Twilight of a mighty Wagnerian

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At the start of this summer’s Bayreuth festival members of its influential supporters’ group gathered at the Festspielhaus for their annual meeting. Everyone was looking forward to the traditional address by Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s silver-haired grandson and long-time festival director. They were in for a shock. Where in previous years he had spoken vigorously and often humorously for half an hour and more, he could now manage barely three halting sentences. He needed a stick to walk. He had suddenly begun to look his age: on August 30 Wolfgang will be 87.

Wolfgang Wagner has been a fixture of the Bayreuth landscape for so long – since he and his elder brother Wieland re-opened the Wagner festival in 1951, turning their back on its Nazi past – that few festival-goers have given serious thought to life after he goes. It became clear some years ago that his second wife Gudrun, 60, was playing an increasingly powerful role behind the scenes and that their daughter Katharina, 28, was being groomed to succeed him. But Wolfgang always seemed to defy time.

Given his sudden physical decline, Bayreuth-watchers have begun to ask who is really running the show and what moves are afoot for an orderly hand-over. “Wolfgang doesn’t seem to have any clout any more,” says Jürgen Dipner, who has been a member of the festival’s Gesellschaft der Freunde for more than 25 years. “But the management doesn’t want to talk about the succession.”

For the best part of 40 years, since Wieland’s early death, no one has been more concerned about the festival’s welfare than Wolfgang. From the ashes of the second world war he and Wieland patiently rebuilt the festival’s reputation. Wolfgang always lived in his brother’s shadow. It was Wieland who found favour with Hitler and whose visionary postwar productions set a new style for Wagner interpretation. But it was Wolfgang’s managerial acumen that rebuilt the festival organisation and restored its coffers. He has spent his life overcoming the
festival’s tainted past and consolidating its future.

No one questions his achievement – crowds flock to Bayreuth every summer and tickets are like gold-dust – but the price has been high. Under Wolfgang the festival has got stuck in a self-serving groove, restricting its view of Wagner’s world to the small circle of works and increasingly outshone by performances elsewhere. Wolfgang has also alienated the next generation of the Wagner family, refusing them a role in the festival administration and even banning his son Gottfried from the festival grounds. He was able to do so by a canny move in 1974, installing himself as director-for-life while handing over the festival’s legal title to the German state.

Wolfgang is a one-off – steeped in his grandfather’s works, jovial by nature, a brilliant theatre manager, an old-fashioned tyrant. When I first interviewed him 20 years ago, trying as best I could to understand his thick Franconian accent, one phrase had a familiar ring: “Ich lieg und besitz” (”I’ll keep what I hold”). These are Fafner’s words in Siegfried when he is challenged to give up the gold. Here was Wolfgang aligning himself not with his grandfather’s mythical gods but with a greedy old dragon. What he meant was that the Festspielhaus was his domain, and no one – not even one of his own or Wieland’s children – was going to interfere.

He has stuck stubbornly to his word, even blocking moves a few years ago by the former Bavarian culture minister, Hans Zehetmair, to settle the succession. Wolfgang made clear he would do anything to prevent the two leading pretenders to his throne – Eva Wagner, his estranged daughter by his first marriage, and Nike Wagner, Wieland’s outspoken daughter – from participating in the festival’s future.

The image visitors have gained this summer is not of a dragon guarding the gold but of Wotan as described by Waltraute in Götterdämmerung – the twilight of a god, relieved of executive power and anxious for his favourite daughter to redeem his legacy.

“Everyone knows there’s a power vacuum in the festival management,” says Stephan Mösch, Bayreuth-born editor of Opernwelt, the German opera magazine, “and it has begun to affect artistic decision-making. Bayreuth is in transition. Wolfgang is hanging on only to see Katharina safely installed as his successor.”

Katharina may be young and inexperienced, but three years ago she made a promising start as a stage director and has since carved an influential role at the Festspielhaus. She is now preparing her first festival production, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, for next summer. If successful it could help to persuade the festival board, dominated by public funding bodies, to anoint her officially as the next director, probably on a fixed-term basis. To bolster her chances she is likely to propose a management team of respected elders, such as the conductor Christian Thielemann and Klaus Schultz, a family friend and experienced opera manager. Such a move would give influential queen-mother status to Gudrun, a former secretary whom Wolfgang’s critics blame for the festival’s artistic drift. Bayreuth would stick to the status quo, but at least it could look to the future.

Amid all the politicking it’s easy to forget that Wolfgang remains a presence – he lives in the Festspielhaus grounds, within spitting distance of the theatre – and that the Wagner family’s involvement is what makes Bayreuth tick. “He has always been an immensely practical man,” says John Tomlinson, a fixture at the festival since his debut there as Wotan in 1988. “I remember one rehearsal in the 1990s when a voice boomed ‘No need to bark’. Everyone was stunned, it was like the voice of God. That’s a family trait – a sudden eruption of temper. When his last show as a stage director was taken off four years ago I got the impression it was another psychological step in the ageing process. But everyone has huge affection for him. He has been like a father-figure to me.”

This picture of Wolfgang’s total immersion in the festival is echoed by Andrew Shore, who made his Bayreuth debut this summer singing Alberich.

“Wolfgang spends a lot of time just sitting at the right hand of the stage, out of sight, watching the performance from the same position that Wagner himself apparently occupied. It’s a most inspiring thing – to look at the composer’s grandson and see a beaming encouragement coming through his eyes. It gave me a huge boost.”

The Bayreuth Festival continues until August 28

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