After 57 years, Wolfgang Wagner bows out in Bayreuth

The Richard Wagner bicentenary is still five years off and the Bayreuth Festival’s 100th edition even further along in 2011, but this year’s events on the fabled Green Hill in Germany will make history for another reason.

After 57 years, Wolfgang Wagner bows out in Bayreuth
Photo: DPA

The 97th Bayreuth Festival starting Friday will be the last under the direction of the composer’s grandson, Wolfgang, who is retiring after an astonishing 57 years on the throne.

Wolfgang Wagner, who turns 89 two days after the curtain comes down on August 28, is one of the most famous and longest-serving theatre managers in the world.

And his succession has been marked by bitter internecine battle. Born on August 30, 1919, the son of Siegfried Wagner and his British-born wife, Winifred, Wolfgang was only 32 when he took over the running of the Bayreuth festival in 1951 in tandem with his elder brother Wieland (1917-1966). Winifred had been a close friend and fervent supporter of Adolf Hitler, who was a frequent guest in Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus, or opera house, from the 1930s to the end of World War II.

So when they took over in 1951, the brothers’ top priority was to exorcise the festival’s Nazi ghosts. They did so by throwing out all the dusty and creaky old productions and creating a visually minimalist, but heavily symbolic style of music theatre that eventually became known as “Regietheater”.

Both Wieland and Wolfgang were individually responsible for each of the various stagings. But it was Wieland’s starkly austere productions that embodied what came to be known as the “New Bayreuth”. Wolfgang’s stagings were praised so lavishly and he remained in his brother’s shadow.

When Wieland died in 1966, Wolfgang was left in sole charge. While he continued to stage some of the operas himself, he started inviting other directors into the hallowed halls of the Festspielhaus, the theatre built to Wagner’s own designs.