Kinder!   macht Neues! Neues!   und abermals Neues!

Here is a short, illustrated account of the history of Wagner's Parsifal on stage from the first production in Bayreuth, to recent "Regietheater" stagings.

The staging history of Parsifal is a tale of genius, ego, radicalism, conservatism, obfuscation and folly.

Left: Strange planetary alignments in Act II, from the 2007 production in Naples.

On his first visit to Bayreuth in 1882, the Swiss producer Adolphe Appia declared: "If every aspect of the auditorium expresses Wagner's genius, everything the other side of the footlights contradicts it". This criticism was echoed by G.B. Shaw. Although Wagner was the greatest dramatist of the nineteenth century, his naturalistic stagings came to be regarded as backward-looking. Yet there were some who regarded the 1882 production of Parsifal as definitive (as Lucy Beckett, in her Cambridge Handbook, still does); the increasingly dilapidated sets for that production were used until 1930.

Although Wagner was the greatest dramatist of the nineteenth century, his naturalistic stagings came to be regarded as backward-looking.
Right: Paul von Joukowsky's model for the magic garden of act 2, in the 1882 Bayreuth production. ©Cologne Theatre Museum.

Bayreuth 1918-1939

When Winifred Wagner tried to introduce a new staging, Wagner's daughters Eva and Daniela circulated a petition, which declared that the original sets on which the eyes of the Master had reposed possessed a timeless validity and must be preserved. This petition received the signatures of, among others, Richard Strauss, Toscanini and Newman. As a final resort, the old guard appealed to Adolf Hitler for support. But this was a grave miscalculation: Winifred's chosen stage designer was Alfred Roller, who was also greatly admired by the Führer, whose own sketchbook from Vienna in 1903 contains a drawing of the second act of Roller's Tristan. However, Roller's staging was, in essence, little different from the original. In 1937 this staging was replaced by another, also stylistically conservative, by the young Wieland Wagner. The only innovation in this staging was the use of a projected film during the transformation scenes.

New Bayreuth

At  the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, Wieland Wagner shocked the Wagnerian world by adopting, in his new staging of Parsifal, the minimalist ideas set out by Appia in his Basle staging of Die Walküre. Appia had seen that a naturalistic pictorial representation, no matter how skilful, was unsuitable for Wagner's music. He preferred fully three- dimensional, semi- representational sets and exploited the developing technology of stage lighting, just as Richard Wagner surely would have done.

Under Appia's influence, Wieland turned the operas inside out, preferring at first abstraction and later a pervasive psychological symbolism to bring out the (Jungian and Freudian) mythic dimensions of the works. Ernest Newman wrote in the Sunday Times: This was not only the best Parsifal I have ever seen and heard but one of the three or four most moving spiritual experiences of my life.

Parsifal Act 2 in a staging by Wieland Wagner. Bayreuth Festival 1963.
Left: Bayreuth Festival 1963, Parsifal Act II, Wieland Wagner.

The Challenges of Staging Parsifal

In staging Parsifal, the producer and designer are faced with challenges quite different from those encountered in staging the Ring. In the Tetralogy, abstract concepts - renunciation, inheritance of the world, etc. - are initially presented by characters, situations and events, which give them dramatic precision and which anchor the motifs that appear later as reminiscences; whereas in Wagner's last music-drama, the philosophical and spiritual absolutes that are at the heart of the work are not resolved (if indeed they are ever resolved) until the last act. Wieland explored the symmetries and parallels that he found in the work. For example, the parallels between the situations of Amfortas and Kundry; the opposites of Titurel and Klingsor; and the naturally unchaste Flower maidens contrasted with the unnaturally chaste Grail Knights.

Parsifal Act 3, Metropolitan Opera 2013
Left: Strange planetary alignments again at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013, producer: François Girard, designer: Michael Levine.

New Directions

The questions raised by this staging opened up many new possible views of the work which have been explored by other producers and designers. In 1978, Harry Kupfer mounted a radically new staging in Copenhagen, with designs by Peter Sykora, which emphasized the human rather than the symbolic elements of the work. He made a new ending for the work, in which Amfortas dies, and Parsifal leaves the stage with Grail and Spear, followed by Kundry.

End of Parsifal Act 2 in a recent Seattle production

Left: Seattle 2003, producer: François Rochaix, designer: Robert Israel. ©Chris Bennion.

In Stuttgart, Götz Friedrich directed the work with a strong focus on what he saw as the central issues, with the Grail Knights deeply divided at the end of the work (as they appear to be in the score). Gunther Uecker's designs were radical and highly symbolic: Klingsor's castle was an Iron Maiden, a medieval instrument of torture, with an American- musical chorus of Flower maidens. The sets divided the stage into three levels, and Friedrich separated narration (on the forestage) from dramatic action (on the main stage) and supernatural events (on the back stage).

Parsifal goes clubbing in Paris

Right: In the Lehnhoff production (Chicago version) Kundry — here seen attacking Parsifal in act II — inexplicably was dressed as a chicken. In this production there was no physical Grail but only an orange glow, diffusing from somewhere offstage.

Left: Parsifal goes clubbing in the second act of the recent Paris Opéra production.

Kundry (Waltraud Meier) disguised as a chicken attacks Parsifal (Christopher Ventris) in Lehnhoff's bizarre production.

In other opera houses, unfortunately, there were less imaginative productions by producers with little or no insight into the work. At Covent Garden, it was said by many that the Terry Hands "furry log" production, with designs by Farrah, was significantly improved when a stage hands strike caused it to be given on a bare stage. The failure of this production was surpassed in inanity later at the same house, when Bill Bryden set the action as an end-of-term play in a boarding school.

