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Wagner’s masterpiece, the Ring, could not be thought complete until it had been performed in his own theatre under his own direction. ‘I need a theatre such as I alone can build. It is not possible that my works should establish themselves in the same theatre where simultaneously the operatic nonsense of our time and that includes the classics is put on, and where everything, the presentation, the whole approach and the desired effect, is basically in direct opposition to what I desire for myself and my works.’
When he first started in earnest looking for a site for the theatre in 1870, Wagner remembered Bayreuth, which he had first seen in 1835 when travelling between Karlsbad and Nuremberg. The councillors of Bayreuth accepted his proposal that they should buy him the land for his theatre and, after some false starts they settled on a green hill just outside the town, which would make possible the excavations needed to build the large stage and amphitheatre seating, and the sunken pit to house the large orchestra.
It was the radical ideas of Wagner and Semper which led to the first idea of an amphitheatre as a 'democratic space' and a rejection of the European aristocratic space where everyone sat in a position analogous to their place in society. To avoid any distraction and to focus the audience’s attention on the illusion on the stage, the orchestra was to be hidden from view in a pit. Contrary to the custom of the time the auditorium lights were to be dimmed or extinguished.
The tasks facing Wagner in realising his perfect performance were immense, there was no example on which he could model his ideas. He had to train and educate the singers in new ways of singing, new ways of acting. He had to try and invent a new visual style for costumes and scenery. He had to find some way to solve difficult technical problems like the Rhinemaidens swimming in the Rhine.
‘It was one thing for him to construct this colossal drama of land and water and cavern and cloud, of gods and heroes and giants and dwarfs, in his own imagination: it was quite another thing to realise it all in terms of steel and wood and stone and canvas, the small four-square of a stage, and the physical and mental capacity of merely human actors.’ (Newman)
Wagner did not really know what visual interpretation would satisfy him. He had difficulty in accepting that the imagination in his music was more powerful than visual actuality. While the Rhinemaidens got to swim successfully in the Rhine, other effects were less successful. All the parts for the dragon, ordered from London in kit form, never arrived and it had to be put together without a neck. It became a distracting object of derision.
But overall the performances were successful. The audience sat in the dark, unaware of the sunken orchestra, and separated from the 'mysteries and the myths' by a double proscenium. As Mark Twain later wrote about a performance of Tannhäuser.
‘I sat in the gloom and the deep stillness, waiting one minute, two minutes, I do not know exactly how long then the soft music of the hidden orchestra began to breathe its rich, long sighs out from under the distant stage, and by and by the drop-curtain parted in the middle and was drawn softly aside, disclosing the twilighted wood and a wayside shrine, with a white-robed girl praying and a man standing near. Presently that noble chorus of men's voices was heard approaching.’
The opening of the theatre in 1876 was attended by the Kaiser. But, as always, in the Wagner story, money was a problem. The building was still only partly paid for and the receipts for the production did not nearly cover the expenses, even though the musicians had given their services free. Wagner, instead of relying on the patronage of princes to pay for his democratic principles had hoped to raise money from the class for whom it was intended, the cultured intellectual middle class. But his scheme did not work and it was many years before the Ring was performed again in Bayreuth.