The Bayreuth Festspielhaus or Bayreuth Festival Theatre (German: Bayreuther Festspielhaus, pronounced [ˈbaɪ̯ʁɔʏ̯tɐ ˈfɛstʃpiːlˌhaʊ̯s]) is an opera house north of Bayreuth, Germany, dedicated solely to the performance of operas by the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. It is the venue for the annual Bayreuth Festival, for which it was specifically conceived and built. The official name is Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus.
The design was adapted by Wagner, without the architect's permission, from an unrealised project by Gottfried Semper for an opera house in Munich, and built under Wagner's supervision. Its construction was funded principally by Ludwig II of Bavaria. The foundation stone was laid on 22 May 1872, Wagner's 59th birthday. The building was first opened for the premiere of the complete four-opera cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), from 13 to 17 August 1876.
Only the entry façade exhibits the typical late-19th-century ornamentation, while the remainder of the exterior is modest and shows mostly undecorated bricks. The interior is mainly wood, which is said to contribute to the excellent acoustics. The Festspielhaus is a carpenter's building; in fact, it is the largest free standing timber structure ever erected. Unlike the traditional opera house design with several tiers of seating in a horse-shoe shaped auditorium, the Festspielhaus's seats are arranged in a single steeply-shaped wedge, with no galleries or boxes. This is also known as continental seating. Many contemporary movie theaters have adopted this style of seating, which gives every seat an equal and uninterrupted view of the stage. The capacity is 1,925.
The Festspielhaus features a double proscenium, which gives the audience the illusion that the stage is further away than it actually is. The double proscenium and the recessed orchestra pit create – in Wagner's term – a "mystic gulf" between the audience and the stage. This gives a dreamlike character to performances, and provides a physical reinforcement of the mythic content of most of Wagner's operas. The architecture of Festpielhaus accomplished many of Wagner's goals and ideals for the performances of his operas including an improvement on the sound, feel, and overall look of the production.
The Festpielhaus was originally planned to open in 1873, but by that time Wagner had barely raised enough money to put up the walls of his theatre. He began to raise money by traveling and putting on concerts in various cities and countries throughout Europe. Even after Ludwig began funding the project, Wagner had to continue putting on concerts to keep the building project financially afloat. The tours were very taxing on Wagner's health and would eventually be a key element to his death later on in 1883.
A significant feature of the Festspielhaus is its unusual orchestra pit. It is recessed under the stage and covered by a hood, so that the orchestra is completely invisible to the audience. This feature was a central preoccupation for Wagner, since it made the audience concentrate on the drama onstage, rather than the distracting motion of the conductor and musicians. The design also corrected the balance of volume between singers and orchestra, creating ideal acoustics for Wagner's operas, which are the only operas performed at the Festspielhaus. However, this arrangement has also made it the most challenging to conduct in, even for the world's best conductors. Not only is the crowded pit enveloped in darkness, but the acoustic reverberation makes it difficult to synchronise the orchestra with the singers. Conductors must therefore retrain themselves to ignore cues from singers.
The orchestra layout deployed at Bayreuth is unusual in three ways:
- The first violins are positioned on the right-hand side of the conductor instead of their usual place on the left side. This is in all likelihood because of the way the sound is intended to be directed towards the stage rather than directly on the audience. This way the sound has a more direct line from the first violins to the back of the stage where it can be then reflected to the audience.
- Double basses, cellos and harps (when more than one used, e.g. Ring) are split into groups and placed on either side of the pit
- The rest of the orchestra is located directly under the stage. This makes communication with the conductor vital as most of the players are unable to see or hear the singers, but creates the huge, rich sounds Wagner sought to compose.
The Festspielhaus remains the venue of the annual Bayreuth Festival, during which Wagner's later operas, such as the Ring cycle and Parsifal, are given on a repertory basis.
In January 2012 it was announced that the building of the Festspielhaus may need expenditure of as much as €25m. for a thorough restoration. Wolfgang Wagner was quoted as saying 'Unless something happens soon, the building will fall down'. In March 2014 it was announced that the funding for the restoration had been secured. 26 of the then estimated 30 Million Euro will be shared between Germany and Bavaria.
- "The Bayreuth Festival Theatre". The history of the Bayreuth Festival. Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH. Retrieved 25 December 2009.
- Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the first two operas of the cycle, had premiered individually at the National Theatre in Munich in 1869 and 1870 respectively; the 1876 opening of the Festspielhaus was both the premiere of the latter two operas, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and the first time all four were performed together as a cycle.
- Norman Lebrecht, What it will cost to save Bayreuth from demolition, Arts Journal blog, retrieved 17 Jan 2012
- "Geld für Sanierung des Bayreuther Festspielhauses kann fließen". infranken.de (in German). Mediengruppe Oberfranken GmbH & Co. KG. 20 March 2014. Retrieved 26 July 2014.
- Spotts, Frederic (1994). Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- Burlingame, Edward L. (1875). Art, Life, and Theories of Richard Wagner. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
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