Radical Concepts and Fishy Business

The most radical production to date must be that of Robert Wilson at the Hamburg State Opera (later adapted for LA Opera). In this production, all of Richard Wagner's stage directions were discarded. The singers were required to move slowly with stylised gestures, accompanied by an extremely complex lighting plot. During the transformation music, a giant doughnut descended to mate with a pyramid. Nobody who saw it had any idea what it was about, but some thought that it was unusually beautiful; which is, very often, what a newcomer to the work experiences anyway. In the Amsterdam production (directed by Grüber, with sets designed by Aillaud and Dobroschke), later restaged for Madrid, the second act was dominated by a large white shark suspended above the stage. When the production was reworked for Covent Garden, this act took place underwater and the entire business was decidely fishy.

Parsifal at Covent Garden - the Sea Maidens

Right: The violation of a doughnut: the Act I transformation scene, in the LA staging by Robert Wilson. © LA Opera.

Left: Act II from a recent Covent Garden production, in which the flowermaidens became sea anemones. © ROH Covent Garden.

Parsifal Act I transformation scene, in the Robert Wilson LA production

The Future

As  we enter a new millennium, in which there is much talk of new beginnings, it might be an appropriate time to consider new possibilities for future productions of Wagner's last music-drama. Of course, this is only part of the wider issue of how Wagner's music-dramas can (or should) be presented on the modern stage. The momentum of New Bayreuth seems to have been spent; although in the next few decades, no doubt there will be some new productions inspired by those of Wieland Wagner; and there will also be some that react both against the New Bayreuth style and everything else.

Parsifal at the Vienna Staatsoper. Pretty sets but a shame about the production.
Above: Bring me the pickled brains, Otto. Parsifal at the Vienna Staatsoper. Pretty sets (inspired by Otto Wagner) but it was a shame about the production.

Below: a recent production of Parsifal at the Salzburg Easter Festival. The plexiglass tubes changed colours.

Parsifal at the Salzburg Easter Festival

Today it might no longer be possible to present Parsifal as a religious mystery play; but the connection between the work and religion (or spirituality) remains strong, however often producers may declare that they intend to dispense with all of the religious or supernatural elements of the work. One aspect of Parsifal that seems to have been little explored, except in the most superficial way, is the influence of Indian religious literature; even though attention was drawn to this aspect of Parsifal as early as 1891 (in an article by K. Heckel in the Bayreuther Blätter). Not only Christian symbols, but also those of Buddhism, and perhaps Hindu concepts too, were woven into this work. Whilst it might not be possible to present the work as a coherently Buddhist drama (which in my view it is not), the possibility of approaching Parsifal from a Buddhist viewpoint seems to be promising and it is surprising that there has been no serious attempt at such a production to date ¹. Then there is the intriguing possibility of a New Age production, with the Grail Temple as a stone circle and a large crystal in place of Klingsor's mirror. Above all, in my view, the work must be presented from an understanding of the text, an understanding that has been all too rare in Parsifal productions of recent decades.

Parsifal in Amsterdam with sets designed by Anish Kapoor

Right: A recent Amsterdam production with sets by Anish Kapoor.

Another dimension that might be explored in new productions is the spectacular. Wagner wanted to be at the leading edge of stagecraft, however awkward pictures of his own productions might appear today. It can be argued that to fulfil his intentions, productions of his works should be kept at that leading edge.

Below: A production of Heart of Darkness, from the Bayreuth Festival for Decomposing Roadkill. ©Bayreuther Festspiele.

Heart of Darkness - the Bayreuth Schlingensief Parsifal

Transformation scenes in which trees move around the stage and become pillars of the Grail temple (an idea first suggested by Adolphe Appia have become a tiresome cliché. Projection onto the cyclorama (a technique that Bayreuth used as early as 1876) or back-projection onto screens could be developed, given sufficient imagination, to produce spectacular transformation scenes at a fraction of the cost of moving pillars2. Wagner was a pioneer in the used of electric lighting on stage (even in 1882 the Grail was electric); state-of-the-art lighting was a vital element of the New Bayreuth style; and recent Bayreuth productions have used laser effects. Given that many recent productions have partly or completely dispensed with a Grail, it would seem to be a good time to reverse this trend with a magic Grail that will impress a modern audience as much as the electric Grail of 1882 must have impressed the audience of that time.

Kinder! macht Neues! Neues! und abermals Neues! 3

Below: New concepts at Bayreuth 2008. Producer: Stefan Herheim, Stage design: Heike Scheele, Costumes: Gesine Völlm, ©Bayreuther Festspiele.

Stefan Herheim's production of Parsifal for the Bayreuth Festival 2011

Footnote 1: I am indebted to John Musselman for information about the Nicolas Joël and Pet Halmen production of Parsifal at the San Francisco Opera in 1988. This production featured a large statue of the Buddha Shakyamuni and other Buddhist references. In the "Parsifal on Stage" chapter of A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal, Katherine R. Syer notes that in the Aarhus production of 1991, directed by Klaus Hoffmeyer with designs by Lars Juhl, the knights were depicted as Buddhist monks.
Footnote 2: Extensive use of projections was, indeed, a feature of the Schlingensief "performance art" production. Unfortunately the projections were often more visible than the action on the stage, which took place in Stygian gloom.
Footnote 3: Wagner writing to Liszt, 8 September 1852.