Long Story Short
Boy meets Grail.
Titurel is the founding father of the Brotherhood of Grail Knights.
He is far older than any human being ought to be, and still lives (albeit in
his coffin) only because the Grail keeps him alive.
The Grail Knights are ascetic heroes, fed by the magic of the Grail, who
run around the world fighting evil. Their order is in trouble in the first act
and falling apart by the third.
Klingsor wasn't allowed to join the Grail Brotherhood and so became
an evil wizard intent on destroying the order by corrupting its knights.
The Flower Maidens are beautiful illusions, conjured by Klingsor to
distract and delude the Grail Knights.
Kundry has a split personality. Sometimes she's a weird, disagreeable,
yet reliable servant of the Grail Knights; sometimes she's a slave to Klingsor's
black magic, a beautiful seductress he uses to ensnare and corrupt the knights.
Amfortas is Titurel's son and the current leader of the Grail Knights.
He has a terrible wound in his side which gives him chronic pain, and it bleeds
and gets worse every time he opens the Grail to feed his knights. But that's
his job, as Grail Kingso as you can imagine, he hates his life.
Gurnemanz is one of the Grail Knights. He thinks he knows everything
there is to know about the history of the Grail (and is eager to share his knowledge!),
but he's missing several important facts.
Parsifal is a foolish teenage boy when he first turns up. Over the course
of the opera, he grows into a mature man, made wise through compassion, who
can heal Amfortas's wound and bring life back to the Grail Brotherhood.
Where and When?
In Spain during the Middle Ages. But this story is nothing if not mythic, so
it really takes place in every time and placeon the landscape of the human
What's Going On?
The opera Parsifal dramatizes the conclusion of a long and complicated
story, which began two thousand years ago:
Prologue at Golgotha. At the Crucifixion, a woman—eventually to be
reincarnated as Kundry—laughed at Jesus. He looked at her, nevertheless,
with love; and so she was cursed, doomed to an endless cycle of rebirth
until she could learn compassion, to share another’s suffering rather
than take joy from it. Also, while Jesus was hanging from the cross, a
Roman soldier pierced his side with a spear. Blood gushed forth, and one
of his followers caught the blood in the cup he drank from the previous
night, at the Last Supper. This cup becomes the Holy Grail, and is
forever associated with the Roman soldier’s spear.
Early days of the Grail Brotherhood. Centuries later, the angels gave
the Grail and spear to Titurel, who founded the Brotherhood of the Grail
and built the Castle of the Grail in a location no sinner can find.
Titurel demanded purity from his Grail Knights, and when Klingsor
applied to join the brotherhood, he found he couldn’t live up to
Titurel’s exacting standards. Klingsor even mutilated himself in a
misguided attempt to achieve chastity and was roundly ridiculed and
rejected for his pains. In revenge, he learned black magic and built his
own castle nearby. There he tempted many of the Grail Knights,
corrupting them with beautiful women.
Klingsor takes the spear. About this time, Titurel retired. His son
Amfortas, the new Grail King, attacked Klingsor’s castle with sacred
spear in hand. But Amfortas forgot his mission when Kundry—now one of
Klingsor’s bewitching beauties—seduced him. Amfortas was lying with her
when Klingsor stole the spear and used it to pierce Amfortas’s side.
Gurnemanz and the other knights helped Amfortas escape; but his wound
never healed, and he knows Klingsor is busily plotting to steal the
Grail cup as well. Amfortas has only one comfort: a vision he once had
in a dream, in which words appeared cut into the cup: “Await the Chosen
One, the innocent fool made wise by compassion.”
During the opera. The three acts of the opera chronicle the adventures
Parsifal has as he stumbles into this strange world of the Grail.
In the first act, Gurnemanz is chewing him out for needlessly killing a
swan when Parsifal’s profound stupidity reminds Gurnemanz of the
prophecy. Hoping that Parsifal might be the innocent fool, the Chosen
One, Gurnemanz takes him to the Grail Castle, where Amfortas
(reluctantly and in great pain) opens the Grail and gives his knights
sustenance. Parsifal just stares blankly during the ritual and has
nothing to say when it’s over, so the disappointed Gurnemanz sends him
In the second act, the wandering Parsifal happens upon Klingsor’s
castle. He defeats all of Klingsor’s men (really, fallen Grail Knights)
in combat and innocently flirts with their Flower Maidens. Then Kundry
arrives to seduce him. She tells him his name, which he had forgotten;
she reminds him of his mother’s love; and she promises him that her love
will make him a god. But when she kisses him, suddenly he feels the pain
of Amfortas, and can think of nothing else except healing the king’s
wound. He asks Kundry to show him the way back to the Grail Castle. But
she is furious because he won’t have sex with her and curses him to
endless wandering. Klingsor tries to stop Parsifal with the spear he
took from Amfortas, but Parsifal takes the spear and uses it to dispel
Klingsor’s magic illusions.
