The Bayreuth Centennial Ring Celebrates Its Fortieth Anniversary (Part 2 of 2)

Memories of May 1968

In spite of their outstanding differences, both Chéreau and Boulez were responding to their experiences of the May 1968 events. In May 1968 and the months following it, France witnessed widespread student protests and the largest worker strike in French history, affecting all parts of France and all sectors of the economy. Both Chéreau and Boulez participated in the May events, albeit in different ways. At the time, Chéreau was experimenting with collective theater and bringing theater to local schools and factories in Sartrouville. On May 13, 1968, Boulez gave a lecture (“Where Are We Now?”) in Saint-Etienne that proposed sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France.


Student protesters confront the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris, May 10/11, 1968

By the mid-1970s, memories of May 1968 had undergone a significant transformation. The scholar Kristin Ross refers to the “afterlives” of May 1968 – how the legacy of the events was subjected to new interpretations for personal and political gain. Former radicals – in particular the New Philosophers – disavowed their revolutionary past and Marxism in general. Though Chéreau and Boulez had not been radicals in the way that the New Philosophers had been – neither joined radical worker organizations – they were similarly disappointed with and wished to forget their experiences of May 1968. Chéreau had gone bankrupt in 1969 and left Sartrouville for the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. In 1970, Boulez began plans with President Georges Pompidou to design a new music research center – what would later become IRCAM.

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The final scene of Chéreau’s Götterdämmerung. Workers watch as Valhalla burns to the ground.

In spite of their desire to disavow and forget the past, both Chéreau and Boulez adopt ideas and themes of the May 1968 period in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring. Chéreau’s critique of Wotan as a metaphor for an oppressive state is in keeping with the anti-authoritarian impulse of the 1968 years. The frequent use of steam and fog evokes memories of the police using tear gas to clear student protesters. Chéreau’s irreverent treatment of Wagner’s stage directions – for example the opening image of the Rhine Maidens as prostitutes on a hydroelectric dam – recalls his critical stagings of Molière and Jacob Lenz in Sartrouville. Boulez repeatedly draws on ideas from his 1968 lecture, in particular the idea of musical research and experimentation using new technologies and sounds. He sees Bayreuth as an alternative to the culture industry of opera houses and as a model for his own research center.


Rheingold, scene 1 (“At the bottom of the Rhine”): Chéreau and Peduzzi depict the Rhine as a hydroelectric dam.

What makes the Bayreuth Centennial Ring so relevant today is that it shows Wagner the revolutionary in a mixed light. Chéreau highlights Wagner’s vision of the power structures underlying the modern state. In this way, he upholds the image of Wagner as a radical leftist thinker, yet he is also unafraid to show the problematic aspects of Wagner’s revolutionary thinking, more specifically Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Finally, Boulez’s outstanding attention to the rhythmic and temporal innovations of the music continues to inspire musicians and listeners to this day.


 I will present this material at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference in Philadelphia, PA on January 5-8, 2017. This blog post is based on Chapters Three and Four of my dissertation.

The Bayreuth Centennial Ring Celebrates Its Fortieth Anniversary (Part 1 of 2)

This month, the Bayreuth Centennial Ring celebrates its fortieth anniversary. Staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez, the Bayreuth Centennial Ring is still as relevant today as it was forty years ago when it took Bayreuth Festival audiences by surprise. Since Chéreau’s Ring has become so canonical – with the help of the filmed version – it is difficult to imagine just how revolutionary and shocking it was for audiences in 1976. But we must not lose sight of the controversial aspects of Chéreau’s Ring, for it is these aspects that make the production so meaningful today.

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Demonstrators gather outside of the Bayreuth Festival in response to Chéreau’s Ring in 1976.


Patrice Chéreau, then 31-years-old, wasn’t Wolfgang Wagner’s first choice for the Bayreuth Centennial Ring. (Wolfgang, the grandson of Richard Wagner, had become both artistic and managing director of the Bayreuth Festival after Wieland Wagner’s death in 1966.) Wolfgang first considered the great film director Ingmar Bergman and the English theater director Peter Brook. When Bergman and Brook turned down the offer, Wolfgang approached the controversial German theater director Peter Stein. Stein accepted the centennial Ring project but backed out in September 1974 when Wolfgang refused to let him modify the acoustics of the pit. (Stein later went on to stage Rheingold at the Paris Opéra in 1976, a cycle that was not completed.) At this point, Pierre Boulez suggested Chéreau, whom his sister Jeanne recommended.

