Twilight of the Wagners as clan feuds over Valhalla

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BAYREUTH WAS the adopted town of Richard Wagner, a composer whose music and persona set a new standard in megalomania. His bequest is savoured every year by the lucky few who manage to get tickets to the Bayreuth Festival, run to this day by his descendants.

Trouble is, the offspring also seem to have inherited the Meister's fascination with power and talent for intrigue.

As the sacred theatre, built to Wagner's specification by the Mad King Ludwig, throws open its doors tomorrow and the knight Lohengrin floats in on a swan, the dynasty is embroiled in a war of succession.

The current family head, Wolfgang, has reneged on a promise to step down from his Valhalla and make way for the fourth generation. Instead, the patriarch, 80 next month, is determined to pass the realm on to his second wife. The clan are crying infamy, and worse.

The rules of succession are no help. They merely say that at the head of the Bayreuth Foundation must stand a Wagner. From Richard upon his death the legacy went to widow Cosima, followed by their son Siegfried, his widow Winifred, and subsequently their sons Wieland and eventually Wolfgang.

Wolfgang, by all accounts, is a decent enough chap. Not as talented at staging operas as his brother Wieland had been, but he makes up for it in that rare Wagner commodity: charm. But, like Wotan, the King of the Gods, Wolfgang is cursed with too many offspring sired with different women, most of whom have unwittingly earned his wrath.

There is, for example, Eva. She is Wolfgang's daughter from the first marriage and seems eminently qualified to take over Bayreuth. Eva Wagner, 54, has waited long and worked hard to fill the vacancy that was supposed to arise at the turn of the millennium. Her CV lists the Opera Bastille, Covent Garden and the Houston Opera as previous places of employment.

Still, her father is not impressed. "Her role there was hardly independent or decisive. Rather, it was of a supportive, advisory nature," he told Der Spiegel. It was in that interview that Wolfgang Wagner announced his decision not to go into retirement. "Someone must defend Bayreuth against the attacks," he declared.

Attacks? Who would dare disturb the serenity of Bayreuth, crown jewel of German culture? Well, there are a surprising number of people, many bearing the name Wagner. Take Gottfried, Wolfgang's 52-year-old son. The two men do not get on, and Wolfgang appears to bear a grudge against every generation of his forebears, particularly the progenitor of the dynasty and all that sublime music.

In a book entitled Twilight of the Wagners, he has dug as much dirt on the Wagner industry as he could find. Had it not been motivated by so much malice, his book might have conclusively settled the debate about the composer's anti-Semitic tendencies, Cosima's links to Hitler, and the exploitation of Wagner's oeuvre by the Nazis. Suffice to say that Gottfried's verdict is "guilty, on all counts". No, Gottfried is not in the running to take over.

Then there is Nike, Wolfgang's 54-year old niece. In the run-up to the festival, Nike has been the current regime's most vociferous critic.

Like most of her generation, she accuses Bayreuth of conservatism. She has ideas for renewal, she says, but will not describe them in public. But the world is very much aware of her views on family matters. In a book of her own, Nike described Wolfgang as a tyrant and blamed him for causing the premature death of Wieland. That accusation has disqualified her from a role in Bayreuth, says Gudrun.

She should know. Gudrun is Wolfgang's second wife and, since earlier this week, the heir apparent. It is because of Gudrun's machinations, the clan suspects, that Eva, Wolfgang's daughter from the previous marriage, has suddenly been sidelined.

Gudrun's qualifications for running one of the world's prime opera events are somewhat questionable. "Frau Gudrun, as is well known, reached her current position not through art and culture, but via the nuptial bed," Nike declared. "Her candidature for the post is a national joke."

Indeed. Richard Wagner left not many comic works behind, but his heirs are generating plenty of hilarity now.