Art is augmented reality. So when Bayreuth stages an AR “Parsifal,” to curiosity, doubt, disgust—the whole spectrum of emotions from desire to hatred—it’s worth taking a step back. 

Opera as a genre already augments reality. Janáček’s Katya Kabanova wonders why normal people can’t fly, opera lovers wonder why the same normal people don’t sing their thoughts, and opera houses augment the realities of cities as bizarre intrusions in the texture of the real. The obvious example is Wagner’s Festspielhaus, loitering strangely in the normal life of a provincial town where teenagers drink beer and listen to Rammstein. But consider Bayreuth’s other house, the Margravial Opera House, for a moment. With the exception of its original curtain, stolen by Napoleon’s soldiers, the house looks much like it did when it was built in 1750. Its illusory paintings and mirrors create the sensation of infinity, as if the hall was occasionally navigated by secretive winged creatures. 

The night before the “Parsifal” premiere, Alexandre Tharaud performed a lyrically sensitive piano recital there, with works by Rameau, Ravel’s “Miroirs,” and Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces,” music that played to and contrasted with the games of perspective, false curtains, and ornaments of the space. One of the winged creatures could easily have been Rameau’s ghost. The excess of the room—the Baroque augmented reality—distracted in no way from the music, but instead kissed it, impregnated it, with an additional dimension.  

At Jay Scheib’s new “Parsifal” the next day, the bizarre intrusions of non-augmented reality were all too, well, real. As the rich and (occasionally) beautiful drove up the hill to the theater, activists demonstrated for debt forgiveness in the Global South and more decisive action on the climate crisis. So far, so predictably Bayreuthian. But this year’s premiere added a new wrinkle of injustice: the smart glasses required for the full AR experience were not available to everyone in the audience. At $1,000 a pop, not to mention the behind-the-scenes grumbling and attendant hit to morale, it’s not hard to see why the festival didn’t spring for a complete set. An ambitious idea lands in compromised reality: a problem Wagner himself was intimately familiar with. 

An opera director has always had to serve audiences with different kinds of glasses on. A staging must be both comprehensible to newcomers and interesting for opera veterans. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way. Usually one side is unhappy, sometimes both are (which isn’t as satisfying as it sounds). In this “Parsifal,” the class divisions are explicit. About a quarter of the audience members are served an extra layer of 3D imagery, everyone just sees the normal stage. 

Not that those who fail to score the glasses upgrade are missing out. The AR technology is clearly in its early stages, with a free-trial-version aesthetic. Gamers familiar with “Fortnite” or “Ghost of Tsushima” won’t be impressed by the graphics. Most of what you see is the stage, darkened by the tinted glasses, and in front of it, a series of optically unimpressive and dramaturgically indifferent objects flying around: rocks, literal holy doves and bloody swans, trees, battery parts…—actually, there’s no point listing them. The objects don’t look good and there clearly wasn’t much thought put into their selection and design. Even at Wagner’s famous, esoteric phrase “Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit,” (“Here time becomes space”) our reality is augmented only by some airborne boulders, and when the Grail is revealed, it’s mostly blue lines and praying silhouettes. That means we don’t expect more than random blossoms and flowers for the “Karfreitagszauber” music at the end. Indeed, random blossoms and flowers are exactly what we get.

Just as there are too few AR glasses for the audience, there are also too few ideas for how to use those glasses: the imagery is neither creative nor cohesive. I can’t tell you whether that’s a technical, financial, or artistic issue. Probably a little bit of all three.

Photo © Joshua Higgason

Which brings us to the directorial work on stage, the layer visible to the mere mortals bereft of AR glasses. The result is more disappointing still. There’s a notable lack of the director’s craft: For most of the opera, the singers just stand around. At least, in Act III, set designer Mimi Lien comes up with an interesting idea: She fills an onstage trench with water, creating a series of random reflections that are far more compelling than the augmented reality projections. (Finally, a gesture toward the illusory infinities of Tharaud’s recital at the Margravial Opera House.) On the other hand, Meentje Nielsen’s costumes are tasteless and relentlessly unflattering. 

