Arts: The battle of Bayreuth

Remarkably three Wagner generations have run the opera festival which is the composer's shrine. But can this feuding family manage a fourth?
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The Festspielhaus in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, home to the annual Wagner Festival, is an opera house unlike any other. Not only is its repertoire limited to the works of just one composer - Richard Wagner - and their attendance seen as a pilgrimage quite as much as a musical experience; it has also been continuously run by members of his family since his death in 1883. Now Wagner's grandson Wolfgang has announced his intention to step down this July from the post of Festspielleiter (festival leader). This has caused a tide of speculation and politicking as family members jockey for position to succeed him.

The Wagner family is unquestionably the greatest musical dynasty in the world, even though its individual members have had differing degrees of aptitude for their role as guardians of Wagner's music. After Wagner's death his formidable widow, Cosima ran Bayreuth, was succeeded by their son Siegfried - and then his formidable widow, Winifred, after his death in 1930. During the Third Reich, the festival became closely associated with the Nazi government, and Hitler himself was a regular and honoured guest at Bayreuth. Wagner and Liszt were the composers the Fuhrer most venerated and Wagner's music and his portrayal of German mythology played a central role in National Socialist aesthetics. In the immediate post- war period this cast a considerable shadow over Bayreuth.

In 1951, however, Siegfried and Winifred's sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, launched "New Bayreuth", laying the emphasis on Wagner the apostle of brotherhood and freedom rather than Wagner the anti-Semite and racial supremacist. They revolutionised opera production. Under Wieland, ultra- modern productions were introduced, which dispensed with the stereotypes of fat tenors in short smocks and enormous sopranos balancing feathered helmets on blond wigs. Since his brother's death in 1966, Wolfgang has run the festival alone. Most critics feel that he lacks Wieland's ability as a director, and that the festival has became stale under his guidance.

His successor will have to tackle all these issues and strike out on a new and energetic artistic course. The statutes of the opera house stipulate that the post be filled by a Wagner descendant, "unless a person of outstanding merit presents himself". In reality, things are not as simple as may seem.

There are four extant lines of the Wagner family, all descendants of Wagner's son Siegfried and of his children Wieland, Wolfgang, Verena and Friedelind. In Wagnerian parlance, they are referred to as Stamme, tribes, since it sounds suitably Germanic and primeval. Each tribe has one vote in the 24-vote council of the Festival Foundation. The other 20 are cast by various trusts and other bodies, among them the Federal Republic of Germany, the state of Bavaria, the municipality of Franconia, the city of Bayreuth and the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, all of which have their own vested interests.

Wolfgang Wagner's announcement of his intention to make way for a new Bayreuth director came after considerable pressure from various sources who pointed out that, at 79, he was unlikely to be able to do the job for much longer. It is believed that his decision followed an arrangement with members of the council likely to advantage his own preferred candidate. The deciding vote will not be taken until July. Should the council be unable to reach a decision, it will be incumbent on the directors of the opera houses of Berlin, Munich and Vienna to nominate the next director.

Apart from the political manoeuvrings between the official bodies, negotiations are equally delicate between the branches of the Wagner family, especially as one of its members, Gottfried, Wolfgang's son, has gained notoriety by his total rejection of his great-grandfather's work and its ideological aspects, about which he has written extensively. In 1997 he wrote He Who Does Not Howl With the Wolf ("Uncle Wolf" was the Wagner family's pet name for Hitler), which castigated his family, including his father and, especially, his grandmother Winifred, for insufficient appreciation of the links between Wagner's works and his anti-Semitism.

Wolfgang Wagner has declared that he wishes to be succeeded by his wife (and former secretary) Gudrun, and their daughter, Katharina. Other family members, however, question Frau Wagner's competence, pointing out that the mere fact of her long acquaintance with the festival is not necessarily a sufficient qualification for the job. It is also thought that Gudrun Wagner's chances are lessened by the fact that she is not a blood member of the family.

Wolfgang's niece and Wieland's daughter, Nike Wagner, a writer on music and herself a contender for the direction of the festival, has been especially scathing about the prospects and abilities of her aunt by marriage. "It's time that a few new ideas were aired in Bayreuth," she told me. "Gudrun simply does not have the intellectual calibre to do this. Bayreuth has been very backward-looking in the past 40 years, and serious questions will have to be asked about its overall orientation and repertoire."

Eva Wagner, Wolfgang's daughter from his first marriage, is thought to have the best chance of succeeding her father. She is a musical administrator with considerable international experience and is thought to be a safe pair of hands. Her cousin Nike, though, also questions her artistic merits, pointing out that administrational ability is rarely the best preparation for artistic excellence.

The most intriguing recent speculations have centred on the possibility of Eva Wagner's accepting the post in conjunction with the conductor Daniel Barenboim, or that he himself may become the overall director. Barenboim is a frequent conductor at Bayreuth and will be conducting Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at this summer's festival. He has also championed the cause of Wagner in his native Israel, where the composer's anti-Semitism still prevents the performance of his works.

Asked about the possibility of becoming Festspielleiter, Barenboim is reluctant to take a stand, stating merely that the possibility has never crossed his mind, that he has "no ambitions" to assume the post, and that nobody has approached him so far with an offer.

The collaboration of a member of the Wagner family with artistic advisers has a precedent in the unhappy triumvirate of Winifred Wagner, Hans Tietgen and Walter Furtwangler during the Thirties, which eventually broke up because of personal differences. The fact that Barenboim is Jewish is another delicate aspect of this proposed solution. Richard Wagner's views on Jewish musicians were famously vitriolic, despite the fact that his own chief conductor at Bayreuth was Hermann Levy, the only Jewish musician he respected. The "Aryan ideal" of the festival's founder, though, has long since been abandoned, as many landmark Bayreuth performances by Jewish musicians such as Barenboim and black artists such as the soprano Jessye Norman attest. But as the succession is decided over the next four months, the mixture of family rivalry, feuds and high art will provide a plot worthy of any Wagner opera in subject matter, complexity and epic length.