From a young age he had a strong interest in music and drama
As a young boy he would spend hours in his fathers library reading many different plays
However his father, Doctor Louis Paul Amedee Appia, was unsupportive of his child’s interests. Adolphe became a very introverted and shy character because of his father’s stern and forbidding nature. He also developed a stutter as a child, which could have also made him more withdrawn.
He had ambitions of becoming a director or conductor but because of his shy tendancies he turned to writing to communicate his ideas.
From an early age Appia had an inclination for the theatre, but he grew up in an atmosphere that discouraged such interests. He, however, gained his father's permission to study music and in that way was able to pursue his love of the theatre.
Appia became an architect and theorist of stage lighting and décor, and a pioneer of modern stage design.
He was most well known for his many scenic designs for Wagner’s operas.
He rejected 2D sets for 3D ‘living’ sets because he believed that shade was as necessary as light, to form a connection between the actor and the setting of the performance.
He was one of the first designers to understand the potential of stage lighting to do more than merely illuminate actors and painted scenery.
In 1881 Appia visited the theatre for the first time; Gaunod’s ‘faust’, in Geneva at the age of 18. he was disappointed with the dull sets as they weren’t how he had previously imagined them to be.
He later, at the age of 64, began preparing designs for Goethe’s ‘faust’ which was ironic considering this was his first experience, and also the last production he designed for.
During 1882 he saw his first Wagnerian opera ‘Parsifal’, at Bayreuth. This was Wagner’s last production, at which Appia was also disappointed with.
In 1906 Appia attended a lecture-demonstration run by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. After this night, Dalcroze and Appia became good friends and Appia suddenly began to see how to realise his own ideas.
In 1884 he formed a close bond with Houston S. Chamberlain, who he later went on to design plays for.
Chamberlain introduced Appia to certain aspects of English culture, adding to his influences and inspirations.
Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950) Houston S. Chamberlain (1855-1927)
The first play Adolphe designed for was ‘Le Semaine Litteraire’ – a combination of scenes from Carmen and Manfred..
Appia wrote 3 books: La mise en scene du drama wagnerian (The Staging of the Wagnerian Music Drama) 1895, La musique et la mise en scene (Music and Art of the Theatre) 1896, L’Oeuvre d’art vivant (The Work of Living Art) 1920.
Adolphe, was a rather different young swiss artist, who moved amongst the symbolist artists and the Parisian followers of Wagner in the late 1880s. Through his life he considered both the specific problems involved in staging Wagner’s works and the implications which such problems- and their solution- had for theatrical reform in general.
Symbolism in his works
Appia’s design for ‘Forest Glade’, in which light, shadows and three curtains are used to suggest the setting, was to present his idea of how “we shall no longer try to give the illusion of a forest, but the illusion of a man in the atmosphere of a forest”
Appia’s inspirations were from the ideas of Wagner, whose work has been described as quiet symbolism. His works gave a symobolist aesthetic
Design for Act I of "Parsifal" by Richard Wagner. Many of Wagner's scenes take place in ancient forests. This image demonstrates Appia's vision of the sense of the sacred forest. Most significant here is the three-dimensionality of the trees which permits them to cast real shadows by means of a projected light source. Light blocked by an object produces a sculptural quality important to Appia.
Symbolism in his works
Symbolism “the practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships.
Appia’s plays were figurative, and dramatic action was less important than its symbolic meaning, set in a world of myths, legends and fantasy. His plays did not take on matters of social problems or the relationship between man and his environment.
How his work was perceived
Appia was renowned for his use and concept of stage lighting. However his vast work extended far beyond that and he challenged the traditional ways to design for performance in his era.
His ideas if anything were to advanced at the time but have now been widely accepted. Unfortunately Appia did not receive the credit and a lot of his work still remains unpublished.
He was encouraged by his friends within the Wagner circle in Paris, and by his acquaintances amongst the symbolist artists and poets, with the works of Wagner that he analysed, which lead him to put his thoughts onto paper in 1895.
His work on ‘Die Musik und die Inscenierung’ showed a new kind of stage an setting, which practicioners of stagecraft were said to be ‘ converted by a set of illuminations to a gospel which most of them had never read.
Directors and designers took inspiration from Appia, whose design theories and conceptualisations of Wagner’s operas have helped to shape modern perceptions of the relationship between performance space and lighting.
His ideas about the staging of ‘word-tone drama’ together woth his own stagings such as ‘Tristan and Isolde’ (Milan 1923) have influenced later stagings, especially those of the 2 nd half of the 20 th century.
Appia’s designs and theories went on to inspire many other theatre creators, such as Edward Gordon Craig and Jacques Copeau.