Our future historians will cull from still unpublished letters and memoirs ... the idea that the performances at Bayreuth had really much the status of religious rites and that their effects were not unlike what is technically called a revival.
--Vernon Lee (1911: 875)
The idea that there is something religious about Bayreuth is not new, and goes well beyond cliches about opera houses as the "cathedrals of the bourgeoisie." The words used to describe the festival by Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians alike have often been consciously religious. One makes a pilgrimage to the holy site, there are acolytes who serve the holy work and the orthodoxy, heretics are excommunicated--the comparisons are all too obvious. Friedrich Nietzsche referred to this phenomenon in a letter to his friend Malwida von Meysenburg when he suggested that "all this Wagnerizing" was "an unconscious emulation of Rome" (Fischer-Dieskau 1974:202). Even in more recent times, after the moral, ideological, and organizational disasters that the festival was caught up in during the twentieth century, the skies above the Festspielhaus were scoured for signs of the white smoke announcing which member of the dysfunctional clan was to succeed the composer's grandson Wolfgang Wagner.
If this musical Vatican has a central rite, it is surely Parsifal. Not an opera or a music drama but a "Buhnenweihfestspiel" (a "stage-festival-consecration-play"), Wagner's last work leaves the cheerful paganism of the Ring far behind. (1) The composer had toyed with aspects of Christianity as far back as Tannhauser, but in Parsifal he went much further, almost to the point, many believed, of creating opera as sacrament. Since the Second World War, controversies about the piece have been essentially political, but it was its religious content that most engaged contemporaries. At the time of the 1882 premiere much ink was spilt about whether the piece was Catholic or Protestant, or even Christian at all. There were plenty of Wagnerites who saw it as a profound new kind of religious experience, but other observers saw the work as heretical at best and out-and-out pagan at worst.
The plot of Parsifal certainly offered Christian and secular critics a lot to talk about. Amfortas, the king of the Grail Knights, has been stabbed in the side by the magic spear that pierced Christ's side on the Cross. This morbid penetration is a symbolic punishment for his weakness in the face of seduction by Kundry, a kind of female Ahaserus, a woman doomed to wander the earth after mocking Christ's Passion. The Knights guard the Holy Grail, but, as with the legend of the Fisher King, their kingdom is as sick as their king. Only the "Pure Fool" can bring redemption. In the first act Parsifal stumbles upon the Grail Kingdom, experiences the ritual of the unveiling of the grail, but does not yet understand its message. In the next act he resists Kundry's attempts to seduce him, achieving compassionate wisdom at the moment they kiss. Parsifal then takes the spear from Klingsor, the castrated evil wizard whom Kundry serves, makes the sign of the cross and destroys his castle. In the third act, Parsifal returns to the Grail Kingdom on Good Friday after many years of wandering. Kundry washes his feet and the oldest of the Grail Knights, Gurnemanz, anoints him the new King of the Grail. In the final scene, Amfortas refuses to reveal the grail and begs to be killed, but Parsifal heals and redeems him with the spear, orders the unveiling of the grail, at which point Kundry dies, redeemed, and a white dove descends above Parsifal's head. Thus, although Jesus is never named as such, Christian imagery suffuses the whole work.
The debate on the work's religious character occurred in the context of a fierce ideological struggle between church and state in the aftermath of the so-called Kulturkampf, which Bismarck had launched to establish the supremacy of the Protestant Prussian order over a united German Reich that had a very large Catholic population, including French and Polish minorities. …