Being in Bayreuth

By James Jorden

There’s a remarkable synergy about the Bayreuth Festival: it’s not just the theater, or the performers, or the programming or even the “mission,” considered broadly. It’s the whole experience, including the audience. They– we– are integral to making the Festival not just a lot of high-priced music stuffed into a short summer season (though it is that too) but an actual festival, a serious celebration.

Serious, yes, but not gloomy, not (quite) severe. It’s a kind of joyous seriousness, the feeling of being part of a vast team working toward a common, very important goal. In a way, attending Bayreuth feels a bit like what I imagine working on the Manhattan Project or Bletchley Park must have been like: a sort of low-level buzz of excitement in the background, punctuated by bursts of something close to ecstasy.

For the audience member, this sense of community is achieved through a series of acts of separation from the rest of the world. First off, you have to travel to the town of Bayreuth, which is in a not very convenient corner of Bavaria: four hours from Cologne, three hours from Berlin, two hours from Munich. Once you’ve settled into a clean but overpriced hotel or pension, the days and nights fall into a pattern: rise late, breakfast, find something to do for a couple of hours (this is when critics write), nap, dress and, at around 3:00 PM, start the half-hour stroll (uphill) to the Festspielhaus.

Everyone arrives early; during a week there I think I witnessed a single latecomer. At a quarter hour before the first act begins, a brass choir assembles on the so-called “Königsbau,” a balcony facing the city, to play a fanfare based on an important motif from the act to come. At this point the doors to the auditorium are opened and the audience files in.

If the seating plan in the Festspielhaus seems a little Spartan to us now, I can only imagine what kind of mad folly it must have appeared to an audience in 1876. The theater breaks conclusively with the “ring” configuration then universal in opera houses, creating a space that is almost completely “orchestra” or platea, with arc-shaped aisleless rows gradually expanding in a wedge shape from stage to back wall. Each row is stepped higher than the one before it, a similar arrangement to “stadium” film theater seating. Across the back wall is a modest series of three balconies containing a total of only about 400 seats of the theater’s 1,925 capacity.

The interior of the auditorium suggests more a 19th century municipal building than an opera house: restrained columns lit by globe lamps, arranged on a series of short angled walls suggestive of the forced-perspective wings of the baroque theater. The eye is irresistibly drawn forward, toward the stage, which is framed by a pair of proscenium arches on the near and far side of the hidden orchestra pit. The effect is curious: the stage seems almost infinitely far away, which makes everything on it, sets and singers alike, seem fantastically oversized, as if we are viewing the entire stage action in a sort of closeup.

Adding to this effect is the astounding Bayreuth acoustic, which somehow makes every bit of music sound as if it is originating only a few feet away, though, paradoxically, even in the most overheated climaxes the sound never gets anything more than pleasingly, viscerally loud, never noisy or oppressive. In a way it’s like listening to a really superb recording in one’s own living room, only without any sense of electronic mediation.

The acoustic is particularly flattering to voices, and the smarter singers know how to “play” the auditorium to create effects that would be impossible in just about any other theater. For example, in Lohengrin, Klaus Florian Vogt sang “Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan” in a relaxed half-voice while walking slowly from upstage to downstage, and the voice sounded like it was approaching from miles away, gradually gaining body and focus. It was as if Lohengrin materialized from thin air, becoming real as we watched and listened.

The combination of visual and aural closeness creates that most desired theatrical effect, the sense that the performer is not singing for a mass of people, but just for you. A number of great theatrical artists have this gift of “intimate” performance, but at Bayreuth, the effect is not dependent on any given artist’s personal charisma: you feel disarmingly close to every sight and sound.

Meanwhile, of course, everyone else in the theater is feeling that same sense of intimacy, so when the lights come up, there is a little moment of shyness, as if that stranger sitting next to you has seen into your soul. But then the timidity fades away and what is left is a strong sensation of a profound shared experience: not something you saw happen, but rather something you helped to make happen.

It’s astonishing, and honestly it’s not like anything else on earth, at least not like anything I’ve run into in an opera house. It’s borderline mystical, in fact, which is one reason I found it extremely difficult to write critically about what I actually saw and heard at Bayreuth this summer. For the Ring I did a quick roundup in the New York Post and a good deal of of thinking out loud over on, but so far I haven’t had much to say about the two non-Ring productions I saw this summer, Lohengrin and Der Fliegende Holländer. I’ll try to take those on next week in this space.

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