Musical Theatre

2 Wagner’s Reception and the Emergence of “Regietheater”

The influence of Richard Wagner’s ideas on the avant-garde artists of High Modernism was considerable. Visual artists such as Hubert von Herkomer, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer considered their works for the stage to be successors to Wagner’s. The pioneer of the modern Regietheater and Bildertheater, or theater of scenes, the Swiss director Adolphe Appia, saw his own theoretical writings as interpretations of Wagner’s. In his Musique et la mise en scène (translated as Music and the Art of the Theatre), published in 1899, Appia argued for stage design derived from music.[2] Decorating the stage is not about a more or less faithful reproduction of reality;[3] rather, the forms on the stage have esthetic value because they are part of the totality required by the music. Appia’s own unrealized designs from 1890 to 1892 for stage sets for Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) show that his strategy for translating music into visuals consisted of a new approach to stage lighting. In addition to new lighting techniques, Appia planned to employ three-dimensional stage designs for the first time. In Appia’s scheme, the actors who normally dominated would be subsumed under the overall impression of the stage set; the figures would appear stylized in atmospheric spaces composed entirely of light and architecture. The conception of the spaces was intended to produce a connection between the musical composition and the events on the stage. It was, therefore, only logical that Appia ultimately wanted to reduce the events on stage to pure architecture and lighting effects in his studies created for the theater in Hellerau between 1908 and 1912: Rhythmische Räume (Rhythmic Spaces).

Whereas the presentation of the problem in these concepts was the relationship between the composer’s score and the depiction on stage, the rapid evolution of Regietheater after the First World War led to stage technology being employed, even in opera, as a freely available means of interpretation for the director, and hence the staging became an artistic achievement on its own right, independent of the composition. A final attempt to conceive a new theory for the normative connection of music and scenery was undertaken by Paul Bekker in his text Das Operntheater of 1931,[4] in which he introduced the concept of Spielorganik (dramatic organicism). Nevertheless, he did not explain how the corresponding dramatic rules for a work of musical theater were to be derived by analyzing the score.