“You have to start from scratch each time”
The first unforgettable Bayreuth experience with light design by Manfred Voss was ‘Tristan and Isolde’ in 1993, directed by Heiner Müller, with Daniel Barenboim as musical director. It was the first time Müller had directed another’s work. For his first opera he did not want “to tell a psychologically motivated, unhappy love story full of emotions,” as Ingvelde Geleng wrote (BTR 5/1993). Rather, he was interested in the workings of fate in the piece.
For his production he had a powerful visual setting created by stage designer Erich Wonder and Manfred Voss: a space of colour and light, reminiscent of paintings by Mark Rothko. By the time Heiner Müller’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’ was staged, Voss had already been working for the stage for thirty years. A trained electrician, in the 1960s he was hired by Kurt Hübner in that capacity for the Bremen Theatre. Bremen was at the vanguard of new developments in theatre at the time.
Here, directors Peter Stein and Luc Bondy were dusting off and shaking up the classics. Later they set up the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin, which continued their approach and took it further. Stage designers such as Wilfried Minks and Erich Wonder created pioneering, abstract spaces, echoing the narrative content by visual means. This is where Voss developed his lighting idiom, learning from lighting man Wieland Wagner, creating new visual worlds: large, expansive, abstract spaces, allowing plenty of scope for the spectators to make their own associations. In 1976, Voss impressed the opera world with his light design for the ‘Ring’ cycle directed by Patrice Chéreau for the centenary of the Bayreuth festival. At first controversial, this cycle went down in history as the Ring-production of the century in Bayreuth. Chéreau set new standards. For example, he wanted cold daylight for the Twilight of the Gods. Voss had numerous lighting devices especially built or converted – and he used light that was more customary in film than in theatre. He extended the stage light aesthetic beyond mystifying dimness by adding ways of creating clear, cool, brightly lit spaces.
From 1976 to 2003 Voss created the lighting for all Bayreuth’s productions. “We were like a big family there,” remembers Ulrich Niepel, director of light at the Deutsche Oper, which he joined in 1983. On the Bayreuth team from 1991 to 2010, Niepel says: “It was a great workshop at Bayreuth. We all got stuck in there together – artists and technicians – for three months.” Voss worked meticulously and boldly on his light design. His contributions to Bayreuth earned him press accolades such as ‘lighting god in Valhalla’. But he also worked in many other theatres in Germany and across Europe. Hamburg was a crucial base: From 1990 to 1995 he worked at the Hamburg State Opera with directors including Johannes Schaaf, Achim Freyer, Willy Decker, Ruth Berghaus, and Peter Konwitschny.
Another important station on his professional journey was Cologne, where he was artistic director of lighting from 1995 to 2003. In parallel, he also ventured further across the world for opera productions in Berlin, Leipzig, Vienna, Athens, Rome, Catania, Paris, Barcelona, Bilbao, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, Venice, San Francisco, Copenhagen, and Salzburg.
Manfred Voss created the lighting for nine ‘Rings’. The new production in 2000 was directed by Jürgen Flimm, then director of Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre (with musical director Giuseppe Sinopoli). It was Flimm’s first ‘Ring’, and he admitted to being somewhat in awe of what he regarded as the most outstanding work ever in the history of music. “Manfred Voss conjured light with the precision of someone constructing a model train set. Focussing, highlighting moods, and creating atmospheres for those enormous spaces was a major challenge. In conjunction with everyone involved, it became an extremely controversial but successful production.
In 2003, Voss was awarded an OPUS stage prize at Frankfurt Trade Fair for his contributions to lighting design and especially for his interpretations of Wagner operas. He had most recently garnered attention with the 2002 production of ‘Tannhäuser’, which Voss himself did not consider one of his best achievements, and which required him to light completely enclosed stage spaces. At the award-giving, Voss raved about the ‘Ring’ production he was working on in Cologne and especially recommended the ‘Twilight of the Gods’. It was an excellent tip; the production was an unforgettable experience. Director Robert Carsen had created an apocalyptic version of the ‘Ring’ with stage designer Patrick Kinmonth, based on Wagner’s theme of the human threat to nature. The stage set was a landscape of consumer waste, which steadily piled up in a Rhine without water until it bursts into flames in ‘Twilight of the Gods’. By means of intense light from the side and above, without apron, Voss transformed the refuse into a mythical-, even magical-seeming apocalyptic landscape. The light design inspired comparisons with the paintings of baroque artist Caravaggio. This ‘Ring’ continues to be staged in Madrid, as many other of the operas he worked on in Germany and abroad.
For every stage, Voss created new light. Gero Zimmermann-Linder worked with Voss during his time as technical director in Bayreuth, 1990 to 2000. He was most impressed by the way Voss refrained from imprinting his own style on the productions. As Voss said, “over the course of my career I’ve done a lot of works twice, not only Wagner. You have to start from scratch each time and forget old designs but not the lessons you learned.”
In 2017 and 2018 a remake of the Bayreuth production of ‘Tristan and Isolde’ was staged as a coproduction of the Lyon and Linz operas. It was to be Manfred Voss’ last work, prepared together with Ulrich Niepel. Manfred Voss died on 26 October 2020 in Bremen.
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