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OPERA

Wagner’s great-granddaughters win Bayreuth succession battle

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.

Wagner's great-granddaughters win Bayreuth succession battle
Photo: DPA

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.

CULTURE

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.

Stückl

Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

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