Valkyrie heiress rides to the rescue at Bayreuth

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The Independent Culture

Some of her famously quarrelsome relatives doubtless regard Katharina Wagner as little more than an inexperienced blonde harpy luring the Wagner family honour on to the rocks. But this week the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner took a decisive step in the battle to take control of the composer's most prestigious legacy: Germany's Bayreuth Festival. When the tantrums and walk-outs started, it was the 26-year-old Madonna fan who saved the day.

The annual opera festival, which opens this month, is Europe's most exclusive arts ticket, with a 10-year waiting list for seats. This year's most eagerly awaited production is of Parsifal, directed by Christoph Schlingensief, the radical bad boy of Berlin's avant-garde Volksbühne theatre, drafted in to inject new life into the festival. But weeks before opening night, its maverick director clashed openly with Bayreuth's 84-year-old patriarch, Wolfgang Wagner, called in sick and allegedly had to under- go counselling.

The row, reportedly over casting and instrumentation, was so serious that the pair spoke only through lawyers. Germany's arts press had a field day and a second Berlin artist, Peter Kees, announcedhe would take over.

He spoke too soon. Like one of the heroines in her great-grandfather's epic operas, Katharina swooped in, took over rehearsals, and lured Mr Schlingensief out of his caravan and back into the hilltop opera house. Now, as far as Parsifal is concerned, Katharina says she's telling the director "what's on and what's not".

The Wagner family feud over who is to succeed Wolfgang when he dies or steps down has been rumbling on for years without resolution. The difficult man, who as a child referred to Adolf Hitler, a family friend, as "Uncle Wolf", has maintained an iron grip over the festival's running for more than half a century. Since the Bayreuth foundation states that its festival director should "in principle" be a Wagner, three of the clan - Wolfgang's current wife Gudrun, Eva, the daughter from his first marriage, and his niece Nike - have all put themselves forward for the job, but after bitter argument no final decision has been made.

Now it is emerging that blonde Katharina, the daughter from Wolfgang's second marriage, to Gudrun, is the chosen one. Directly involved in co-ordinating the festival since 2001, her directorial debut came last year at the age of 24, and she is also due to produce a new Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Bayreuth in 2007. Even Bayreuth itself admits Katharina, whose favourite music includes Madonna, Michael Jackson and Puccini, is emerging as the clear winner. The favourite admitted this week that she's "already asking herself the question" whether she will take over the influential festival, which attracts up to 50,000 opera-goers each year.

But whatever the result of the wrangling, many agree that a speedy handover to the next generation can only be a good thing for the festival, which opens on 25 July.

When Richard Wagner started it in 1876, the festival was regarded as radical, but critics have attacked it in recent years for being stuffy and archaic. As Nike Wagner put it: "There must be a change because the institution of Bayreuth and its director are both going senile."