Fight of the Valkyries: The Wagners' bitter struggle for control of their own opera festival

Next month, the Bayreuth Festival will announce its first new director in 57 years – and the battle between the glamorous young Katharina Wagner and two elderly relatives for the coveted post has revealed ambition, treachery and grief worthy of the juiciest opera
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The Bayreuth Festival opened last Friday with the premiere of the Norwegian director Stefan Herheim's production of Parsifal that also closes proceedings on 28 August. This new staging of Richard Wagner's final opera – written specially for the Festspielhaus (Festival Theatre) he founded in the small Bavarian town – is the major artistic event in the month-long celebration of the composer's works that has been held most years since 1876. Yet, as rapt as Wagner's swansong will doubtless keep the Bayreuth audiences, the scenes off-stage are likely to be as operatic as any on it. At the end of August, the Wagner family, after a bitter and drawn-out internecine struggle, will finally come to a decision as to which of them will succeed the composer's ageing grandson and run the festival in the future.

Far more important things will happen elsewhere over the next month. But within the worldwide community of Wagnerians, the devoted fans of the Bayreuth master, few issues generate such fascination as the Bayreuth succession. For Wolfgang Wagner, who has run the festival since 1951, has resigned his office, effective 31 August. Aged 88, and in failing health, he has at last agreed that the director's job should be handed over to a new generation.

But to whom exactly? Opera-fan websites devote page after page to a microscopic, bitchy examination of the prospects of the three favourites: a glamorous young blonde and two elderly relatives. While all three are members of the Wagner family, no two share an identical set of parents – and each must carry the baggage of her family's chequered history.

Until now, a member of the Wagner dynasty – either a direct descendant or, in two cases, a Wagner widow – has run Bayreuth. Some commentators argue that the whole enterprise should be handed to an administration separate from the Wagners. But for reasons largely based on a desire to keep a direct connection with the resonant name of the composer, Bayreuth will almost certainly continue to be family-run. Given until the close of this year's event to come up with a solution, the Wagner clan, riven as it is with long-standing feuds, is in the final stages of defining the way ahead.

Why should any of this matter outside Bayreuth itself? Because of the status – actual and symbolic – of Bayreuth as an artistic institution, not only within Germany, but as one of the leading opera festivals in the world and the undisputed centre of the Wagner cult. The baritone Malcolm Rivers, founder of the UK-based Mastersingers, a society dedicated to the promotion of Wagner's operas and the development of young singers to perform them, sees "no reason to change the formula for running Bayreuth, which has been so successful for 130 years". For him and many other Wagnerians, the continuing importance of the festival lies in it being "the theatre designed by Wagner to perform his works in the acoustic he worked hard to create. We, the pilgrims, go there to breathe the atmosphere and to experience that particular acoustic."

The theatre is certainly unique. Wagner wanted to avoid the glitz of the traditional opera house so the audience would focus entirely on the opera. Instead of rows of boxes, the seating is laid out like an amphitheatre. It is also notoriously uncomfortable – most of the armless wooden seats are not upholstered. Given that several of Wagner's operas last five or six hours, that can be a type of martyrdom in itself. The theatre's most unusual feature is the orchestra pit, hidden from the audience, together with the conductor.

In Germany, the festival and its indigenous family holds an enduring glamour. "One cannot deny it is a social event for the Germans, the like of which would be very hard to match in the English-speaking world," says Keith Warner, who directed the recent Covent Garden production of Wagner's magnum opus, the Ring cycle, and staged a production of Lohengrin there that ran for seven years. "You get this strange mix of politicians, film stars, talk-show hosts and the old German counts and countesses." Indeed, one of the most memorable images from last year's festival was of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a regular attendee, in heated conversation with Wolfgang's youngest daughter, Katharina Wagner, following the latter's new and highly controversial production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Warner compares the family's status to that of a German royalty. "It really is that strong. Katharina's private life hits the news just as much as Gwyneth Paltrow or Madonna over here. I've been to restaurants elsewhere in Germany with Wolfgang Wagner, and people recognise him as they would a TV celebrity."

Bayreuth itself is an ordinary small German town in northern Bavaria, with a population of around 75,000. Perched atop a hill to the north of the town is Wagner's own pink-brick edifice, surrounded by lightly wooded parkland. Outside the annual Wagner binge, things are pretty quiet; during the festival, hotels raise their prices and you have to book months in advance to stand a chance of staying within several miles of the place. As for festival tickets, the waiting list is 10 years.

Wagner came to the town in the 1870s to realise his scheme for the ideal theatre in which to present his four-part Ring cycle – a theatrical undertaking of unprecedented ambition. With the support of King Ludwig II, the building was constructed in time for the first cycles of the Ring, staged in 1876. Six years later he presented there his last work, Parsifal. The following year he died in Venice, aged 69.

The task of continuing the festival fell to his widow Cosima, the daughter of the great Hungarian pianist-composer Franz Liszt. Cosima perpetuated the style of production her husband had approved; this was the heyday of the much-parodied, old-fashioned Wagner stagings, full of excessively hirsute warriors in massive Norse armour, with matching Valkyries.

In personal terms, Cosima was an unappealing woman whose anti-Semitism, if anything, surpassed Wagner's. She also began a family tradition by repudiating her own (and Wagner's) daughter, Isolde. When the latter went to court to establish Wagner legally as her father, she lost, became a family outcast and died in Switzerland in 1919. Her mother, meanwhile, had relinquished control of the festival to Siegfried, Wagner's only son, in 1906.

