Karl Valts: An Artist Who Knew How to Surprise

Karl Valts: An Artist Who Knew How to Surprise

His name is among the iconic stage designers in the history of ballet. Karl Valts managed to turn the inherited talent of a stage technician into an exceptional unsurpassed skill.  

In his father's footsteps to the theatrical stage

Karl Valts (Karl Waltz) was born in St. Petersburg in 1846. His father worked as a machinist in a theater. It was decided that the boy would continue the family business and go to study in Germany. In Dresden, Valts took over the science of scenic painting from Professor Otto Rahm, and in Berlin, Karl Gropius, a stage designer, became his teacher.  

Then the young man returned home. Soon, in 1856, his father was invited to participate in the reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater. The machinist Fyodor Valts was reconstructing the stage mechanisms after a big fire, and his son helped with the work. Karl was only 15 years old when he received a job offer from the Imperial Theaters. Thus, began Valts's career as a stage designer. His main place of service was the Bolshoi Theater, where the talented specialist worked for 65 years. Stage decorations, lighting and special effects - Karl Valts was in charge of everything. He even worked as an electrician: lighting on the Bolshoi Theater stage was one of his projects.  

A theatrical artist in a broad sense  

Over the long decades of his work, Valts often went beyond the scope of tasks of a stage designer. He took part in productions as a librettist too. For the first time, he turned to the theater management with a proposal to stage a ballet together with choreographer Vaclav Reisinger. Having received consent, Karl Fyodorovich wrote a libretto for the ballet The Magic Slipper. Visual support also remained his responsibility: Valts created sketches of the costumes and scenery for the production. The ballet premiered in 1871 on stage of the Bolshoi and was a success. 

The Magic Slipper is also interesting because it was the first performance in which colored electric lighting was used. Valts remained true to himself and surprised the audience with unprecedented special effects: for example, in one of the episodes, a chariot pulled by a bicycle appeared on the stage. 

 The energy and professionalism of this theatrical artist was enough to participate in Moscow masquerades and charity events. He worked with Sergei Diaghilev for a while: for 8 seasons, he was traveling across Europe with the Russian Seasons company as a guest stage designer.  

Valts served in the major theater of the country until 1927. In later years, he worked as a mechanical consultant for the machine and set design department. The audience recognized and appreciated the absolute talent of the theatrical artist during his lifetime. On the day of his 50th anniversary, they were congratulating Karl Fyodorovich, according to tradition, on stage, but behind the lowered curtain. The audience was in the hall at that time. People heard the words addressed to the stage designer and loudly demanded to raise the curtain. Despite the current ban of the theater management, the curtain was nevertheless opened - and the audience congratulated the artist with loud ovations.  

Valts summed up his long and fascinating career, which included cooperation with the best theaters in the world and many stage discoveries, in his autobiographical book, Sixty-Five Years in the Theatre. It was first published in 1928. A year later, the stage designer, who had long gone beyond the professional framework of his specialty, passed away.  

Valts the artist: nothing is impossible

The scale of Valts's creative thought is amazing: it is no coincidence that his contemporaries called him the "Wizard of the Stage" and "Russian Cagliostro". The master wrote in his autobiography:  

"The picture [Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries] was arranged in the full stage setting with the scenery and with the live horses, on which circus riders galloped on a specifically built scaffolding in the clouds… Another time, I turned the stage into a fantastic magical garden with a parterre of fresh flowers, in the form of a carpet with a variety of arabesques... Once I set a scenic geographic picture for the apotheosis. A terrace made of glass ramps was arranged across the entire width of the stage. This structure was cascading down to the ramp in steps. At the top, fountains of natural water gushed, forming a boiling waterfall and flowing along marches to the very bottom... Tropical plants were placed around the waterfall.”

The artist was inspired by the works of the French impressionists. On a regular basis, he proposed fresh and unusual solutions for productions, although they didn’t always find support from the management of the theater. At the same time, many professional tricks and discoveries of the "stage magician" came to stay in scenography for long. For example, with the advent of gas lighting, Karl Valts began to add episodes of absolute darkness to productions. This effect made it possible to change the scenery or regroup the artists on stage without dropping the curtain. Nowadays, such a darkening during a performance looks completely natural, but at the end of the 19th century, the artist had to defend his idea for a long time before the theater management agreed. According to Valts's recollections, this idea was considered "inconvenient and unacceptable” back then. 

 One of the recognized culminations of Karl Fyodorovich's stage activities was his participation in the premiere performance of Swan Lake. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky paid special attention to the visual accompaniment for his production, and often talked with Valts. As a result, the final scene, where the magical lake rages and a whirlwind begins, turned out to be truly epic. That premiere of the ballet received many controversial reviews, but Valts's set design got many enthusiastic responses from critics.  

In Alexander Gorsky's ballet Le Corsaire, a ship weighing 600 poods (almost 10 tons) appeared on the stage. Despite its bulkiness, it was a modular structure that could be easily moved around the stage and was even able to gradually disappear into the waves of the raging sea. This was another manifestation of the technical genius of Karl Valts.

Delight and surprise were often the main emotions that the audience experienced when watching performances with Valts's scenery. Here is what the stage designer recalled about one of his performances as part of the Diaghilev’s company - Le Pavillon d'Armide:  

“Part of the enthusiasm caused by the last production was about me too... There was one clean change in this ballet, which I managed to implement in a rather original way: in one second the scenery changed, moving simultaneously to both sides, up and down. The cleanliness and speed of such a trick were unprecedented in Paris, so, in addition to acclamation, I also got the nickname of “Russian Cagliostro”.”