That Richard Wagner as a composer of opera was a consummate genius is something that for over a century is beyond all dispute and debate except by those of the lunatic fringe who have perpetual and ignorant objection to Wagner on other grounds. Not so well known is that by all the best firsthand accounts, Wagner was a consummate genius as an actor and stage director as well. And I think we have to add yet another consummate genius award to Wagner: as a designer of opera houses the Bayreuther Festspielhaus being eloquent testimony to that genius as the governing design concept of the building was Wagner's own. Here's Wagner himself on the Festspielhaus as it began to be built:
To explain the plan of the festival theatre now being built in Bayreuth, I believe that I cannot do better than begin with the need I felt first, namely, that of rendering invisible the technical hearth of the music: the orchestra. For this one constraint led step by step to the total redesigning of the auditorium of our neo-European theatre. Those of my readers who are familiar with some of my earlier writings will already know my thoughts on the concealment of the orchestra, and I hope that even if they had not already felt this for themselves, a subsequent visit to the opera will have convinced them of the rightness of my feeling that the constant and, indeed, insistent sight of the technical apparatus needed to produce the sound constitutes a most tiresome distraction. In my essay on Beethoven [Beethoven, 1870] I was able to explain how at thrilling performances of ideal works of music we may ultimately cease to notice this reprehensible evil as a result of the force with which all our senses are retuned, resulting, as it were, in a kind of neutralization of our sense of sight. With a stage performance, by contrast, it is a question of attuning our sense of sight to precisely apprehending an image, which can be done only by distracting it completely and by preventing it from noticing any reality than lies in between, such reality including the technical apparatus needed to produce the image in the first place.
Without actually being covered, the orchestra was therefore to be sunk so deep that the audience would look right over it and see the stage unimpeded; this in turn meant that the seating must consist in gradually ascending rows whose ultimate height would be determined only by the need for a clear view of the stage picture. As a result, our whole system of tiers of boxes was ruled out: inasmuch as the first of these boxes are located on the side walls, it would have been impossible to prevent their occupants from looking straight down into the orchestra pit. In terms of their positioning, our rows of seats thus assumed the character of a classical amphitheatre, although there could of course be no question of actually executing the traditional form of an amphitheatre that would have projected so far on either side as to produce, or even exceed, a full half-circle, for the object of which the audience needs a clear overview is no longer the Greek chorus in the classical orchestra, which was largely surrounded by the amphitheatre, but the Greek skene, which was presented to Greek audiences merely in the form of a projecting surface but which in our own particular case was to be used in all its depth. We were thus strictly bound by the laws of perspective, according to which the rows of seats might widen as they rose up but must always face the stage. As for the stage, it was the proscenium that influenced the whole of the rest of the design: the actual frame of the stage picture necessarily became the starting point for this arrangement. My demand that the orchestra be made invisible proved an inspiration to the famous architect whom I was initially privileged to consult on this matter, encouraging this man of genius to find a use for the empty space that arose in this way between the proscenium and the rows of seats in the auditorium: we called it the 'mystic abyss' because its function was to separate reality from ideality, and the architect closed it off at the front with a second, wider proscenium. Thanks to the relation between this second proscenium and the narrower one behind it, he was immediately able to promise the most wonderful illusion that makes the actual events onstage appear to be further away, persuading the spectator to think that the action is very remote, while allowing him to observe that action with the clarity of actual proximity. In turn this gives rise to a second illusion, allowing the figures onstage to appear to be of larger, superhuman size. The success of this arrangement should alone be sufficient to give an idea of the incomparable impact of the audience's new relation to the stage picture. Having taken his seat, the spectator now find himself in a veritable theatron, in other words, in a space that exists for no other purpose than for looking, and looking, moreover, in the direction in which his seat points him. Between him and the picture that he is to look at, nothing is plainly discernible except for a sense of distance held, as it were, in a state of suspension due to the architectural relationship between the two proscenia, the stage picture appearing in consequence to be located in the unapproachable world of dreams, while the music, rising up spectrally from the 'mystic abyss' and as such resembling the vapors ascending from Gaia's sacred primeval womb beneath the Pythia's tripod, transports him to that inspired state of clairvoyance in which the stage picture that he sees before him becomes the truest reflection of life itself. A difficulty arose in respect of the importance to be given to the side walls in the auditorium: unbroken by any boxes, they presented a flat expanse that could not be brought into any meaningful relationship with the rising rows of seats. The famous architect who was initially entrusted with the task of building the theatre along monumental lines found a solution to the problem by using all the resources of architectural ornament in the noblest Renaissance style, causing the bare surfaces to disappear and turning them into a fascinating feast for the eyes. For our temporary festival theatre in Bayreuth we were forced to renounce all thought of similar decorations, which have no meaning unless the material itself is noble and precious, once again raising the question of what we should do with these side walls, which were so out of keeping with the actual auditorium. A glance at the first of the plans ... shows us an oblong narrowing towards the stage and forming the actual space for the audience. It is bounded by two side walls that run in straight lines towards the proscenium - an arrangement made unavoidable by the building as such - and