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Afterlives of May 1968 in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring Cycle

In May 1968 and the months following it, France experienced widespread student protests and the largest worker strike in French history, affecting all parts of France and all sectors of the economy. I adopt the term “afterlives” from Kristin Ross (2002) to refer to how the legacy of May 1968 was subjected to new interpretations for personal and political gain during the 1970s in France. These afterlives were apparent not only in concert music – as documented by Eric Drott (2011) – but also in opera stagings, in particular of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The theme of Wagner the revolutionary – Wagner’s participation in the Dresden Uprising of 1849 and the revolutionary content of his works – was especially conducive to assessments of current events and memories of the 1968 events.

Both Chéreau and Boulez participated in the May events, albeit in different ways. Chéreau experimented 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.

By the mid-1970s, memories of May 1968 had undergone a significant transformation. Many former radicals disavowed their revolutionary past and Marxism in general, as exemplified by the New Philosophers. Chéreau and Boulez were similarly disappointed with and wished to forget their experiences of May 1968. In spite of their desire to 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. Boulez repeatedly draws on ideas from his 1968 lecture, in particular the idea of discovering a new musical language and establishing a research center outside of the traditional concert system.

See my blog posts on the fortieth anniversary of the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle (Part 1, Part 2).

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

Matriarchy and Feminism in the Frankfurt Ring Cycle (1985-1987)

Berghaus’s Frankfurt staging was the first Ring cycle to interpret the work in terms of matriarchal theory – the idea that the course of human history involves a transition from a matriarchal to patriarchal society. She adopted this idea from women’s literature in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the 1970s and 1980s.

The Frankfurt Ring was also the first cycle to incorporate post-Brechtian performance. As outlined by David Barnett (2011), post-Brechtian performance retains Brecht’s dialectical framework without adhering to a dogmatic sense of historical materialism. Berghaus stresses the autonomy of the different media involved in opera. Her performance style highlights a gestural language of signs and metaphors. Gestures convey meaning independent of the vocal text, yet there is no pre-existing code for interpreting these gestures. Rather, meaning is contextual and arises over the course of the production.

I argue that Berghaus’s staging is an example of feminism in the GDR, even though she did not consider herself a feminist and there was no independent women’s movement in the GDR. More specifically, I look at her depiction of Brünnhilde – how Brünnhilde is mistreated but ultimately achieves emancipation from the patriarchal order.

Though not the first woman to direct Wagner – Cosima had already done so after her husband’s death – Berghaus served as a model for future directors – male and female alike – and contributed to greater gender equality in a field that remains predominantly male to this day.

I presented on Ruth Berghaus’s Frankfurt Ring cycle at the AMS-GNY meeting in February 2016.


Ruth Berghaus belonged to what Christina Haberlik refers to as the “pioneers” of female directors.

Pierre Boulez, Richard Wagner, and Bayreuth

In August 1966, Pierre Boulez conducted Wieland Wagner’s staging of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival. He went on to conduct the Bayreuth Centennial Ring between 1976 and 1980. Boulez’s experiences in Bayreuth had a profound effect on his understanding of music and its place in society. Like Wagner, Boulez felt that he had been forced into exile after his falling out with Minister of Culture André Malraux. Boulez’s plans for IRCAM were shaped by the idea that Wagner had created a music center existing outside of the traditional system of opera houses and concert halls, a place where Wagner could experiment with a new musical language and new technology. Furthermore, Boulez incorporated musical techniques from Wagner’s music, in particular the art of transition.

See my blog on Boulez, IRCAM, and Bayreuth.


The IRCAM building and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus look nothing alike, but Boulez nevertheless saw Bayreuth as a model for IRCAM.