Richard Wagner wanted to pack up his things and leave. It wasn't because in a mere two days he was set to conduct a production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" without the luxury of a single rehearsal. Rather, it was the director of the Magdeburg Theater Company, Heinrich Bethmann, whom Richard Wagner found so off-putting. The director was unshaven, had a fondness for alchohol and had little regard for the social graces of the day. Wagner himself had, as he later wrote, "hit rock bottom."
It was at the end of July 1834 that Bethmann and his company found themselves in Bad-Lauchstädt and in desperate need of a new musical director. The job was offered to the then 21-year-old Wagner, an up-and-coming musical figure who had already grabbed attention with a series of powerful performances of his own compositions. Wagner, at that time without any fixed engagements, accepted the job at once, jumped into the next stagecoach bound for Bad-Lauchstädt…and was met with only disappointments. He intended to stay for one night and leave the very next day.
Love at first sight
But his plans changed. Upon arrival at the house where he intended to spend the night, he met young actress Minna Planer. From then on, the Bad-Lauchstädt engagement was settled; he stayed, conducted the production of "Don Giovanni," went on to direct Johann Nepomuk's farce "Lumpazivagabundus" with Minna Planer in the lead role of the fairy Amorosa and a year and a half later, ended up marrying his leading lady in a ceremony on November 24,1836.
These days, a plaque on the façade of the house in Goethestraße serves as a tribute to the famous guest who stayed there in 1834. It's relatively easy to visualize how Minna would have rushed from the house to the theater in her laced boots all those years ago, easy because the township has changed relatively little in the intervening years. It's a typical Ackerbürger-era township of the late 1800s with cobbled streets and sidewalks, squat houses, a traditional market square, an old parish church, a castle and health resort grounds, and, of especial interest, a summer theater, founded and named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
What a theater!
This simple building, completely without the usual glitz and pomp, appealed to Wagner. According to René Schmidt, managing director of the Historische Kuranlagen und Goethe-Theater Bad-Lauchstädt GmbH (Historical Health Resorts and Goethe Theater Bad-Lauchstädt Ltd.), Wagner almost certainly had the town's little theater in mind when, decades later, he drew up the plans for the festival hall at Bayreuth. These inspirations can be seen in the marquee-style canvas ceiling and the semi-circular design with theater boxes which provide "a strong reminder of the archetypal civic theater that we have here in Lauchstädt," Schmidt said.
At the same time, the historic health resort establishments in Bad-Lauchstädt are among the oldest in Germany, Schmidt noted. As far back as the Middle Ages, the bishops from nearby Merseberg spent their summers here. Later, the nobility of the day discovered the charm of Bad-Lauchstädt as it developed into a popular health resort town in the early 18th century. Mineral springs were discovered here quite by chance, leading an enterprising duke to build a spa hotel, ballroom, small summer houses, gardens and avenues, transforming the sleepy town into one of the era's key places to see and be seen among the nobility.
A town brimming with history
For the entertainment of the guests, there were theater performances aplenty, but before the construction of the summer theater, these were done in a very improvized way - initially, in the empty barns at local farms.
June 1791 saw the debut of the Weimarer Hoftheater (Weimar Court Theater) in Bad-Lauchstädt, whose director was no less than Goethe. Goethe and his team staged productions of Lessing's "Minna von Barnhelm," Schiller's "The Robbers" and Mozart's "The Magic Flute," ensuring an influx of theater-goers.
Such was the public's enthusiasm for the Hoftheater that students allegedly walked kilometers from the university in Halle to Bad-Lauchstädt to catch a show. It was estimated that a mere 40 productions in Bad-Lauchstädt generated as much as income as a whole season of 100 performances in Weimar. Due to this enormous success, Goethe was able to make a strong case for building a slightly more glamorous theater and, after a relatively short construction period, the new Bad-Lauchstädt theater was opened in June 1802 with a glittering Mozart opera.
When Wagner arrived in 1834, Bad-Lauchstädt's heyday was already over. And there was a certain wistfulness in the theater for the then by-gone, yet history-making performances of the Weimar theater group led by Wolfgang Johann von Goethe, who always sat in box number five as it offered the best view of both the stage and the auditorium. Wagner's professional engagement in Bad-Lauchstädt ended without spectacle just a few weeks later on August 12, 1834. Despite the brevity of his stay, his time in Bad-Lauchstädt proved to be crucial and he took much from it - new experiences, his beloved Minna and the concept of how the ideal theater should look.