that produce an unsightly wedge-shaped area, which could in fact have been conveniently used for steps giving access to the seats. In order to render as innocuous as possible the surface that was opened up in this way on either side of the proscenium and that ruined the overall impression, my present adviser had with his customary inventiveness already hit on the idea of adding a third proscenium, even wider and further forward than the other two. Much taken by the excellence of this idea, we soon went a stage further and found that, to do full justice to the idea of an auditorium narrowing in true perspective towards the stage, we should have to extend the process to the whole interior, adding proscenium after proscenium until they culminated in the gallery that crowns the whole design, thereby enclosing the audience itself within this proscenic perspective, no matter where they may be sitting. For this we devised a series of columns that mirrored the first proscenium and that grew further apart the further they rose, delimiting the rows of seats and deceiving us as to the straight lines of the side walls behind them. Between them, finally, the necessary stairs and entrances were effectively concealed. With this we ultimately settled all our internal arrangements, as indicated in the accompanying plans. As we were building a merely temporary theatre and therefore had to bear in mind only the functionality of its interior furnishings and fittings in keeping with its underlying idea, it was bound to be a source of relief that the outward form of the theatre, reflecting its internal functionality in a spirit of architectural beauty, did not fall within our remit. Nor, indeed, could it do so if the project was to go ahead at all. Even if we had had at our disposal a more precious material than our estimates allowed and had been able to erect a monumental building of ostentatious ornamentalism, we should have shied away from our task and been obliged to look round for help, which we would certainly not have found so quickly. This, then, was the newest, the most unusual and, not having been attempted before, the most difficult problem for the architect of the present (or the future?) to solve. The limited resources at our disposal compelled us to use only what was purely functional and necessary to achieve our objective: but our aim and objective lay solely in the relationship between the auditorium and a stage of the largest dimensions necessary for installing the most perfect scenery. Such a stage needs to be three times the height seen by the audience, since the complex sets placed upon it have to be lowered beneath the stage as well as raised above it. As a result, the stage, unlike the auditorium, needs to rise to twice its height above the actual stalls. If it is merely this functional need that is taken into account, the result is a conglomerate of two buildings of the most disparate shape and size. In order to conceal as far as possible the disparity between them, most architects working on our newer theatres have been concerned to raise the auditorium to a significant degree, while adding empty spaces above it that are intended to be used as scenery-painting workshops or as administrative offices but which on account of their extreme inconvenience are seldom used at all. In this, architects have been helped by the tiers of boxes randomly rising inside the auditorium and reaching excessive heights, the topmost tiers even rising well beyond the height of the stage as they were meant only for the poorer classes on whom architects thought nothing of inflicting the inconvenience of a hazy bird's-eye view of events taking place in the stalls far beneath them. But these tiers have been banished from our own theatre, where no architectural need can persuade us to gaze upwards over vast walls, as is the case in Christian cathedrals. The opera houses of the past were constructed on the principle of an unbroken roof-ridge, which meant that they assumed the form of elongated boxes, a primitive example of which may be found in the Royal Opera House in Berlin. Here the architect had to worry about only a single facade, that of the main entrance, at the narrow end of a building whose longer sides tended to be tucked away between the houses of a street, thus removing them completely from view. I believe that in acting so disingenuously and in responding to the dictates of sheer need, our task of building an outwardly artless temporary theatre placed on an open, elevated site has also brought us closer to a clearer statement of the problem that is actually involved here. This problem now lies before us, naked and well defined, and it shows us, in the most tangible manner possible, what we should understand by a theatre building that is also to express externally the purpose for which it is designed, a purpose which, far from being vulgarly commonplace, is altogether ideal. The main section of this building contains the infinitely complex technical machinery needed to stage performances of the greatest possible perfection, whereas its entrance is no more than a kind of covered courtyard whose function is simply to accommodate those persons for whom the performance onstage is about to acted out. To us it seems as if this simple aim, which we were obliged to express in our own building with the greatest possible clarity, uninfluenced by buildings such as palaces, museums and churches that are designed for quite different ends, has been encapsulated and expressed in the most uncomplicated manner, presenting the genius of German architecture with a challenge that is not unworthy of it and which may indeed be the only task that it is uniquely placed to solve. But if it be thought that because of the inevitable grand facade the main purpose of the theatre must be concealed by wings for balls, concerts and the like, we shall no doubt for ever remain in thrall to the unoriginal ornaments that are usual in these cases; our sculptors and carvers will continue to draw their inspiration from Renaissance motifs with their vapid, unintelligible figures and ornaments - and ultimately everything will end up just as it is in present-day opera houses, whence the question that is even now the one that is put to me most frequently: do I really need a special theatre of my own? But those who have rightly understood me will be bound to realize that even architecture might acquire a new significance thanks to the spirit of music on the basis of which I planned my work of art and the place of its performance and that the myth of a city built by Amphion's lyre has not yet lost its meaning. [...] May it stand there on the delightful hill outside Bayreuth.And although presently put to corrupted use, so it does to this very day.