High stakes for Wagner’s progeny at opera fest

Beloved by Adolf Hitler and Angela Merkel alike, the Bayreuth Festival honouring Richard Wagner kicks off on Saturday. But critics say the composer's progeny have dragged the festival too far from its origins.

High stakes for Wagner's progeny at opera fest
On left, composer Richard Wagner and right, his great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner. Photo: DPA and Wikimedia Commons.

Much is at stake when the curtain rises on a new production of Richard Wagner's opera “Tristan and Isolde” on Saturday, the glittering opening night of the legendary Bayreuth Festival.

The stakes are particularly high for the festival chief, Wagner's great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner, who is directing this year's staging.

The 37-year-old has been at the helm of the month-long summer music festival dedicated exclusively to Wagner's works alongside her much older half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier since 2009.

But Eva, 70, is stepping down at the end of the summer, leaving Katharina in sole charge, at least until her current contract expires in 2020.

Ever since the festival's beginnings in 1876, the composer's descendants have torn each other apart in bitter feuds for control of Bayreuth, whose guests traditionally include royalty and the political and social elite of the day.

Adolf Hitler was a fervent Wagnerian and regularly attended the festival.

In peace-time Germany, many heads of government and state have come, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is this year again set to attend the opening night.

At times, the internecine battles of the different branches of the Wagner family have threatened to overshadow the on-stage theatrics. And this year has been no different.

Media reports — vigorously dismissed — have claimed that Katharina colluded with conductor Christian Thielemann to have Eva barred from the Green Hill once rehearsals for “Tristan” had started.

More oil was poured on the fire when the current “Ring” conductor, the intensely media-shy Russian Kirill Petrenko, publicly lambasted the way one of his singers — Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, who sang the role of Siegfried in the past two years — was replaced at short notice.

In directorial terms, the list of works Katharina has staged is still comparatively short. And she has only once before directed in Bayreuth's Festspielhaus — the opera house built to her great-grandfather's own designs — with “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg”, a production that was almost universally loathed by audiences and critics alike.

Classical music aficionados suggest Bayreuth, more generally, could be losing some of its veneer. And Katharina's critics lay the blame squarely at her door.

Under her leadership, the festival's aesthetic preferences have veered towards confrontational directors, such as the self-styled “enfant terrible” of German theatre, Frank Castorf, whose current production of the sprawling four-opera “Ring” cycle has met with deafening waves of boos and whistles since it premiered in 2013.

Dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerians tend to be deeply conservative in their operatic tastes, and seasoned Bayreuthers say they are feeling increasingly alienated by the provocative, in-your-face productions.

To cap it all for Katharina, this year marks the 150th anniversary since “Tristan and Isolde” had its world premiere. Hers will be only the 11th production of the work at the Bayreuth Festival.
But she insisted in a recent interview that she does not let such pressures daunt her.
“I'll never be able to fulfil people's expectations of me if those expectations are super-human,” she told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
“You can't expect a production to be liked by all 2,000 people in the audience. That just isn't possible.”

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Dancing like there’s no Covid: first German nightclub reopens in Leipzig

For techno enthusiast Philipp Koegler, it almost felt like a normal Saturday night again as he joined 200 fellow revellers at "Distillery", the first German nightclub to reopen since the start of the pandemic.

Dancing like there's no Covid: first German nightclub reopens in Leipzig
A file photo of a disco ball in a night club. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Britta Pedersen

“Tonight, there are no rules,” the almost 30-year-old told AFP, whipping off his mask on his way to the dance floor.

Despite more than a year of closures forced by the coronavirus, it didn’t take long for the thumping beats, low lights and buzzing crowds to reawaken the much-missed club atmosphere.

“It feels like I’ve come back after being away on vacation for a week,” Koegler beamed.

But of course there are some rules to restarting the party, even in Germany where coronavirus infections have declined steadily in recent weeks as the pace of vaccinations has picked up.

The Distillery club in the eastern city of Leipzig, which bills itself as the oldest techno venue in Germany’s former Communist east, is taking part in a pilot project supported by scientists from the Max Planck institute and the local university hospital.

Just 200 club-goers are allowed in instead of the usual 600 and each person must take two different kinds of coronavirus tests earlier in the day, with entry granted only if they test negative both times.

Once inside, the masks can come off and revellers don’t have to socially distance.

Each participant also agrees to being re-tested a week later, to uncover potential infections despite the precautions taken.


Organisers hope the project can serve as a blueprint for further club re-openings to help the hard-hit sector back on its feet after a devastating year.

Although several venues in Germany experimented with open-air parties, club-goer Konny said it “just isn’t the same”.

“In the club, you’re in a different world,” she said.

Growing influence

Distillery manager Steffen Kache expressed pride at being the first club in the country to reopen indoors.

“Everyone is jealous,” he told AFP.

Kache said that if there has been an upside to the pandemic closures, it was that politicians had woken up to the social and economic importance of Germany’s vibrant club culture.

Lawmakers last month agreed to reclassify nightclubs as cultural institutions rather than entertainment venues, putting them on a par with
theatres and museums to provide more protection and tax benefits.

Germany’s nightlife capital Berlin alone – home to iconic clubs Berghain, KitKat and Tresor – usually attracts tens of thousands of foreign visitors each year who generate over a billion euros in revenues.   

Many observers fear that when the pandemic dust has settled, not all of Germany’s clubs will have survived the lengthy shutdowns.

The collaboration with local authorities that made Distillery’s pilot project possible was “unthinkable before the crisis”, Kache said, and evidence of a “reconciliation” between underground club culture and the political establishment.

He said he hoped the next step would be “the nationwide reopening of cultural spots and clubs, without Covid restrictions”.