Decision looms for new Bayreuth Opera Festival leader

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Decision looms for new Bayreuth Opera Festival leader

When the curtain came down on this year’s Bayreuth Festival on Thursday, the choice of opera for the final performance Richard Wagner’s last opera “Parsifal”—was deeply symbolic.


After all, the composer’s octogenarian grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, agreed this year to step down as chief of the world’s oldest and most prestigious summer music festival after a record-breaking 57 years on the throne, 42 of them in sole charge.

And just as “Parsifal” is about the quest of the knights of Holy Grail for a saviour (the “pure fool” of Wagner’s libretto), so, too, is Bayreuth in need of a new leader with fresh vision and new ideas to steer it out of long years of artistic and creative stagnation.

The festival’s ruling body, the so-called Stiftungsrat, will meet on September 1 to decide who will take over from Wolfgang.

The closing date for applications is Friday, the day after the end of the festival and the day before Wolfgang’s 89th birthday. Until recently, it looked to be a done deal: Katharina Wagner, 30, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 63, both Wolfgang’s daughters by different marriages, teamed up earlier this year to launch a joint leadership bit, even if the alliance between the two estranged half-sisters looked rather uneasy. But with a last-minute application by Wolfgang’s 63-year-old niece Nike Wagner and the Belgian opera impresario and Paris Opera chief, Gerard Mortier, the race now appears to be wide open again.

According to the statutes of the festival, founded by Richard Wagner in 1876, control must remain in the hands of composer’s descendants, unless there are no suitable candidates.

And the different branches of the Wagner family have waged a bitter internecine feud for decades over his legacy.

Indeed, the battle has often proved more entertaining than some of the stage productions themselves, taking high-brow opera into the realms of soap opera.

Wolfgang has ruled Bayreuth with an iron hand ever since his brother Wieland died in 1966 leaving him in sole charge.

Even his fiercest critics acknowledge that Wolfgang helped make Bayreuth what it is today, but many observers agree that his ruthless determination to hold on to power has contributed to the festival’s artistic ossification. When the Stiftungsrat officially nominated Eva as Wolfgang’s successor in 2001, the autocratic white-haired patriarch simply ignored the decision, dismissing Eva as incompetent and insisting that his tenure was for life. Nevertheless, following the unexpected death of Gudrun last year, relations between the increasingly frail Wolfgang and Eva have thawed. And in a move to unblock the stalemate, Wolfgang finally agreed earlier this year to a compromise whereby Eva and Katharina would take over jointly. It was a proposal that seemed to make almost everyone happy: Wolfgang, the Stiftungsrat, the regional and federal authorities who heavily subsidize the festival, even the all-powerful Society of Friends of Bayreuth, the most important donor.

Only one person was left fuming: Nike, who had been planning to launch a joint leadership bid with Eva herself.

Nike insists the door remains open to Eva, who would be “welcome” to join her joint bid with Mortier.

The two certainly have very respectable credentials: Nike runs her own festival, the high-brow “Perelinages” in Weimar, and Mortier, 64, made a name for himself as head of the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels before taking over as head of the renowned Salzburg Festival in Austria in the 1990s. Mortier also founded the ambitious Ruhrtriennale music and theatre festival in western Germany, and is due to take up a new position of general director of the New York City Opera next year.

At 30, Katharina is still too young to be in charge of a festival of the calibre of Bayreuth. But her youth coupled with Eva’s experience—she works as artistic consultant to the Aix-en-Provence opera festival, and has worked at opera houses of Vienna, London, Paris, Houston, Madrid and was even senior artistic advisor to The Metropolitan Opera in New York—they could prove a winning team.

Katharina masterminded the first-ever live Internet broadcast of an opera from Bayreuth this year, as well as a free public viewing, which turned out to be a runaway success.

She wants to continue in that vein in future, promising opera for kids, more public viewings and a special festival academy to promote young talent.

She has also pledged to allow independent historians and experts into the archives to investigate the festival’s Nazi past.

Nike, for her part, has not given up hope of winning the battle, however.

“Sometimes, I still believe in miracles,” she said in an recent radio interview.


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