Grumpy Wagnerians like to groan about “the staging” like a negative mantra. But the problem in this “Parsifal” is not the staging; it’s the utter lack of it. Underwhelming craft meets understimulating ideas. There’s no trace of a directorial position toward the strange opera that is “Parsifal,” nor even really any apparent interest in it (of course that interest can be, perhaps must be, critical or deconstructive). It’s an accusation one could never level at, say, Kirill Serebrennikov’s gripping staging in Vienna, even when the narration in Act III threatens to overload the piece. But each time Scheib has the inkling of an idea, like the destruction of the Grail at the end, he fails to develop it. You end up merely shrugging your shoulders. Why should we care? 

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In this “Parsifal,” there is no impregnation. Unlike Tharaud’s recital in the Baroque hall of mirrors, the music remains unkissed by image. That makes it difficult to appreciate the high musical level of the performance. Nevertheless, the sonic facet of the Gesamtkunstwerk does shine through—notably in the dialogue between Parsifal and Kundry in Act II. No matter Andreas Schager’s stiff acting: Despite his reputation, he finds the most wonderful, soft tones in this performance, subtly differentiated, well paced, vulnerable, in breathtaking confrontation with Elīna Garanča. The scene is truly the highlight of the evening. The velvet, numbing beauty of her voice combines with outstanding clarity of diction. In the tatters of this staging, Garanča and Schager find enormous depth. These artists are in a league of their own.

Garanca and Schager • Photo © Enrico Nawrath

In this “Parsifal,” too, there’s the usual satisfaction in hearing Bayreuth’s excellent regulars, most especially Georg Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz. Zeppenfeld is a reliable presence and exemplar of perfect diction. Derek Walton, as Amfortas, is also a source of solid joy. He sings Amfortas after appearing earlier as Klingsor; there is still a bit of Klingsor in his Amfortas, which has its charm. (Jordan Shanahan plays Klingsor this time, with equal conviction.)

Pablo Heras-Casado makes his Bayreuth debut with this production. He’s an utterly reliable conductor in all kinds of repertoire, comparable to François-Xavier Roth. Heras-Casado’s tempi are a little heavier than I expected and, in Act I, this dependability comes at the cost of some momentum and magic. But his orchestra’s timing, balance, and support for the voices are extremely valuable. As the opera proceeds, the sound of the orchestra does blossom, finally impregnating the space of the Festspielhaus.

Unless I’m mistaken, and what I thought was the blossoming orchestra was actually my improved hearing. At this moment, I’d finally taken off the AR glasses.  


That leaves us with a tricky question. Was the whole augmented reality glasses idea really, as critics argued, an absurd waste of effort and money, like—just as an example—hunting for an alleged lion in the forest with drones and helicopters? Yes and no. Yes, because the aesthetic result of this “Parsifal” landed somewhere between questionable and counterproductive. No, because you could interpret it as an exciting, even necessary vision, and an essential first step towards a future that will increasingly require such visions. 

Again, it’s important to emphasize that all of this—putting aside the weakness of the stage direction—is in very early days technically. Think of the first attempts at electronic music in the 1950s. For our ears today, those pieces often sound meager, monotonous, and barren. But they also cleared paths and erected foundations for later electronic compositions. Let us wait for a Siegfried-like Reality Augmenter to arrive with affordable technology, creative imagination, and a feeling for the whole. 

In this “Parsifal,” there were moments when you could start to sense the possible expanding: the infinite-seeming wall rising up in front of Klingsor; the craggy landscape below your feet, full of depths and valleys; even the times when you came face to face with (admittedly lifeless) avatars. Finally something besides awkwardly spinning objects! These remained fleeting moments. Still, I found myself fantasizing about a “Ring” with a narratively coherent and topographically interesting version of an augmented reality staging. The cycle seems predestined for such technology. (We’ll have to see who is willing to wear a heavy, somewhat swampy pair of AR glasses on their nose for 16 hours. Another pragmatic problem for the visionaries.) ¶

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Translated by Jeffrey Arlo Brown