Parsifal


In German with English Captions

Long Story Short

Boy meets Grail.

Who's Who?

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 soul.

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 away.

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.

Interpreting Parsifal

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 important questions.

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, www.seattleopera.org/calendar/, for 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!

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