Operatic feud over Wagner's rightful heir reaches a crescendo after 10 years

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The Independent Online

A bitter and invariably operatic feud that has divided the family of the German composer Richard Wagner for more than a decade neared its denouement yesterday when three female descendants of the maestro staked rival claims in a battle to become his artistic successor.

Wolfgang Wagner, Richard's 88-year-old grandson and director of the home of Wagner opera – Germany's famous Bayreuth music festival – has claimed the role as the composer's rightful heir since he took over the post 40 years ago. But yesterday, the white-haired and increasingly ailing octogenarian who runs the month-long summer event with the help of his 63-year-old wife, Gudrun, was under mounting pressure to step down and hand over to a younger successor.

Members of the powerful Richard Wagner Foundation, which is partly run by the German government and controls the Bayreuth Festival, were holding a closed meeting in the Bavarian city yesterday to decide on the financially troubled event's future.

In advance of the meeting, Karl Gerhard Schmidt, the foundation's chairman, took the unprecedented step of calling for Wolfgang's resignation as soon as possible, saying that because of his deteriorating health, the festival was de facto "without a director". Mr Schmidt said: "The situation is becoming very awkward and demands a solution. I would consider it right for the festival and for the dignity of Wolfgang Wagner if he took this step."

The foundation is weighing up the rival claims for the post from within the feuding Wagner clan. They have come from Katharina Wagner, Wolfgang's 29-year-old daughter, alongside the arguably more qualified family members Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 62, Wolfgang's daughter from a previous marriage, and his niece, Nike Wagner, also 62.

The choice has been complicated by Wolfgang's insistence that no candidate other than Katharina should be allowed to succeed him.

Katharina, who likes wearing black and sports a suitably Teutonic blonde mane, has been groomed for the post by her parents for decades. This year, she made an important debut at the festival, directing Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg, a classically German opera that was a favourite of the Wagner enthusiast Adolf Hitler.

Unfortunately, her production, which included much waving of plastic phalluses and copious displays of nudity, was jeered and booed by Bayreuth's well-heeled opera goers on its opening night in July and received at best only lukewarm write-ups in the press. "You have to take risks to build something new," Katharina said in her defence.

The foundation regards the two other candidates as more suitable. Eva has worked for several years at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France, and in London. Nike, who runs another music festival in the east German city of Weimar, is also a front-runner.

Yet here the complications also abound, for Eva and Nike have been at loggerheads with Wolfgang for over a decade. Nike invoked her uncle's fury by publicly referring to Bayreuth as a "musty institution". Yesterday, she insisted that under Wolfgang the festival had become a "perversion of the Wagner idea". Eva, meanwhile, was elbowed out of a chance to run the festival six years ago after an abortive attempt by Wolfgang to get his wife to take over the job.

The foundation has let it be known that if Katharina is given the job, it would want her to share the post with either Eva or Nike. But Wolfgang has made it clear that such a solution would be totally unacceptable.

Katharina insists she is "very well qualified for the job". She took steps to strengthen her position by enlisting the support of prominent conductors and composers. Christian Thielemann, 48, a renowned Wagner conductor, joined her team this year, and last weekend Peter Ruzicka, 59, a former director of the Salzburg music festival, was added.

"This team is the best conceivable solution for the festival," Katharina told the Bild newspaper at the weekend. But the German government has declared that it does not think much of the Katharina option.

Of the three rivals for the post, only Nike has argued in favour of liberating the festival from the "dictatorship of the [Wagner] gene". But the foundation is obliged by its statutes to give the job to Wagner family members. Members pointed out yesterday that Wolfgang was on a life contract. "The issue may have to be solved biologically," said one exhausted representative.