Musical Theatre

1 Richard Wagner and the “Gesamtkunstwerk”

Richard Wagner was the first to formulate a theoretical concept to combine and integrate various art forms in musical theater. In his text The Art-work of the Future, written in exile in Switzerland and published in 1850, Wagner interpreted the side-by-side existence of the arts as a symptom of cultural and political decline. He called on the artist to overcome this modern division of labor. Wagner’s esthetic program ultimately led to the idea of a free artistic fellowship,[1] which he believed was a basic requirement for the artwork of the future. Wagner thus articulated the revolutionary program of a social utopia of the theater, though as a failed revolutionary he would soon retire the idea. Wagner’s real-life model was the performance practice of the grand opéra in Paris, where various representational techniques for musical theater were brought together on equal footing. Wagner was also fascinated by the normative combination of composition and stage design that was pursued by grand opéra: works performed in Paris should, whenever possible, be performed at other theaters using an identical stage design. The idea of such exemplary performances was one of the motivations for founding the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner’s own opera compositions did not, however, have a central role for the model of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art — which only became significant in modern Regietheater, or director’s theater.