers who ever lived. He was also someone who was supremely confident in his own abilities and genius. This was, after all, a man who named all his children after characters in his own operas.

Wagner was a musical and theatrical innovator, and his opera house broke new ground in many different ways, including architecture, stage design, acoustics, seat layout, lighting, heat and ventilation. Wagner's new theater, the Festspielhaus, was constructed between 1871 and 1875 (imagine building an opera house in four years, from conception to completion!) on a gentle hill with a beautiful tree-lined road ascending to the theater. Lovely landscaping created a serene setting en route. This was no accident; Wagner wanted to create this contemplative atmosphere for patrons coming long distances to see his work. To this day, the theater is about Wagner and nothing else. There's even a flag flying overhead with a big "W" emblazoned on it, and you don't get any points for correctly guessing what the "W" stands for.

Part of Wagner's original vision for the theater was that it would be relatively plain and unadorned. It's actually very beautiful in my view, with some unique features that contribute to the acoustics. However, it does not look anything like its Baroque predecessors. Bayreuth itself is still home to one of the most magnificent surviving baroque opera houses in Europe. By contrast, the exterior of the Festspielhaus is timbered and relatively unadorned. What is critically important, in terms of Wagner's overall vision, is the way the stage looks to those settled in their seats. Curiously, it reminds me of sitting in front of an old-school black-and-white television set!

First of all, you cannot see the orchestra; there is a low wall that blocks every sightline into the pit. And, of course, when Wagner was premiering his operas the house was not electrified, so all the players performed by flickering candlelight. There are no distractions around the stage and, importantly, the Festspielhaus has a very narrow proscenium—it's only 33 feet wide—quite narrow by American standards. Yet, the stage is also very deep. This means that even with the narrow proscenium, Bayreuth's stage can hold a chorus of 175 people. (For comparison purposes, we had a total of 170 people onstage at one time in the largest scenes in last season's epic Boris Godunov).

Probably the most famous feature of Bayreuth is its unique pit design. There are multiple tiers within the pit. The conductor stands roughly in the center and the violins perch on a narrow ledge near the top of the pit. This ledge is so narrow, in fact, that at intermission the chairs have to be rotated 90 degrees in order to allow the musicians to get in and out. The tiers extend underneath the stage and that's where they put the louder brass instruments and woodwinds. What this means to the ear is that, even when the brass is playing full-volume (as is frequently the case, due to Wagner's great love of brass parts), it does not overwhelm the strings, like it threatens to do in many American opera houses.

Although this unique arrangement has made the theater's acoustics world-famous, it should be understood that Wagner's original intent was merely to hide the orchestra from the audience; again, to avoid the potential for off-stage visual distractions. In the decades since the house was built, the covered pit (as it is called) has gone through multiple improvements (see video below). The orchestra sound now flows up to the stage and blends with the singers' voices, before it is carried out to the audience. In an American opera house, the sound rises straight up from the pit, and audience members in the top balconies frequently have as good an aural experience as patrons sitting in the orchestra (these were some of my favorite seats at the San Francisco Opera). What may have begun as a happy accident has been fine-tuned over the course of many decades to create a sound worth traveling halfway around the world to hear.

What's so extraordinary about it? Well, it's a mixed sound, carefully blended and balanced so that you are not conscious of sound coming from the left or the right. In the big Wagner operas where you have, for example, double harps, they're seated on opposite sides of the pit to contribute to that blending. In all cases, it serves the voices onstage very well and is rarely overwhelming. The Bayreuth orchestra and large chorus justly deserve their outstanding reputation, and their artistry, in combination with the unique acoustic design of the theater create a musical experience that can be found nowhere else—which is why the Wagner family's decision to cease issuing blocks of tickets to Wagner Societies worldwide is considered so controversial; they've taken away the biggest single perk of membership!  A lively debate on the topic can be found in the comments section of this article in Intermezzo.

These days, the losers in the public lottery for tickets are no longer notified. So, if you put in for a 2012 Bayreuth Festival ticket and haven't heard back by now, shrug it off and purchase your tickets for the remaining TDO season, including the new Tristan.

 

TDO's production of Tristan und Isolde

As readers will know, the Dallas Opera is preparing a brand new production of Tristan, which opens on Feb. 16. Whereas originally the company had planned to present a simple concert version of the work, several generous donors have stepped forward to allow the company to present a fully-staged, modern dress version of the piece. 

In our preparation for the opening, we are trying to learn more from every possible source on how to produce a truly extraordinary performance of this masterwork. Music Director Graeme Jenkins is carefully attuned to the question of sound balance in the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, and Artistic Director Jonathan Pell and I move around the audience chamber throughout rehearsals to make sure we have achieved optimum balanced sound for patrons sitting in every section, as well as good communication between the orchestra and the singers onstage. It's also important to ensure that the same carefully designed balance is created within the orchestra itself. 

From a production point of view, the opera will be directed by Christian Räth, who assisted Francesca Zambello on the outstanding "American Ring" presented by San Francisco Opera last summer. Christian is working closely with Elaine J. McCarthy, who created the memorable projections for Moby-Dick in 2010. As these two creative artists work together, they are drawing heavily on the imagery evoked by the most significant versions of the original legend, and using stark and elegant sails as movable projection surfaces throughout the production. It promises to be an extraordinary event, the dawn of a new visual vocabulary in the Winspear Opera House. 

I encourage everyone to attend!

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. His first column can be seen here.

 

Here's a video about the Orchestra pit in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth:

 

And here's an excerpt from a documentary about the Festspielhaus:

  Thanks For Reading





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Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth
In the second Off the Cuff, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny writes about his first trip to Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus, just in time for Tristan and Isolde.
by Keith Cerny

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