Although the Bayreuth Festival has had a professional chorus for many decades, there was in fact no such chorus at the inaugural performances of the Ring at the 1876 Festival. On that occasion, the male chorus in Götterdämmerung was made up of members of local choral societies reinforced by soloists signed up for other roles in the cycles.
By the same token, there was neither a Festival Orchestra nor an independent Festival Chorus for the first performances of Parsifal in 1882. Initially these functions were assumed by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Munich Court Theatre, and it was not until 1886 that the first attempt was made to form an independent chorus and orchestra.
Today the chorus is made up of 134 singers who meet each summer in Bayreuth for the rehearsals and performances. Intensive rehearsals are held in the chorus rehearsal room, which was specially built for this purpose in 1987 and which is large enough to accommodate 248 persons. All the rehearsals take place under the supervision of the Festival’s Chorus Master.
With the exception of the first three parts of the Ring, all the operas and music dramas that are performed in Bayreuth include substantial parts for a chorus, although the vocal and staging demands vary considerably from work to work. With the exception of Tristan und Isolde, the chorus is invariably involved in important scenes and has to deal with enormous vocal challenges. The 58 women and 76 men of the chorus are required to demonstrate great vocal flexibility, ranging from the martial aggression of Hagen’s vassals in Götterdämmerung to the lyrical transfiguration of the pilgrims in Tannhäuser and to the subtle nuances of the vocal writing for the Knights of the Grail in Parsifal. In the two early operas, Der fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin, but also in Götterdämmerung, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal, the men’s chorus is much more frequently divided into smaller groups than its female counterpart, hence the fact that the Bayreuth Chorus has substantially more men than women. But Wagner not only wrote great choral scenes in his works. Time and again we also find individual scenes scored for much smaller groups involving subtly differentiated forces such as the famous Spinning Chorus in Der fliegende Holländer, which is scored for sixteen women’s voices, and the Flowermaidens’ Scene in Act Two of Parsifal, which is scored for twenty-four women’s voices. The Apprentices in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, finally, are made up of eight men and eight women.
Most of the singers who make up the Bayreuth Festival Chorus come from professional choruses based at other European opera houses and radio stations, although others are not contractually bound to any one particular institution but work as freelance singers at various opera houses or in radio choirs. The Chorus also includes a number of students who are eager to pursue careers as singers and who are able to gain experience of the Wagnerian repertory by appearing in the Festival Chorus. All the members of the Chorus have previously taken part in a selection process comparable to the ones found in other professional choirs. Not all singers are able to appear in Bayreuth every year, with the result that there is a natural rotation each season. In spite of this, there is a very large regular contingent of singers, some of whom have been taking part in Festival performances over a period of many years. Without their experience and high standards, it would be very difficult to achieve the range and quality that the Chorus is required to show within a relatively brief rehearsal period. The Bayreuth Festival Chorus’s success in rising to this challenge is evidenced by the numerous awards they have won, including the Orphée d’Or and the Wilhelm Pitz Prize.
Since 2000 the chorus master has been Eberhard Friedrich, only the third chorus master after Wilhelm Pitz and Norbert Balatsch to assume responsibility for the Chorus’s vocal standards in Bayreuth since 1951. This statistic may be regarded as a sign of the impressive continuity that distinguishes the Festival Chorus’s work in Bayreuth. Under his leadership, the Bayreuth Festival Chorus is honored with the International Opera Award in 2014 as Best Opera Chorus.