The opera’s third act takes place many years later, on Good Friday, the
day Parsifal finally finds his way back to the Grail Kingdom. He finds
Gurnemanz and Kundry in the forest; Gurnemanz baptizes Parsifal, and
Parsifal baptizes Kundry. All three go to the Grail Castle for the
funeral of Titurel, who died recently because Amfortas refused to open
the Grail. At the castle, the Grail Knights are demanding that Amfortas
perform the ritual, but he still refuses, begging them to kill him and
put him out of his misery. “Take out your weapons and kill me!” he
sings. Parsifal enters and touches Amfortas’s wound with the very spear
that dealt it, and the wound is miraculously healed.
What is a Stage-Consecrating Festival-Play, Anyway?
Parsifal is unlike
any other opera. In fact, its creator, Richard Wagner, didn’t call it an
opera, he invented a word and called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel—which
means something along the lines of “Stage-Consecrating Festival-Play.”
(Pronounce it be-YOU-nin-VY-FEST-SHPEEL.) Wagner didn’t much care for
opera as it was typically done in nineteenth-century Europe, so he
called his artistic creations not “operas” but “dramas” or even
“Festival Plays.” Wagner wanted his Festival Plays performed at
festivals where everyone in the audience was on vacation, so they could
give more time and attention to these long, rich shows than they would
to regular operas. And as for consecrating a stage, the music of
Parsifal was written specifically for the acoustics in the Festspielhaus
in Bayreuth, Germany, a theater designed by Richard Wagner. In fact,
Wagner never intended for Parsifal to be performed in any other theater.
His original idea was that only the true believers who made the
pilgrimage to Wagner’s Temple of Art at Bayreuth would be able to hear
Parsifal. Thus the music of Parsifal would bless and sanctify the
Bayreuth stage, making it a unique place—a Grail Castle among opera
houses. Wagner also had a more practical reason for this odd plan: he
wrote Parsifal at the end of his life and wanted to leave his wife and
children a sure-fire money-maker. If they had exclusive rights to this
important opera, they were guaranteed an income long after he was gone.
His plan worked surprisingly well. In those days copyright only lasted
thirty years, but every opera company in Europe honored Wagner’s
request. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City ignored the composer’s
wishes and presented the opera about ten years before any other company
did. Soon Parsifal had achieved the mixture of popularity and
controversy that is synonymous with Richard Wagner. This year, Parsifal
will consecrate the brand-new stage of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, the new
opera house in Seattle—a city known throughout the world for its
productions of Wagner operas.
Wagner’s last opera is unique not only because of
its history, but also because it works differently than most operas.
While its music is ravishingly beautiful and has enchanted the world’s
greatest musicians for over 120 years, its story is—to say the
least—challenging. Wagner, an artist who loved ambiguity, made one of
our most complicated myths into a fascinating yet perplexing libretto,
and scholars have spilled oceans of ink arguing about what it might
mean. Clearly, Parsifal is about sex and religion, among other things;
but what does it say about these central human concerns? It has been
seen as an attack on Judaism, an attack on Christianity, a celebration
of Christianity, a celebration of Buddhism, a tract against sexual
promiscuity, a tract against sexual repression, a proto-fascist hymn to
misogyny, racism, and homophobia, and a homosexual fantasy, not to
mention a universal cry for love, peace, and compassion for all living
things. Parsifal offers no easy answers; but it does ask almost all the
It’s up to the audience at each production of Parsifal to try and figure
out what it’s all about. To assist you in your own journey toward the
Grail, Seattle Opera will offer a wide variety of educational programs
connected with Parsifal; check our website calendar,
details. And plan ahead before you go to the theater! This opera is
very long and much of the slow, beautiful music will relax you, even
lull you into a trance-like state. So avoid drinking alcohol when you go
to Parsifal, because it will (a) make you sleepy, and (b) act as a
diuretic. Caffeine may help keep you alert, but it, too, will make you
want to go to the bathroom at the worst possible time. Since the opera,
with intermissions, is about five hours long, a better idea is to get
plenty of sleep the night before, eat a light meal before coming to the
theater, and plan on getting a snack at one of the intermissions. Take
care of your body and then you won’t be distracted by it as you’re
getting lost in the transcendent experience this opera can offer!