Bayreuth Festival: A Wagnerian Drama of Succession

By SPIEGEL Staff

Three women are in line to lead the Bayreuth Festival after its geriatric artistic director, Wolfgang Wagner, either dies or steps aside. They're all great-granddaughters of Germany's iconic composer, and the family tensions would make a decent opera.

The Festspielhaus on the Green Hill above Bayreuth, built by Richard Wagner as an ideal home for his operas, has been in near-continuous operation since King Ludwig II was in charge of Bavaria. Leadership of its famous summer festival has changed within the Wagner family only four times since Richard himself ran it -- and since 1966, it hasn't changed at all.

Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson, has led the festival for decades. He's 87. For the last handful of years he's maneuvered to baptize his youngest daughter, Katharina, as his successor. Katharina is the fresh-faced but inexperienced 29-year-old child of his second marriage, and Wolfgang's entire statement on the bubbling controversy of her assumption is as aloof as it is concise: "It should be her," he has said. "If she can, and wants to."

The trouble for Wolfgang is that he won't have final say. In fact, in 2001, the Richard Wagner Foundation of Bayreuth elected his other daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, to succeed him. She's 62, the child of Wolfgang's first marriage. Wolfgang has managed to dodge the Foundation's decision for several years by ignoring it -- he has a lifelong contract -- but in the meantime his niece, Nike, has also moved into position for the job.

Both women are more experienced, but Wolfgang prefers his youngest daughter. The 2007 festival will open on July 25 with a staging by Katharina of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg." Operagoers and critics will squint at this production for a sense of things to come, but one thing can be said beforehand: No matter how well the show does, or how poorly, no one -- not even Wolfgang -- will manage to deduce Katharina's future at the Festival from her debut at the Festival. Her future as artistic director depends on too many other factors, including Wolfgang's fragile health.

The Weight of Tradition

The Bayreuth Festival has been a family affair from the very start; in fact it only took on democratic trappings under Wolfgang. Richard Wagner ran the festival from 1876 until his death in 1883. Then came his wife, Cosima; their son, Siegfried; and his wife Winifred, who was a friend of Hitler's. In 1951, Wolfgang took over with his brother Wieland. After Wieland died in 1966, Wolfgang assumed sole leadership. He let the family business pass to a newly founded Richard Wagner Foundation in 1973, but made sure to keep his post for life.

In 2001, when she was elected to succeed him, Eva Wagner-Pasquier was still an artistic consultant at the Aix-en-Provence Opera Festival in France. Her lifetime of experience -- in London, Paris, Madrid, New York -- made her an obvious candidate for the foundation. Its board elected her by a vote of 22-2. But one of the votes against her was Wolfgang's, and he decided to keep his job.

Shortly afterwards, he tried to promote his wife Gudrun, who already performs many of Wolfgang's duties (because he's so slow and frail). But Gudrun isn't a blood descendent of the Master, and the campaign seemed to stall. In the meantime Wolfgang has started to push Katharina.

But Eva Wagner-Pasquier remains a favorite on the board, and she says she's still interested in the job. "Yes, yes," she said in a recent phone interview. "Of course I would do it." She laughed, then sighed. "You know, I still haven't resigned."

The other obvious candidate is her cousin, Nike Wagner, who runs the Weimar Art Festival. She's also 62, the daughter of Wieland Wagner, who died in 1966. "Hopes of running the Festspiele have never left me," she said. Nike is considered the intellectual choice; Wagner-Pasquier the worldly one; Katharina would be young and rejuvenating.

Great-granddaughters, from left: Katharina Wagner, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, Nike Wagner.
DPA

Great-granddaughters, from left: Katharina Wagner, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, Nike Wagner.

Katharina wears jeans and a denim jacket to a rehearsal of Meistersinger. She has a long blond mane of hair, a raw masculine voice, and a clear, strong, self-assured manner, which may come from the years she spent watching rehearsals over Wolfgang's shoulder. When she corrects her singers, she says, "Listen up, guys…" or "Guys, that isn't working." Her language is fresh, direct, and sympathetically scatterbrained; she likes to laugh.

It's safe to say she isn't a heroine to opera fans. Supporters call her "Miss Bayreuth," which is what Wagner-Pasquier was called in 2001. Detractors call her "Bayreuth Barbie" or even -- as a wicked play on the name of a certain blond hotel heiress -- "Bayreuth Hilton."

She was booed after her Berlin debut in 2006, although that production of Puccini's Il Trittico was otherwise not a complete failure -- soloists at the ovation were larded with applause. But by then she'd been tipped to succeed her father in Bayreuth, so expectations were high. It was only her fourth major opera production. Die Meistersinger will be attempt number five.

The festival's press office has waged a charm offensive this year on Katharina's behalf, and she gives constant interviews. She wants to run the festival, yes, but she denies that her Bayreuth debut as director has anything to do with the job. A good artistic director is not necessarily a good director, or vice-versa.

From one rehearsal it's difficult to judge her show, which is an ambitious re-imagining of an opera that has difficult overtones in Germany. Because of its nationalist themes, Meistersinger was the only opera kept in production during the worst days of World War II. One character declares that Germany needs to be kept "pure" of outside influence. Katharina will play with this uncomfortable pro-Germanness -- to her own profit -- by placing the busts of 12 German geniuses (Goethe, Schiller, Bach, etc.) in the study of the 12 master singers. Their guild in Nuremberg stands on tradition to keep out an audacious young upstart, Walther von Stolzing, who wants to win the hand of a woman called Eva. But the guild's hermetic nature proves to be its undoing, and in the final scene the monumental busts will collapse. Festival spokesman Alexander Busche told The Daily Telegraph that the busts would be "symbols of what happens when thinkers are trapped in such an extreme ideological system."

Heady stuff, perhaps. And not without overtones of Katharina's own career. Her production will focus on the opera's discussion of avant-garde art, rather than the love story, which is a sophisticated reading -- but also nothing new since her Uncle Wieland's production in 1956.

Wolfgangdämmerung

Wolfgang and his brother Wieland used to be known as visionary stewards of the Bayreuth festival. But their glory days are long over. The legendary "centennial Ring" -- a bold modern staging of the Ring cycle to celebrate the Bayreuth theater's 100th anniversary -- happened in 1976. A visionary version of Tristan and Isolde by the iconoclast Heiner Müller was 14 years ago -- and Müller, in the meantime, is dead. Lately Wolfgang has trouble moving on his own. He has arthritis and he's hard of hearing; his wife Gudrun helps him get around.

Wolfgang is Katharina's major prop for the job, and he still has a lot of power. But a special clause says that if he no longer performs his job -- or no longer performs it alone -- the foundation can cancel his contract. If he were to move aside, the foundation could choose anyone it likes as a successor. And since Gudrun has given him so much help, there may indeed be an opening for a coup, and Katharina's future may not be so assured.

So now it's a matter of waiting. The one absolute in the current drama of succession is that the Bayreuth Festival needs new blood. One sign of its quality in recent years, in fact, is that most of the talk surrounding this summer's event hasn't focused on great Wagnerian singers, or daring iconoclastic productions. It has settled on who will run things next.

Reported by Moritz von Uslar.

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