The Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches OperHaus) is one of the last surviving European theatres dating back to the mid 1700s. In the words of Stephen Fry in his documentary Wagner & Me it is a “Rococo extravaganza” the likes of which is hard to find anywhere else in Europe. The ornamentation is truly breathtaking, beyond gaudy in its plethora of decoration. It transports you back to a time when this late Baroque style was the supreme example of an age. On my first day in Bayreuth I saw the exterior of the theater where I took this picture with my iPhone. Tomorrow I hope to visit and see the marvelous interior, this time armed with my Nikon D90.
The theatre was already one hundred years old by the time the young Richard Wagner conducted here. For him this place represented what he hated most about theatre going in his day. From among its statues of angels and crystal chandeliers, royalty and the very rich came to this jewel box to see and be seen. The lights would remain lit during a performance, and audiences typically arrived late, talked during the show, and usually left early. It was a place to admire social superiors in their gilded boxes and scoff at social inferiors. Meanwhile, the performance would dribble on in the background, no more important than “musak” in a modern elevator.
Thanks to Wagner’s experiences in this theatre and in others like it, he began to formulate particular ideas about what makes a theatre piece, and how audiences should behave during one. For starters, Wagner was the first to conduct turning away from the audience, a concept that reached its zenith in the hidden orchestra pit at the Festspielhaus, where neither the orchestra nor the conductor is seen at all. It was also Wagner’s idea to turn off the lights in the theatre so that the audience could concentrate on the action on stage, and not on the social interactions in the boxes out in the audience.
These were radical concepts from one of the most radical minds of the nineteenth century. Interesting that many of these ideas simmered in the mind of the young Wagner while conducting in one of the most beautifully ornate, but conservative minded theatres in the world.