Wagner’s great-granddaughters win Bayreuth succession battle

Wagner's great-granddaughters win Bayreuth succession battle
Photo: DPA
Two of Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughters were chosen Monday to run the annual Bayreuth Festival devoted to the composer’s music, ending a bitter succession battle—for now at least.

The festival’s board chose the half-sisters Katharina Wagner, 30, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 63, to take over from their father Wolfgang Wagner, 89, who retired last week after 57 years in charge of the festival. However it was unclear whether the decision will mark a new chapter of warmer relations among the composer’s descendents, as the board was forced to chose Eva and Katharina over a rival bid from their cousin Nike Wagner, 63.

Nike, daughter of Wolfgang’s late brother Wieland, had proposed running the world’s oldest and most prestigious summer festival together with Paris Opera chief and future New York City Opera general director Gerard Mortier. Toni Schmid, head of the Stiftungsrat or board, told a news conference that 22 members of the 24-seat board had voted for Eva and Katharina, and none against, and that both would sign a contract of not more than seven years.

Eva had stopped talking to Wolfgang when he divorced her mother Ellen Drexel in 1976 to marry Gudrun, mother of Katharina. When the Stiftungsrat nominated Eva as the new chief in 2001, Wolfgang dismissed her as incompetent and vowed to hold on to his life-long tenure—at least until Katharina was old enough to succeed him. Gudrun’s unexpected death last November redrew the battle lines, with the shock and Wolfgang’s ailing health making him more open to a reconciliation with Eva.

Nike said in a statement on Monday she was “sad” about the decision and that she hoped that the artistic proposals that Mortier has proposed to the board would not be forgotten.

“The fact that members of the board go into a meeting having made up their minds and do not let themselves be swayed by argument is unfortunately nothing new,” she said.

“This makes my hope even greater than my cousins take on board the suggestions from Gerard Mortier and myself. I wish them lots of success.”

The festival was founded by the composer in 1876, and for the past 57 years it has been run with an iron fist by Wolfgang, 42 of them in sole charge after the death of Nike’s father Wieland in 1966.

The core of the month-long festival, held on the famous “Green Hill” outside the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, is usually Wagner’s four-part “Ring of the Nibelung” cycle of operas—a 16-hour work mixing German medieval epic and ancient Norse legend.

These and other Wagner works are performed in an austere, red brick opera house designed by the composer himself, drawing every summer thousands of opera aficionados from all around the world.

Tickets can cost as much as €225 euros ($330) — if you are prepared to wait up to 10 years to get them, that is.

The frail Wolfgang turned 89 on Saturday and earlier this year the white-haired patriarch decided it was time to stand aside and place the running of the world’s oldest and most prestigious summer festival in younger hands.

The duo of Eva and Katharina is one of experience and youthful ideas. Eva works as artistic consultant to the Aix-en-Provence opera festival, has worked at opera houses all over the world and was even senior artistic advisor to The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Katharina masterminded the first-ever live Internet broadcast of an opera from Bayreuth this year, as well as a popular free public viewing. She has also promised opera for kids, a special academy for young talent and fresh efforts to come to terms with Bayreuth’s Nazi past. Hitler was a huge fan of the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner and a close friend of Winifred Wagner, Wolfgang’s mother. Wolfgang and the other children used to call Hitler “Onkel Wolf.”

Nike runs her own festival, the high-brow “Pelerinages” in Weimar, and Mortier cut his teeth as head of the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels before taking over 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.

Eva told a news conference that she and Katharina would ensure continuity. “I don’t believe that the change will become noticeable quickly. Maybe in two to three years,” she said.