Death in Wagner family adds twist to festival feud

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The Independent Online

The future of the Bayreuth festival has become more uncertain after the sudden death of the eminence grise of the Wagner clan who had been a force behind the troubled event for decades.

Wolfgang Wagner, 88, the grandson of the composer Richard, and director of the opera festival for 40 years, was reported to be in deep shock after the death in hospital of his wife, Gudrun, following a routine operation on Wednesday.

Mrs Wagner, 63, began her association with Bayreuth as a secretary in the press office. But her subtle charms soon exerted a strong influence on Wolfgang, and they married in 1976. Almost since then, she has worked hard and influentially in the home of Wagnerian opera, taking over the tasks of her increasingly infirm husband. She was famous for answering a phone call to Bayreuth, from a director asking for Wolfgang, with: "My husband? That's me around here."

Latterly, Mr Wagner even tried to install his wife as his successor. However, his attempt was blocked in 2000 by the Wagner foundation which controls the festival.

Her influence continued unabated. She was loathed by avant-garde directors, who dismissed her as a dragon, and praised by conservatives who considered her a competent operator.

Inevitably, her death has increased the urgency to find a successor to her ailing husband, who is already under pressure to step down and hand over to a younger member of the clan. Yesterday, there was speculation that the way was now open for the couple's daughter Katharina, 29, to take over.

Der Spiegel noted it was Mrs Wagner above all who had groomed her daughter for the role. "After her unexpected death, Katharina may well be in a position to realise her mother's dream," the magazine remarked.

Mr Wagner is also a fervent supporter of his daughter and her claim. To date, he has fought off all attempts by other more qualified clan members to get the job. The front-runners are Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 62, Mr Wagner's daughter from his first marriage, who has worked for years at the Aix-en-Provence festival, and Nike Wagner, 62, his niece, who runs a festival in Weimar.

Nike recently accused her uncle of "perverting the Wagner idea". Both are said to be renewing their claims and have the backing of the foundation. But Mr Wagner insists no candidate other than Katharina should be permitted to succeed him.

Earlier this year, a meeting of the foundation was unable to persuade him to accept a compromise which envisaged Katharina sharing the post with either Eva or Nike. He refused to attend the session, which broke up without a result and withdelegates claiming that the issue would have to be resolved "biologically".

However, with one element in the biological equation now dead, Katharina's position appears to have been strengthened. She has also enlisted the support of Christian Thielemann, 48, who joined her team in the summer. He has impressed Chancellor Angela Merkel, a frequent Bayreuth visitor, with his virtuoso conducting and is said to have eastablished a good rapport with her. As Berlin helps to fund Bayreuth, Katharina's star may be on the rise.