The Construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus

The Construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus

The story goes that Wagner discovered the town of Bayreuth in an encyclopaedia, but it is also known that he had visited the town once for a brief time, at the beginning of his career. Bayreuth was noted for its eighteenth century opera house (1744-48) built by Guiseppe Galli da Bibiena for Margravine Wilhelmine. It was famous for its excellent acoustics and astonishingly large stage. The auditorium was rather small and held only some hundred spectators. Because of its exceptionally large stage, Wagner had considered this opera house for the staging of the Ring. However, as it was a typical court-theatre in the Italian baroque style, it was not suited to Wagner's novel ideas. He knew he would have to reform the stage.

Wagner found the city so appealing he decided to settle there himself, and to build a theatre. The town was pleasant and quiet, located more or less in the centre of Germany but still within Bavaria's boundaries, thus ensuring Wagner of King Ludwig's protection. Ludwig himself, however, turned away from the project. The Bayreuth citizens were inclined towards the plans of a new theatre, and supplied Wagner with a plot of land on a hill, free from charge. Wagner could now set himself to the task of realising his vision. Because he had no money, few people actually believed he would make it. Wagner, on the other hand, believed firmly in his utopia and kept on believing all the way through until he succeeded.

He invited the Berlin architect Wilhelm Neumann and the famous stage technician Karl Brandt of the Darmstadt Opera to design the new festival theatre. Neumann based himself on Semper's Munich design, whereof only the stage and the auditorium were retained. The rest of the structure was too huge and too expensive to even consider building it. The idea was to erect a temporary, cheap structure, mainly of wood, that later could be replaced by more solid materials. One would have to economise on the entire exterior structure and the interior structure would have to be constructed of plain wood. For the stage machinery and the lighting system, on the other hand, no costs would be spared (they were necessary to establish a veritable illusionary world on stage). Any secondary space, such as a foyer, would have to be eliminated from the design until further notice. The Festspielhaus was essentially a utilitarian building only meant to stage a festival. The performance itself was what really mattered. A perfect illusion had to be created and the opera house consequently had to be innovative on only a few crucial points: the auditorium-stage relationship and the stage-machinery. They proved major points since the result was nothing less than a completely new type of opera house.

Wagner outlined his wishes to Brandt and Neumann. The auditorium was to be amphitheatrical to provide excellent sightlines. For the same reason the orchestra had to be made invisible. He wanted the auditorium to hold 1500 spectators. Neumann designed a semicircular auditorium with two galleries in the back wall; the upper one was called the artist's gallery and was meant for those who wouldn’t be able to afford the entrance fee. The application for the building permit mentions a simple temporary structure for a single festival. It was never meant to remain there for almost a century. Not surprisingly, the exterior walls caused a lot of anxiety until the big renovation of the 1960's.

The co-operation with Neumann didn't go so well. His design turned out to be excessively big and expensive and eventually, he withdrew from the project.

Brandt introduced the young architect Otto Brückwald to Wagner, in 1872, who was then commissioned with the design. Circumstances weren't easy. There still wasn't any money and the conflict with Ludwig grew worse when Wagner refused to turn over the third part of the Ring.

Brückwald reworked Neumann's design. He added a convex façade, big foyers and interior gardens. Wagner accepted the façade (without the decorations, however) but not the foyers and the gardens.

Brandt, in turn, found a very satisfying solution for the connection of the stage and auditorium. He designed six pairs of receding lateral walls that established a visual extension of the double proscenium arch in the auditorium and automatically directed the spectator’s eyes towards the stage.

Construction work was continually in danger of financial difficulties. The foundation stone ceremony was held in May 1872 (in the dripping rain) including a speech by Wagner and a concert conducted by him in the Margrave's Operahouse. It would take years before the building was completed and every single day would be a battle for money. One of the ideas was to sell patron's certificates, guaranteeing the owner a seat for the upcoming festival, in order to raise money to pay the construction workers. Several Wagner-societies were founded to promote the idea, it failed, largely because the certificates were associated with the stock market, a practice considered highly dubious back then. Wagner had to conduct concerts and had to await ticket sales. By the spring of 1873, the financial situation was so disastrous that he turned to Bismarck for support. The request was denied and Wagner tried his luck with King Ludwig, but in vain. In a rather desperate attempt to raise the necessary money, Wagner addressed the Emperor Wilhelm I with a request for a loan. In return, the 1876 Festival would be dedicated to the fifth anniversary of the Prussian victory over France. The offer was turned down, however, and Wagner didn't get any money.

Somehow, they managed to continue construction in Bayreuth. In August 1873, the roof-raising ceremony was held. It didn't prevent things from getting worse, though. In 1874, facing bankruptcy, Wagner send a cry for help to King Ludwig, stating that the project was bound to fail if no money could be raised. Ludwig, eventually, decided to support the Bayreuth Festspielhaus with a loan, thus saving the project.

In 1875, the building was completed. The financial difficulties were not over, though. A festival still had to be organised. Wagner pulled through, with some money from the certificates, ticket sales and another loan from Ludwig. Finally, he had realised his dream. At the first Bayreuth Festival, in 1876, he produced his new music drama, the Ring der Nibelungen, in his new operahouse. It was no small accomplishment. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus has become an important landmark in theatre history.


  Bayreuth Festspielhaus