Theatre Designer: Adolphe Appia (1862 - 1928)

Designs for Wagnerian Operas

2.  Parsifal

3.  parsifal

4. Walkure

5. Tristan

Other Designs by Appia

6.  Hellerau

7. Hellarau 2

Theatre of the Educational Institution for Rhythmic Gymnastics in the Garden City of Hellerau (c. 1913)

The theatre at Hellerau (1910-1913) was designed by Heinrich Tessenow (1876-1950) in the neo-classical style for which he was best known. It housed the 'Educational Institute for Rhythmic Gymnastics' founded by the Swiss music pedagogue Emile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865-1950). While in Switzerland, Dalcroze had developed a revolutionary method for teaching music through movement and dance. He called his method 'eurythmics'. Seeking the full integration of mind and body (note the yin-yang symbol above the theater entrance), Dalcroze used the approach to train musicians as well as actors and dancers.

The theatre quickly grew into an international centre for modern dance, music, and the dramatic arts, giving artistic expression to the founders’ ideal of the spiritual as well as physical liberation of the “new man.” Hellerau attracted some of the greatest creative minds of Europe at the time. Famed set designer Adolphe Appia (1862-1928) joined Dalcroze at Hellerau – as did the dancers Gret Palucca (1902-1993) and Mary Wigman (1886-1973). Max Reinhardt staged his first theatrical performance there.

Many renowned writers and visual artists, such as Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Le Corbusier, Hans Poelzig, Rainer Maria Rilke, George Bernard Shaw, Franz Kafka, and Stefan Zweig, attended performances there.

[This section of the text draws on ©Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Kunstbibliothek, SMB, Original: Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.]


AppiaAdolphe Appia (1862 - 1928)

1.   Portrait photograph of Adolphe Appia,

Date: ca. 1900
Photographer unknown. Source Beinecke Library.  Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

2.    Parsifal act one, scene one {Mont Salvat), designed by Adolphe Appia.

Date: ca. 1896
Photographer unknown. Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

3.    Adolphe Appia's design for Parsifal act three, scene one.

Date: ca. 1896
Photographer unknown. Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

4.     Adolphe Appia's design for 'Die Walkure act three.

Date: ca. 1896
Photographer unknown. Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

5.   Adolphe Appia's design for the 1923 Milan production of ' Tristan and Isolde  (Act 2).

Date: 1923
Note: Appia endeavoured to use a single torch to light the beginning of the 2nd Act. The lighting created a misty, grim atmosphere with the scenery, which was hardly discernible, becoming gradually perceptible as the audience vision adapts to the low lighting level.  (Werner Herzog, with designer Henning von Gierke, was to use a similar approach, dependent on modern lighting facilities, in the 1987 production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth.)

6.     Adolphe Appia's design for Orpheus, at the Hellerau Eurythmics Centre1913 (Rabbit Hole,)

Date:  1913
Photographer unknown. Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

    Photomontage of Adolphe Appia's Eurhythmic Group, illustrating the integration of dance and plastic forms in activity ar Hellerau. 

Date:  Unknown
Photographer unknown. Original Image believed to be out of copyright.

Taken from a 36 minute documentary of animated drawings and choreographers on the life and work of scenographer ADOLPHE APPIA.

Adolphe Appia (1862 - 1928)

Adolphe Appia, son of Red Cross co-founder Louis Appia, was a Swiss architect and theorist of stage lighting and décor.  He is probably best known for his many scenic designs for Wagner’s operas in which he rejected painted two-dimensional sets for three-dimensional 'living' sets because he believed that shade was as necessary as light to form a connection between the actor and the setting of the performance in time and space. Through the use of control of light intensity, colour and manipulation, Appia created a new perspective of scene design and stage lighting.

Directors and designers have both taken great inspiration from the work of Adolphe Appia, whose design theories and conceptualizations of Wagner’s operas have helped to shape modern perceptions of the relationship between the performance space and lighting. The central principle underpinning much of Appia’s work is that artistic unity is the primary function of the director and the designer. He advocated three elements as fundamental to creating a unified and effective mise en scene:

Dynamic and three dimensional movements by actors.
Using depth and the horizontal dynamics of the performance space.
Perpendicular scenery.

Appia saw light, space and the human body as malleable commodities which should be integrated to create a unified 'mise en scene'. He advocated synchronicity of sound, light and movement in his productions of Wagner’s operas and he tried to integrate corps of actors with the rhythms and moods of the music.

Ultimately however, Appia considered light as the primary element which fused together all aspects of a production and he consistently attempted to unify musical and movement elements of the text and score to the more mystical and symbolic aspects of light. He often tried to have actors, singers and dancers start with a strong symbolic gesture or movement and end with another strong symbolic pose or gesture. In his productions, light was ever changing, manipulated from moment to moment, from action to action. Ultimately, Appia sought to unify stage movement and the use of space, stage rhythm and the mise en scene.

Appia was one of the first designers to understand the potential of stage lighting to do more than merely illuminate actors and painted scenery. His ideas about the staging of 'word-tone drama', together with his own staging's of Tristan und Isolde (Milan 1923) and parts of the (Basle 1924-25) have influenced later staging's, especially those of the second half of the twentieth century.

For Appia and for his productions, the 'mise en scene' and the totality or unity of the performance experience was primary and he believed that these elements drove movement and initiated action more than any thing else. Appia’s designs and theories went on to inspire many other theatre creators such as Edward Gordon Craig, Jacques Copeau and Wieland Wagner.

Appia and Craig, working independently of each other, laid the foundation of modern non-illusionistic theatre practice. But in order to put their work into context we may look at the movement that the work of Appia and Craig finds its roots in: Symbolism and (briefly) how it relates to a wider phenomenon, that of Modernism.

Following the lead of Impressionists, Cubists and early Surrealist painters (Seurat, Cézanne and Henri Rousseau), Symbolists wanted to look beneath surface reality - to rediscover the mysterious, visionary and poetic aspects of life which Naturalism was threatening to lose. For the Symbolist, spirituality and mysterious internal and external forces were the source of a truth more profound than that derived from the mere observation of outward appearance. This truth for them is elusive and subjective. It cannot be represented directly or discovered through the five senses. It is beyond objective examination - it cannot be expressed directly or through rational means, it can only be hinted at through a network of symbols evoking feelings and states of mind.

For the Symbolists theatre becomes a metaphysical almost religious experience. 

For further information on Symbolism in the Theatre, please follow this LINK


[Text based, in part, on Music and the Art of the Theatre and A Revolution in Stage Design: Drawings and Productions of Adolphe by Fosco Lucarelli, with other texts in the public domain.]