Even in those early days, succession was an issue. Widespread rumours about Siegfried's gay liaisons played their part in the decision that he should marry, though the necessity for him to continue the family line was even stronger. So marry he did, in 1915, to an 18-year-old woman who was 28 years his junior. Winifred Williams was an English orphan swept off to Germany by distant relatives who were avid Wagnerians. She was introduced to Siegfried at the 1914 festival and fulfilled her duty in giving him four children.

Siegfried started his directorship by continuing the path set out by his mother, though Cosima, who lived to the age of 92, remained a power behind the throne to the end. As it was, Siegfried outlasted her by only four months, dying during the 1930 festival, and his death gave automatic control to his widow, whose conduct outside the artistic sphere quickly led Bayreuth into the darkest of waters.

Winifred first met Adolf Hitler, a fervent Wagnerian, in 1923, and immediately lent him her support. Following her husband's death, their relationship grew even closer. Uncle Wolf, as her children knew him, was a regular visitor to Bayreuth, always staying with the family. As a result, Bayreuth remained well-funded until shut down in 1944. But it also became known as a virulent centre of Nazism and anti-Semitism – a taint the next generation would try very hard to remove. '

When the Third Reich crashed in its own Götterdämmerung-like cataclysm, it looked as if the festival would collapse with it. There was no question of Winifred resuming operations; her Nazi associations barred her from doing so. (She died in 1980, not before admitting in a 1975 interview: "If Hitler were to come in the door today, I would be as happy and glad to see him... as I always was." Chilling, too, was her warning to her daughter Friedelind, whose anti-Nazi views saw her flee Germany in 1939 and later take American citizenship. Winifred warned her, "You will be destroyed and exterminated at the first opportunity." Fortunately, she wasn't.)

The relaunch of Bayreuth, when it came in 1951, was under the joint leadership of Winifred's son Wieland and his younger brother, Wolfgang. In Wieland's new Parsifal, the elaborate scenery and close attention to the original stage directions of previous eras were replaced by simplicity and a focus on the work's symbolism. He followed it with a series of productions that defined a "new Bayreuth" style, marking a conscious break with the past. But Wieland's early death in 1966 left a gap that has never really been filled. While Wolfgang assumed full control of the festival, which he has led ever since, his own productions have rarely won much favour. Though retaining some of Wieland's spareness, they have been criticised as visually undistinguished, even ugly.

But Wolfgang has proved an able administrator. He has been canny in his choice of conductors and directors: the French theatre director Patrice Chéreau's centenary staging of the Ring in 1976 proved a landmark in operatic production, banishing forever the images of large women with plaits and horned helmets that the old school wanted to cling on to.

Wolfgang has also shown his predecessors' ruthless streak. He has never extended his favour to Wieland's daughter Nike, for instance. Notably, the old man also rejected the two children of his first marriage, Eva and Gottfried. The latter is the current outcast of the Wagner dynasty. Blaming "the long arm of Bayreuth" for the difficulties he had establishing himself as a director, he has since concentrated his attention on exposing Wagner's anti-Semitism and the Nazi past of his own family in lectures and publications. He has been banned from the festival since 1990.

Wolfgang's second marriage, to the former Bayreuth secretary Gudrun Mack, took place in 1976. Born two years later, their only child, Katharina Wagner, replaced Eva as Wolfgang's chosen anointed. In 2001, he tried to skew the succession in favour of Gudrun as an interim measure, but was prevented by the Richard Wagner Foundation (which has overseen Bayreuth since 1973). Instead, the Foundation chose his estranged daughter, Eva. (Nike also applied to run the festival.) In response, Wolfgang insisted on his right to hold the post for life, and continued to train Katharina for the job.

Whatever plans the various contenders made were thrown in the air last November, when Gudrun died suddenly. Manoeuvring has since become intense, with Katharina and Eva – scarcely on speaking terms in the past – reaching a surprise rapprochement that sidelined their cousin Nike. It was a clever move, since Eva's experience and maturity counterbalance accusations that Katharina lacks both.

Of the three main candidates, Eva and Nike suffer from the disadvantage of age; they're both 63 to Katharina's 30. Katharina is also unusually glamorous for an opera director, and the German media love her. As well as her experience as an assistant director at Bayreuth, she has staged several operas on her own, including Bayreuth's new Meistersinger (a modern production that was booed by parts of the Bayreuth audience last year). Meanwhile, Eva has proven administrative ability in high-ranking opera houses, and Nike is more widely perceived as a theoretician and academic writer.

Though the Richard Wagner Foundation could give the job to an outsider, faced with two equally strong applications, it is committed to preferring a family member. It would seem that the two half-sisters working in tandem, possibly advised by the conductor Christian Thielemann and the former Salzburg Festival director Peter Ruzicka, are the likeliest joint successors to Wolfgang, which prevents the need to look beyond the family for at least another generation.

Indeed, if Katharina gets the job, she could be there for several decades. What could Bayreuth expect from her? Katharina has remained distinctly cagey, unlike Nike, whose proposals include introducing Wagner's three earliest operas, which he later disowned, and which have never been performed there, not to mention her heretical view that works by other composers should be added to the repertory. The big question is whether Katharina would favour the traditional productions some ultra-orthodox Wagnerians still hanker after, or a more radical approach. Judging from her 2007 Meistersinger, probably the latter. But she may well listen to voices that advise her to steer a course somewhere in the middle. Frustratingly, none of the relevant parties will speak to the press about the succession.

The chief loser in this scenario would be Nike, who, many years ago, in a description of her family, wrote of "a House of Atreus, in which fathers castrate their sons and mothers smother them; in which mothers banish their daughters and daughters vilify their mothers; in which brothers and sisters rise up against each other and in which even children stab each other in the back". Only time will tell whether that will prove not just history, but prophecy.