Günther Schneider-Siemssen is undoubtedly one of the most successful and important stage designers of the 20th century. He was one of the most prolific European stage designers to the leading opera houses of the United States.
Günther Schneider-Siemssen, who celebrated his 85th birthday on 7 June 2013, has little to do with hobbits and elves. Nevertheless, to Germans and Austrians he is known as ‘The Lord of the Rings’. This name comes as no surprise. The set designer has staged Wagner’s Ring Cycle seven times. He is known the world over, from the Met in New York to the Tokyo Opera. From 1962 to 1987, he was chief set designer for the Austrian Federal Theaters, where his sets featured in over 1900 nights.
Günther Schneider-Siemssen was born on 7 June 1926 in Augsburg. His youth was spent in Munich, where he began his conducting studies. Only later did he choose the profession of stage designer. As a young architect, he participated in seven feature films in Munich and Berlin, followed by the first orders for small stages, before moving to the National Opera in Munich. His first engagement as Chief Set Designer came in 1951 at the Salzburg State Theater.
Schneider-Siemssen was granted Austrian citizenship in 1973, by which time he had become an essential figure of the local theater scene. For decades he was stage designer of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, the Salzburg Festival and the Salzburg Easter Festival, and longtime chief of the Austrian Federal Theatre.
Internationally, Schneider-Siemssen also made his name. Not only has he has worked for all the major opera houses in Germany, but all over Western and Eastern Europe. The Austrian designed stage sets for the Met in New York, as well as opera houses in South America, Canada, Israel, South Africa and many U.S. cities. Over several decades, he worked with the Vienna-based company Pani on light and projection technology. In the 1980s he was the first person in the history of the theater to use holographic technology on stage in a production of Tales of Hofmann in Salzburg. His lighting creations were not only seen on stage, but also in open air light shows, including the opening of the Vienna Opera Ball, Schloss Klessheim (Salzburg), Festival Berchesgaden, and many others.
The list of authors and composers with whom Schneider-Siemssen worked is impressive: Hochhuth, Dürrenmatt, Hindemith, Orff, Penderecki, Berio, von Einem, Bernstein and Krenek. He has a special affinity with the works of Richard Wagner, the plays of Odon von Horvath, and Shakespeare’s comedies. Directors like Herbert von Karajan, August Everding and Otto Schenk regarded him as their favourite designer.
Günther Schneider-Siemssen has been married since 1969 and is a father of four children. He has received numerous accolades, including an Honorary Medal from the city of Vienna in 1987, the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art in 1998, and many foreign medals of honor. A biography of Schneider-Siemssen was published in 1996 under the title The Stage: My Life.
When asked by a journalist why he only works with Schneider-Siemssen, Herbert von Karajan said: “When the curtain rises with us, you not only hear the music, but you also see it.”