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Culture

Bayreuth Goes 21st Century with Wagnerian Stunt Man

The deeply conservative Wagner Festival in Bayreuth breaks new ground this summer, employing a stunt man to heighten an operatic staging effect for the first time in its 132-year history.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

A surprise awaits the audience on opening night

Standing in for tenor Christopher Ventris, who sings Parsifal in the opera of the same name, Matthias Schendel, 31, will jump off a 6-meter (20-foot) high balcony at the premiere and festival opening night this Friday evening.

"I'm proud and honored to be involved," said Schendel of his engagement for the highest of high culture events.

Stunt men are a rarity in any opera house, but especially at a Wagner performance where music and meaning are the focus.

The annual festival at Bayreuth is run by descendants of composer Richard Wagner and is gently experimenting this year with such 21st century ideas as live streaming to a paying online audience.

Surprise saved for the audience

Precisely what Schendel has to do is still a secret: The effect is meant to be a surprise for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other VIP guests who turn up in ball gowns and tuxedos for the opening night.

Schendel, who has been in the stunts profession since 1995, recalls, "When I was a kid I wanted to be a stunt man.

"I used to copy stunts by my heroes like Colt Seavers," he said, referring to a fictional stunt man in a US television series, The Fall Guy.

Schendel dropped out of his studies, learned to be a camera-man so he could get a foot in the door of the film business, and joined a stunt team to develop a repertoire of stunts.

He became the head of a group in 2000 and registered it as a firm, VIPstuntcamf, which won contracts in Germany and abroad. He has worked on movies in which stars including Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman have played.

Next role: would-be Hitler assassin

He is set to appear fleetingly next year in Valkyrie, the movie about a true-life plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, as a Nazi officer blown up by the bomb.

Schendel's appearance in Wagner's Parsifal will last just a few moments, but is complicated enough. Every Wagner festival offers a fresh staging of one of the composer's works, with the rest of the month-long program reprising previous years' productions from the festival repertoire. This year Parsifal is up for the honor.

"Fortunately I don't have to sing," said Schendel. He takes over Ventris' role to make his long leap down to soft mats devised by fellow German stunt man Christian Gneissel to cushion the impact.

The player who gets back to his feet again and continues singing will be Ventris, of course, not Schendel, but the audience will probably not even notice the illusion.

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