Wolfgang Wagner: Composer's grandson who ran the Bayreuth Festival in sometimes controversial circumstances

Wolfgang Wagner was the sole director of the Bayreuth music festival for 42 years. Grandson of the composer Richard Wagner and son of the British-born Hitler fan Winifred Wagner, he assumed sole control of the festival in 1966 and continued the process begun by his brother Wieland of staging Richard's operas in modern settings.

Wolfgang Wagner was born in Bayreuth in 1919, the son of Siegfried Wagner, the grandson of Richard Wagner, and the great-grandson of Franz Liszt. They were hard acts to follow. His mother, Winifred Marjorie Williams, lost her parents before she was two and was adopted by Henrietta Karop, a distant German relative of her mother, and her husband Karl Klindworth, a musician and a friend of Richard Wagner. She met and married the much older Siegfried in 1915. Despite the fact that Siegfried was gay the couple had four children, two daughters and two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland.

Siegfried died in 1930 and Winifred took over the Bayreuth Festival. Winifred met Hitler in 1923 and, through their devotion to Wagner's music, they became firm friends. Hitler visited the Festival every year from 1933 to 1939 and, less regularly, during the war. When war came in 1939 Wieland was excused military service on the grounds that he was too important to German culture, but Wolfgang served in the Poland campaign, where he was wounded. On his recovery, he went to Berlin to the Staatsoper to learn his trade, and produced his first opera, Siegfried Wagner's Bruder Lustig, in June 1944. Although courted by Der Führer, he did not join the Nazi party.

In 1945, Germany was in ruins. The town of Bayreuth was badly damaged and full of refugees, but the theatre, Festspielhaus, had escaped Allied bombing. The Americans had utilised it for religious services as well as for shows to entertain their troops. At the war's end Winifred had to undergo denazification proceedings, but she was allowed to hand over the theatre and the Festival's assets to her sons; Wieland was appointed artistic director and Wolfgang took over finance. He founded the Society of Friends of Bayreuth to accept donations and successfully campaigned for government support. Despite disputes the brothers re-launched the Festival in 1951, commencing with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, followed by the first post-war premiere of Wagner's Parsifal.

Wieland invited Hans Knappertsbusch, a prominent conductor but also an anti-Nazi, and Herbert von Karajan to conduct the newly formed orchestra. Given the era, and the Festival's past associations, he surprised many by convincing some of the best singers to take on the leading roles. They included the Hungarian-American soprano Astrid Varnay, who sang there for the next 17 years, the Austrian Ludwig Weber, who was well-known at Covent Garden, and the Canadian bass-baritone, a veteran of Vienna and Glyndebourne, George London. To free the Festival from associations with Nazi German nationalism, traditional staging orthodoxy was overthrown. Parsifal took audiences by surprise as a stark, symbolic piece with costumes more reminiscent of Hellenic Greece than Teutonic medieval myth.

In 1966, at 49, Wieland died from cancer, and Wolfgang became the sole director. Under his guidance, the famous Bayreuth Festspielhaus underwent extensive renovations. Wolfgang did not enjoy the same critical reception as Wieland had, but he continued the revolution started by his brother by staging modern, minimalist settings of Wagner's operas. He commissioned work from many guest producers, including innovative and controversial presentations, such as the 1976 production of the Ring Cycle by Patrice Chéreau. In 1983, in honour of the 100th anniversary of Wagner's death, the Hungarian-Jewish maestro Sir Georg Solti conducted The Ring with Sir Peter Hall producing it. This received a mixed reception. Wolfgang confined the productions at the festival to the last 10 operas by his grandfather that make up the Bayreuth canon established under the direction of his grandmother Cosima. Tickets were sold out years in advance and a steady stream of A-list celebrities, roving television crews and excited onlookers were to be seen during the festivals. Among the more recent devotees were the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Horst Köhler.

While many of his productions caused controversy, they were often ground-breaking interpretations, in tune with Wolfgang's idea of broadening Wagner's operas' meaning by emphasising their universal human context. His Lohengrin, in 1953, and his second Parsifal, in 1989, reflected this. Wolfgang remarked in 1957, that the "human, the Wagnerian being" was the most important element of his own productions. Because of this, and to clear the debris of the Nazi past, he sought celebrated artists from abroad.

Grace Bumbry was the first African-American singer to appear at Bayreuth. She gained international renown when she was cast as Venus there in 1961, at the age of 24. Conservative opera-goers were outraged at the idea, but Bumbry's performance was so moving that by the end of the opera she had convinced the audience and they applauded for 30 minutes, necessitating 42 curtain calls. Another of Wolfgang's coups was winning the support of Daniel Barenboim, who first appeared at Bayreuth in 1981, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Tristan und Isolde. Between 1981 and 1999 Daniel Barenboim conducted 161 performances there.

Not all these eagerly awaited events were without ructions. In 2004, there were choruses of boos and bravos revealing how seriously Bayreuthers take their opera. According to one critic: "The stage was a chaotic jumble of urban rubble, ancient Asian and African religious symbols" and "Wagner's characters also had a new multicultural look." The knights of the Grail, "disturbingly pure-blooded group in Wagner's original, were transformed into a motley crew of races and creeds". Wolfgang finally retired at the end of August 2008 when the year's festival had finished.

He married twice, to Ellen Drexel in 1943 and Gudrun Mack, who had been his personal assistant, in 1976. He fell out with the children of his first marriage: with his son Gottfried, born in 1947, over the family's connection with Hitler; and with his daughter Eva, born in 1945, over control of the Bayreuth Festival. Eva was eventually named as his successor as the director of the Festival in conjunction with his favoured candidate, his daughter Katharina, who was born in 1978. The two women reached an agreement following the death of Gudrun, Katharina's mother.

David Childs

Wolfgang Wagner, director, Bayreuth music festival: born Bayreuth, Bavaria 30 August 1919; married 1943 Ellen Drexel (divorced 1976; one son, one daughter), 1976 Gudrun Mack (died 2007; one daughter); died Bayreuth 21 March 2010.

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