When Wolfgang invited Chéreau to Bayreuth, Chéreau had staged only two operas before and didn’t have any experience with Wagner. Be that as it may, Chéreau fit the profile of the other directors considered by Wolfgang: he was a theater director who would provide a fresh interpretation of Wagner. Wolfgang wanted a staging in keeping with Götz Friedrich’s controversial 1972 Tannhäuser – in other words, a Ring that would highlight the political themes of the work. Wolfgang reasoned that if Wagner’s works belong to a broader Western tradition removed from German nationalism, it was only natural to have a French team. In May 1974, Chéreau gave Wolfgang a demonstration of his ideas. Wolfgang responded by asking Chéreau to move forward with the project. In July 1975, Chéreau and his crew attended Wolfgang’s Ring at the Bayreuth Festival. The stage designs were constructed in the winter of 1975/6. Rehearsals began early May 1976, with the final dress rehearsals on July 15-19. The four premieres occurred on July 24-29. In hindsight, it is striking how quickly Chéreau and his team were able to plan and realize their ideas, and how little rehearsal time they had to do so.

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Walküre, Act 3 (“On the summit of a rocky mountain”): Richard Peduzzi, stage designer for the Bayreuth Centennial Ring, alludes to Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.

Competing Interpretations of Wagner

What is so remarkable about the Bayreuth Centennial Ring is that Chéreau and Boulez present two very different interpretations of Wagner. Chéreau writes in the Siegfried program notes:

The primary discourse of the Ring, its obvious message, is … Wagner’s astonishing vision of power, political power, society, and the modern State. The Ring is … a description of the mechanisms of power – how it is seized, how it is lost – of the terrible perversion of societies based on the preservation of power, of the mechanisms of the powerful State … which orders from the beginning its own apocalypse, since its exclusive concern quickly becomes the maintenance of its power. (English translation from Nattiez & Repensek 1980)

In dialogue with the New Philosophers, Chéreau presents the modern state as a totalitarian-like force that would rather blow itself up than give up power. André Glucksmann, one of the key members of the New Philosophers, writes in his book Les Maîtres Penseurs (The Master Thinkers): “Why does power assert itself in the planning of catastrophes? Why does it know only one history, that of an endless countdown? Why do the states keep Apocalypse-time? (261).” In other words, power is intrinsically evil, concerning itself exclusively with preservation and resulting in inevitable destruction. Particularly disturbing about the Chéreau production is his depiction of Mime, which emphasizes the anti-Semitic aspects of the character. Performed by Heinz Zednik, Mime is a pathetic creature, hunched over and with a nasal and groveling voice. Chéreau is responding to Adorno’s argument that Mime is Wagner’s spiteful caricature of Jews. He is also portraying Mime as a victim of a totalitarian-like state.

(Mime scene from Siegfried, Act 2; watch from 2:14:06 to 2:21:00)

On the other hand, Pierre Boulez dismisses the political aspects of Wagner’s life and works entirely, focusing instead on the artistic innovations of the music. Influenced by Roland Barthes, Boulez thinks of the Ring as a text removed from the author’s intentions – a product not of an author-composer but rather of an underlying musical language. This radical approach enables Boulez to brush aside any question of Wagner’s ideological beliefs and the music’s appropriation by the Nazis. Boulez’s thinking is audible in his conducting, especially in his attention to the harmonic, rhythmic, and temporal innovations of the music. In the following example (Siegfried’s Rhine Journey), Boulez brings out the contrapuntal detail and accomplishes seamless transitions between the sections by means of gradual tempo changes:

In the second example (the transition music between scenes 2 and 3 of Rheingold), Boulez gradually increases the tempo, highlights the syncopation, and draws attention to how Wagner layers ostinatos on top of each other.


(See Part 2 to find out what Chéreau and Boulez’s interpretations have in common.)