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Otto Brückwald

history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)1876 | Opening
Opened 13 Aug 1876 with Richard Wagner's "Rheingold".
(detail)1924 | reconstruction
reconstruction by Franz Rank
(detail)1933 | reconstruction
reconstruction by H.C. Reissinger
(detail)1958 | reconstruction
reconstruction by Eberhart Pöhner.
(detail)1962 | reconstruction
reconstruction 1962-1973: Lothar Linder Seating capacity since 1973 = 1925



The construction of the festival theatre was primarily inspired by the theories of Richard Wagner who had defined the goal of creating 'a classless theatre'. In practice this idea was reflected in the concept of the auditorium which completely rejected the loge-stalls system in favour of a fan shape which rose upward from the orchestra pit. The last-mentioned was in contrast situated below the level of the stage and auditorium in order to create the effect of a chasm between the two worlds and realities.


"Bayreuth is a German town near Nuremberg, which Richard Wagner made festival-centre for the performance of his operas. For this purpose a theatre, th Festspielhaus, was built by the Bayreut architect Wolfel and the stage machinis borrowed from King Ludwig of Bavaria the plans made by Gottfried Semper for an abandoned site at Munich. It had no galleries, and made use of the fan-shaped auditorium, first employed by the English architect Edward Shepherd in 1733, with rising rows of seats all facing the stage directly. The orchestra and the conductor were out of sight in a sunk pit, and the whole attention of the audience was thus concentrated on the stage. Most of these features were planned by Wagner himself. Alterations have been made in recent years, but the main design remains the same. The Festspielhaus opened in Aug. 1876 with a complete production, on four evenings, of 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'. Up to 1944 the six later operas and the Ring cycle were performed at varying intervals—39 festivals in 69 years. After Wagner's death in 1883, control of the festivals passed to his widow, and, from 1908 to 1930, to his son Siegfried. During this period there was a somewhat rigid adherence to the rules laid down by Wagner himself. From 1931 to 1944, Siegfried's widow, Winifred, a Yorkshire-woman, was in charge. In 1945 the U.S. army captured Bayreuth, and used the Festspielhaus for entertainments for their troops. On 29 July 1951 Wagner's grand­sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, reopened the theatre for its original purpose, and there is now an annual festival which fills the theatre to capacity. There have been a number of innovations in scenery, light­ing, and production, and in 1961 the score of an opera—'Tannhauser'—was 'edited' for the first time. Also during that season the first coloured singer was heard at Bayreuth."


In: Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The concise Oxford companion to the theatre. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.   ISBN 0-19-281102-9. p. 7- 8


The form of the auditorium was conditioned by these two factors—the hidden orchestra and the double proscenium. Wagner stipulated a single ramp of seats, facing directly towards the stage. The spectator was not there to participate in a social event. He was to find himself in 'a room made ready for no other purpose than looking in, and for looking straight in front of him. Between him and the picture to be looked at nothing meets his eyes, only a floating atmosphere of distance, resulting from the architec­tural adjustment of the two proscenia—whereby the scene is removed, as it were, to the unapproachable world of dreams, while the spectral music sounding from the mystic gulf, like vapour rising from the holy womb of Earth beneath the Pythia's tripod, inspires him with that clairvoyance in which the scenic picture melts into the truest likeness of life itself.' He strengthened the hypnotic effect by extinguishing the house lights during the performance, a practice which was not unknown elsewhere (Charles Kean had used it in London) but certainly not very common.

Treatment of the side walls posed a problem. Blank spaces would have been ugly. It was solved by constructing a series of lateral walls or screens ending in Corinthian columns projecting into the auditorium, like, as Wagner says, 'proscenium after proscenium', the width between them becoming wider as one recedes from the stage, 'thus enclosing the entire audience in the vista'. They also provide a very rational series of entrance and exit spaces.

The highest point from which the stage could, and the orchestra could not, be seen determined the position of the last row of seats, which formed the Furstengallerie for the use of King Ludwig and other noble guests. The cheapness of the materials (the stalls are cane-seated, the ceiling of sailcloth, the rest nearly all wood) was due merely to economy; Wagner regarded the theatre as temporary and intended to rebuild it if the money was ever forthcoming. The result, however, was one of the most acoustically perfect rooms in the world, and as such it is jealously preserved.

He gave no thought to the appearance of the exterior, though one can still see the skeleton of a Semper plan. 'Our very poverty', he wrote, 'compelled us to think of nothing but the sheer objective fitness of our building, the absolute essential for our aim.' There is hardly a foyer, no bar, no restaurant, no grand staircase. It was merely 'the tangible design, so to speak, of what a theatrical structure should outwardly express'.


This single-minded earnestness in the cause of art has probably been Bayreuth's greatest influence on our modern attitude to the drama. The 'religious atmosphere' of which a recent London critic complained must be traced back ultimately to this source. The discarding of superfluous orna­ment and certain specific features, such as the wedge-shaped auditorium and the dimming of the house lights, are also part of the Wagnerian legacy, but the 'invisible orchestra' remains unacceptable and only a few later theatres were prepared to model themselves structurally on Bayreuth. Its influence comes through more in values than in actual buildings. It is now taken for granted that opera is a composite art in which actors, musicians, producers and designers must work together to create a single effect. 'Festival' conditions are recognized as the ideal. Bayreuth, after nearly a century of triumphs and tribulations (of which Hitler's patronage almost proved the final blow), functions very much as Wagner intended.


In: Tidworth, Simon : Theatres: An Illustrated History. London 1973 p. 172 - 174




Authors: Hartnoll Phyllis, Simon Tidworth

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