Exploring Bayreuth's Fabled Acoustic

Photo of the author in Bayreuth: Paul Hyde

For audiophiles, the acoustic of the Bayreuth Festspielhause in Germany, home of the annual festival of Richard Wagner's operas, vies with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and Vienna's Musikverein as one of the most fabled for recording as well as listening. As a participant in the Music Critics of North America 2012 institute at the Festival, I had the opportunity to not only explore the venue from a near-ideal seat in Row 25 Center, but to also visit the fabled "covered pit" from which many of the greatest Wagner conductors of the last 136 years have led exalted performances.

The tiered pit, which I was asked not to photograph, lies mainly beneath the stage of Festspielhause. Brass harps and percussion are located in the rear, furthest submerged from the audience, with the first row of strings and the conductor (seated so as to be seen by all players) at the top. Sound travels out an opening in front of the stage, approximately the same width as the second tier of strings on which sit two rows of strings. No one, not even the conductor, can be seen by the audience.

Although the covered, submerged pit hardly subdues the orchestra—it sings loud and clear in the house during forte passages, and sounded gossamer-like when appropriate—it does create a truly unique sonic environment. Under the baton of music director Christian Thielemann, who continues to establish himself as a Wagner conductor of the highest order, the orchestra at the start of the first production, The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer), possessed a powdery luminescence the like of which I had never before experienced. The slight subterranean softening of timbres lent to the sound a unique warmth and glow, over which voices could potentially float with far greater ease than they can in most other houses.

At the head of the large Bayreuth Festival orchestra, Thielemann proved himself a master of balances. Not only did he maintain a perfect relation between instruments and voices, but he also produced a truly singing orchestral tone at all volume levels. In the overture, the first time the strings entered softly, their texture was of the finest and lightest down. Even when playing at full volume—thrillingly and often—voices floated, seemingly without effort, above the orchestra's luxuriant blanket of sound.

Thanks to the hall's unique construction and layout, voices reached the ear with a remarkable balance between detail and resonant ambience. Not even the largest-voiced singer sounded metallic or overbearing. And performing in a hall with less than half the seats of the barn known as the Metropolitan Opera, singers who possessed significant volume soared over the orchestra with an ease that left them able to focus on expression and nuance without fear of being drowned out.

Upsides and Downsides
The hall's acoustic superiority is also due to its non-traditional interior layout. Instead of a horseshoe-shaped tiered design, with levels set aside for boxes and galleries, seating is arranged, continental style, in a single, steeply-shaped wedge. Basic construction is wood, rather than plaster and stone. This includes the very thinly padded seats whose hard, short backs are reminiscent of uncomfortable pews in churches. The most-reflective surfaces are the large glass globes of the lights on both sides of the hall, and they hardly dominate acoustically.

Nor is there air-conditioning. Everything has been left as in in Wagner's time, with only the sounds of whirring, hand-held fans, feet shifting on the wood floorboards, and the inevitable poke of long-limbed patrons seated behind you distracting from the beauty of the music.

That is, except for the heat. Bayreuth was unseasonably hot for four of the five operas, with the oft dressed-to-the-nines crowd continually shedding coats, shawls, ties, and the like over the course of the festival. This opera lover, who intentionally dehydrates to avoid potential bladder discomfort during performances that can last 2.5 hours without intermission found that most all liquid was eliminated through sweat rather than in the men's room.

But before we move too far-from-the-sublime to the not-so, let's return to the acoustic. The challenge to capture the hall's unique acoustic with a veracity that approaches the live experience is humbling. All the more reason to applaud those recording and mixing engineers who have done so with success.

Et Quelle's picture

Glass is reflective also, good to know. Must be beautiful to witness those voices float over the instruments.

volvic's picture

Jason, surprised you were not allowed to photograph the pit as I do recall Yehudi Menuhin doing a segment from his Music of Man for the CBC where he was allowed to film while in the pit.  Excellent article though.


Wolf von Langa's picture

As I'm, Wolf von Langa, manufacturer of the Kilimanjaro-Series Field-Coil Speakers, located only 30 km apart from Bayreuth and I feel to be part of the region, I want to invite everybody who has the chance to visit Bayreuth Festspiele or "Fränkische Schweiz". Cheers!