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Behind the Scenes as Bayreuth


The Ring Cycle is one of the most massive undertakings in all of opera. Wagner’s masterpiece requires complicated logistics onstage and behind the scenes, and its first performances at Bayreuth were not as dignified as the composer intended.

In August and September 1876 the Ring Cycle was performed three times in three weeks at Bayreuth. Wagner’s final words of advice to the singers were posted in a notice backstage:

“Clarity! The big notes will take care of themselves. The small notes and their text are the main thing. Never address the audience directly. In monologues always look either up or down, never straight-ahead. Last wish—be kind to me, dear people!”

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Despite the best efforts of the singers, the first performance of the first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold was cursed by bad luck. Franz Betz—as Wotan—lost the all-important ring. During the first scene change a stagehand raised the backdrop too soon, revealing the back wall of the theater and people standing around in their shirtsleeves, much to the embarrassment of the singers.

At first Wagner was very upset, but the arrival of an important visitor soon put him in good spirits. It was Dom Pedro the Second, Emperor of Brazil, perhaps the only princely visitor to Bayreuth–other than Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig–who was there for purely artistic rather than social reasons. But even Dom Pedro’s experience at Bayreuth was a little awkward. Arriving in town unannounced, he was not given the appropriate accommodations at Ludwig’s palace. Instead he had to put up at a local hotel, where—just like any other guest—he was asked to sign the register. After a slight pause he dutifully listed his occupation as “emperor.”

Meanwhile some of the most important composers of the day, including—Saint-Saens, Bruckner, Grieg and Tchaikovsky—were complaining about the wretched train service, price-gouging by the local innkeepers, and the difficulty of getting a meal in Bayreuth’s crowded hotels and restaurants.

But by the end of third performance, King Ludwig was so taken with The Ring Cycle that he personally led the audience in a round of applause while Wagner bowed to all sides

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